When I was written a thousand years ago, I was just a Japanese tale of romance, court life, poetry, politics, and the beauty of things—the story of Genji, the shining prince. I was not even printed. Printing was saved for Buddhist texts, poetry, and histories not for frivolous stories like me. My life is an amazing adventure. I became more than just a story. I am a part of Japanese art, poetry, card games, video games, plays, movies and manga. I am even pictured on money. I have been considered a good influence, a bad influence, and even banned. Google me, The Tale of Genji, and you will get almost three million hits.
My life began in a time before samurai, ninja, sushi, haiku, manga, and Hello Kitty. There were no novels. It was a time of peace and tranquility. In fact, the capital of Japan (present day Kyoto) was called Heian-kyo—tranquility and peace. Tokyo did not yet exist.
Tree-lined streets crisscrossed the city in checker-board fashion. The imperial palace stood at the north end of Red Bird Avenue, which stretched two and one-half miles to the southern edge of the city. Willow trees lined the three hundred foot wide street. To the east of the palace along the river, the nobles lived in splendid homes. The world of the nobility was enclosed by the surrounding hills dotted with Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Ten miles to the northeast lay Lake Biwa. To the shore of scenic Lake Biwa was as far as any nobleman wanted to travel. For a nobleman to be sent to the provinces was a sign of the emperor's disfavor. Being born in the provinces was a sign of inferiority. Heian-kyo was the only place to be. This was the city of my birth.
I know books don't have mothers. Yet, I think of Lady Murasaki as mine. She brought me into this world. She thought of me and spent days, months and years writing me. I have no memory of this. Only a legend tells of my beginnings. The high priestess of Kamo Temple asked the Empress to recommend a story. The only stories the Empress could think of seemed old and worn or not appropriate for a priestess. She decided a new story would be best. But who could write such a story? She chose the well-educated Lady Murasaki from her ladies-in-waiting. Unable to think of a story, my mother went to pray at Ishiyama Temple overlooking Lake Biwa. Inspired by the beauty of the moonlit night, my story took shape in her mind. Afraid she might forget it, Lady Murasaki wrote the first chapters on the temple's sacred Buddhist scrolls. Later, feeling guilty about what she had done, she copied the sixteen scrolls and gave them to the temple. Ishiyama Temple preserves the legend. There is a room over looking Lake Biwa with a life size figure of Lady Murasaki at a writing desk.
I do know that at least part of the legend is true. Mother was a lady-in-waiting to the Empress, and she loved to visit Ishiyama Temple.
Whether the legend is true or not, my mother loved learning and writing from the time she was little. She came from a noble family of poets and scholars. Her great grandfather and her grandfather were famous for their poetry written in both Japanese and Chinese. Her father was a well-known scholar. He, too, wrote poetry, but preferred to write his only in Chinese. Chinese was the language for serious writing. Writing in Japanese was for women.
As any young noblewoman would, Mother learned to play the koto and the biwa, studied Buddhist texts, and practiced writing poetry. Poetry was an essential of every day life. People exchanged poetic notes on carefully selected beautiful paper and attended poetry parties. In diaries, poems expressed one’s feelings and recorded places visited. In my story, there are seven hundred ninety-five poems.
Her life at court allowed Mother to see the daily comings and goings of high nobility, the celebration of the birth of a crown prince, the jealousies and romances of nobles, the vying for position, the changing seasons in the large palace garden with its pond and small court yard gardens; to walk the halls of the palace; to see the importance women placed on the colors and textures of their many layered clothing; to hear the gossip and criticisms in the women's quarter. All of this she poured into my story, filling hundreds and hundreds of pages.
Scribes made copies. These were bound by hand into fifty-four volumes which were passed among friends. People waited impatiently to get a volume, any volume. They didn’t wait to read them in order. At first, I was just a story to amuse women. The chatter of the women about Genji, the Shining Prince, caught the attention of the noblemen. Soon, they too were reading my story. Everyone speculated on which nobles the characters were modeled after. I was a “best seller.”
Century after century my story spread. Artists painted scenes from my story on scrolls and screens. People created incense and poetry games inspired by me. Noh plays told the stories of the women Prince Genji loved. People attended lectures about me, and annotated editions were made. All 795 of my poems were collected in a book on writing poetry.
I began to wonder what I was about. Wasn’t I just a story?
The response to me was not always positive. Some called me immoral, an unhealthy book for women, and on no account should I be read. The attacks came and went.
Six hundred centuries passed. It was a different world. The center of government was Edo (present day Tokyo). Power was held by the Shogun and samurai, not the Emperor and nobles.There was a growing merchant class. I flourished. All made possible by finally being printed and the spread of book-lending shops. Samurai, merchants, shopkeepers, and even farmers read me.
Because I was very long and my old Japanese difficult to read, digests of me were published—A Little Genji Mirror, Genji in Ten Chapters with illustrations, and even A Young Person’s Genji illustrated with over one-hundred wood cuts. I’m not sure I like being condensed like a Reader’s Digest book, but that was better than the parody of me, Bumpkin Genji.
When Kabuki began, it retold parts of my story just as Noh had. Then movies, TV shows and manga told my story. The first manga began as a series in a women’s magazine. The series ran for ten years, then was printed as a book. Everyone knew my story and of my loves, but I’m not sure how many people, or if any, read my story from beginning to end—a million words and hundreds of characters.
My 1000th birthday was celebrated around the world in 2008. To commemorate it, Japan issued a 2000 yen note with my picture on it.
After all that happened to me, I thought nothing could surprise me. Yet surprise caught me. Me, The Tale of Genji, was chosen for the theme of the famous Kyoto Kyogashi (palm-sized confectionary treats) annual design competition. Ridiculous! What about me could inspire the creation of such things?
How wrong I was. The small confectionaries were not so different from the hundreds of the five line poems in my book—details of color, suggestions of the season, of folds in a fabric. Each kyogashi was a visual and taste unwrapping, layer by layer—capturing a moment, a feeling, just as my poems do line by line.
What next? I won’t even speculate.