He’s charming, good with the ladies and extremely handsome. He treats his girls like princesses, weeps and rejoices for their sake. He is sensitive, cultured and highly educated. He’s rich, as well as in charge of a high-ranking position. He is smart, musical and very poetical. Who is this great lady-killer?
After re-reading Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji Monogatari 源氏物語, I can assure you that Prince Genji has deserved the title of Japan’s Biggest Playboy. In this tale, written at the beginning of the 11th Century, a whole range of lovers are passed in review. In the first chapter “Kiritsubo”, our little prince Genji develops a crush on his step-mother Fujitsubo.
Fujitsubo’s beauty was of a younger and fresher sort. Though in her childlike shyness she made an especial effort not to be seen, Genji occasionally caught a glimpse of her face. He could not remember his own mother and it moved him deeply to learn, from the lady who had first told the emperor of Fujitsubo, that the resemblance was striking. He wanted to be near her always.
Though Genji’s interest in women matures rapidly, he is not attracted to Aoi, the girl he enters an arranged marriage with. In the third chapter “Utsusemi”, Genji’s teenage adventure with the wife of a provincial lord inaugurates an endless string of affairs. He is so cheeky to enter the lady and her female servants’ bedroom.
Genji was delighted to see that there was only one lady asleep behind the curtains. There seemed to be two people asleep out toward the veranda. As he pulled aside the bedclothes it seemed to him that the lady was somewhat larger than he would have expected. (…) The girl was now awake, and very surprised. Genji felt a little sorry for her. But though inexperienced in the ways of love, she was bright and modern, and she had not entirely lost her composure. He was at first reluctant to identify himself. She would presently guess, however, and what did it matter if she did? As for the unfriendly one who had ned him and who was so concerned about appearances — he did have to think of her reputation, and so he said to the girl that he had taken advantage of directional taboos to visit her. A more experienced lady would have had no trouble guessing the truth, but this one did not sense that his explanation was a little forced. He was not displeased with her, nor was he strongly drawn to her. His heart was resentfully on the other. No doubt she would be off in some hidden chamber gloating over her victory. She had shown a most extraordinary firmness of purpose. In a curious way, her hostility made her memorable. The girl beside him had a certain young charm of her own, and presently he was deep in vows of love.
As you can see, Genji is very thoughtful to the women he visits. The text is written rather implicit, but evokes explicit images by the reader. In the fourth chapter “Yūgao”, the first dramatic consequence of Genji’s lifestyle can be observed. Genji, though still in love with his stepmother, starts an affair with an older woman (widow of the crown prince) and another affair with “the twilight beauty”. The jealousy of the widow is so strong that her revengeful spirit kills the latter woman. At the same time, Genji has a hard time hiding his adventures from the imperial household. After the death of “the twilight beauty”, the Shining Prince has following conversation with his loyal companion and partner-in-crime Koremitsu:
G: “I am feeling rather awful myself and almost fear the worst.”
K: “Come, now. There is nothing to be done and no point in torturing yourself. You must tell yourself that what must be must be. I shall let absolutely no one know, and I am personally taking care of everything.”
G: “Yes, to be sure. Everything is fated. So I tell myself. But it is terrible to think that I have sent a lady to her death. You are not to tell your sister, and you must be very sure that your mother does not hear. I would not survive the scolding I would get from her.”
“And the priests too: I have told them a plausible story.” Koremitsu exuded confidence.
In the following chapter “Waka Murasaki”, Genji not only succeeds in having an incestuous rendezvous with his stepmother, he also grows slightly pedophile at the view of a 10-year old girl, called Murasaki. He adopts the girl.
Genji does not only visit beautiful women, less pretty girls of lower ranking like the Safflower princess (almost) manages to spend the night with our bling bling prince as well. She wins him over to visit her again, not by appearances, but by her excellent playing on the koto. Women were not to be seen in the Heian period. They were always hiding behind screens. That’s why the first time for man and woman to look each other in the eyes, is when they plan to do something more intimate. It’s very unfortunate for the Safflower princess that Genji could not stand her sight.
It was his first impression that the figure kneeling beside him was most uncommonly long and attenuated. Not at all promising — and the nose! That nose now dominated the scene. It was like that of the beast on which Samantabhadra rides, long, pendulous, and red. A frightful nose. The skin was whiter than the snow, a touch bluish even. The forehead bulged and the line over the cheeks suggested that the full face would be very long indeed. She was pitifully thin. He could see through her robes how narrow her shoulders were. It now seemed ridiculous that he had worked so hard to see her; and yet the visage was such an extraordinary one that he could not immediately take his eyes away.(...) It was too awful. He hurried to get his things together.
After failing to seduce his cousin, Genji discovers that his wife Aoi is pregnant. The earlier mentioned jealous spirit of the widow, fallen ill due to an unbearable humiliation at the court, sees an opportunity to haunt for the second time one of Genji’s ladies, Aoi in this case. Genji becomes a good husband for a while.
At Sanjō, Genji’s wife seemed to be in the grip of a malign spirit. It was no time for nocturnal wanderings. Genji paid only an occasional visit to his own Nijō mansion. His marriage had not been happy, but his wife was important to him and now she was carrying his child.
Aoi dies, but the baby boy survives. After some time of mourning, Genji’s interest in the girl Murasaki grows. She is still a young and pure girl, though.
It was a tedious time. He no longer had any enthusiasm for the careless night wanderings that had once kept him busy. Murasaki was much on his mind. She seemed peerless, the nearest he could imagine to his ideal. Thinking that she was no longer too young for marriage, he had occasionally made amorous overtures; but she had not seemed to understand.
Het sends her a suggestive poem:
“Many have been the nights we have spent together
Purposelessly, these coverlets between us.”
She had not dreamed he had anything of the sort on his mind. What a fool she had been, to repose her whole confidence in so gross and unscrupulous a man.
In chapter ten “Sakaki”, the widow with the haunting spirit feels so miserable about the fact that she took the lives of two young ladies, that she decides to leave the city. Genji pays his mistress a last visit. This scene reminds me a bit of the balcony scene in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
“May I at least come up to the veranda?” he asked, starting up the stairs. The evening moon burst forth and the figure she saw in its light was handsome beyond describing. Not wishing to apologize for all the weeks of neglect, he pushed a branch of the sacred tree in under the blinds.
G: “With heart unchanging as this evergreen,
This sacred tree, I enter the sacred gate.”
She replied: “You err with your sacred tree and sacred gate.
No beckoning cedars stand before my house.”
And he: “Thinking to find you here with the holy maidens,
I followed the scent of the leaf of the sacred tree.”
Though the scene did not encourage familiarity, he made bold to lean inside the blinds.
(…) [s]he was here before him, and memories flooded back. He thought of what had been and what was to be, and he was weeping like a child.
There’s no end to this sorrow, certainly when his father dies. Genji tries to renew some affaires, but in the end he feels himself out of favor at court (the new emperor does not like him very much) and chooses, therefore, a voluntary exile of two years. Up till now, I’ve only discussed 10 out of 54 chapters, but I think you get the picture. If you want to know more about Genji’s adventures, I strongly recommend you to read the Genji Monogatari. Let us finish with a quote Japan’s biggest playboy worth:
Always when he had been with another lady he would think of the lady who was so cold to him.
Facts For Fun
– As you probably already understood, sexuality in Japan during the Heian period was much freer than it was here around that time. Court ladies could have several affairs. Not only men, but women as well could be picky in their choice of partner. A liaison started with the exchange of letters including poems. After a while, the man could be invited by suggestive poems to come over at night. In the west, sex is seen as the climax of a relationship, where it only marked the beginning of it in Japan. The most important and poetical action was the morning letter the man sent after having spent a lovely night at his lady’s room. More about this here.
– Unless mentioned otherwise, all pictures are from Wikimedia Commons
– I cited the English version of famous translator Edward G. Seidensticker. Full text online here.
– Liza Dalby’s summary helped me as well.