The Grass Which He Reaps For His Pillow Reaps No Dreams – Tale of Genji, Part 2

This post is part two of this year’s main Literati Corner series focusing on the mammoth Japanese classic novel, The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shibiku.  It covers chapters 10 through 21.  Reading assignments and study questions can be found in my Literati Corner Guide for 2016.  Please see the menu bar at the top of this page for the Literati Corner page where assignments and questions will be posted for the year.

Bamboo River chapter of Tale of Genji, scroll

Chapter 10, “The Sacred Tree,” has some wonderful descriptions of Genji’s trip to the shrine at Ise where Lady Rokujō has fled to nurse her broken heart and get over Genji.  Although he tries his best to win her back, he doesn’t succeed, and he wonders if he should try seducing her young daughter instead since she seems interesting.  This chapter notes that Rokujō is only thirty years old, and her daughter the new priestess of Ise is fourteen, to give you some idea of the lifespan of the era.  I think Genji is only in his early twenties at this stage.

What’s interesting to me is that Lady Rokujō’s life sounds a bit like Murasaki Shikibu’s life: both women became widows not long after giving birth to daughters fairly early on in their marriages.  Lady Rokujō was only married to the Crown Prince four years before he died and must have had his child almost immediately.  She would have been widowed ten years by the time her daughter went to take up the role of priestess of Ise in this chapter.  Murasaki Shikibu was thought to have married in 998, given birth in 999, and her husband died in 1001, only three or four years into their marriage.  Both women were considered superlative in literary taste and ability.  So like the child bride of Genji’s, Murasaki, was Lady Rokujō also some kind of stand-in for the author?  She certainly is one of the more sympathetic and complex of Genji’s women, much like Murasaki, too.

The emperor dies although he isn’t that old, but he leaves Kokiden and her son, now the new Emperor, in charge of things.  Fujitsubo must return to her family house in Sanjō.  Genji still continues his affair with Kokiden’s sister, whose name is Oborosukiyo, and they are very nervous that they will be discovered.  Meanwhile, Fujitsubo is frantically trying everything she can to keep Genji away from her so no one will find out her child is his out of fear their son’s future would be destroyed.  She clearly doesn’t want to continue an affair with Genji.  This part talks about her “unrelieved nightmare” with Genji (p. 206), so I wonder if their relationship was ever that consensual.  She seems to have no power in this situation at all, which is kind of surprising.  This passage is very important since it shows for the first time the dynamic between them.

Genji was reeling from the grim determination with which she had repulsed him….To Genji she was a complete delight as she sat in silence, lost in deeply troubled meditations.  Her hair as it cascaded over her shoulders, the lines of her head and face, the glow of her skin, were to Genji irresistibly beautiful.  They were very much like each other, she and Murasaki.  Memories had dimmed over the years, but now the astonishing resemblance did a little to dispel his gloom.  The dignity that quite put one to shame also reminded him of Murasaki.  He could hardly think of them as two persons, and yet, perhaps because Fujitsubo had been so much in his thoughts over the years, there did after all seem to be a difference.  Fujitsubo’s was the calmer and more mature dignity.  No longer in control of himself, he slipped inside her curtains and pulled at her sleeve.  So distinctive was the fragrance that she recognized him immediately.  In sheer terror she sank to the floor.

If she would only look at him!  He pulled her towards him.  She turned to flee, but her hair became entangled in her cloak as she tried to slip out of it.  It seemed to be her fate that everything should go against her!…This of course was not their first meeting, but she had been determined that there would not be another.  Though avoiding explicit rejoinder, she held him off until morning.  He could not force himself upon her.  In her quiet dignity, she left him feeling very much ashamed of himself. (Seidensticker translation, pp.206-207)

Fujitsubo decides to become a nun, and Genji sullenly withdraws to his house at Nijō, barely able to handle her rebuff.  Her little boy, who lives apart from her, is left almost in the same situation as Genji was himself at that age, but Fujitsubo fears the widowed Kokiden, mother of the new Emperor, might have her murdered out of jealousy.  This move to relinquish her title as Empress would end many of her troubles with both Genji and Kokiden.  You see this kind of harem politics fairly often when you read the histories of Asia and the Middle East, and it is quite a tragic caricature of family life.  Meanwhile, Genji flees to Uji Temple to fast and meditate.  Only the thought of Murasaki stops him from taking holy vows himself.  The chapter ends with Genji and Oborozikiyo getting caught together, and Kokiden is informed of this transgression.  The old man who discovers them and complains to Kokiden calls him “a disgrace to his brother’s reign and a disgrace in general” (p.225).

Mimurotoji Temple, Uji

Chapter 11 is very short and describes another woman Genji feels responsibility toward.  In chapter 12, “Suma,” Genji leaves Murasaki for the Suma coast for a life he describes as too harsh for him to take her with him.  He spends a little time with his son Yugiri beforehand, and then plans his departure.  It seems he is being punished, though this is not explained directly.  He was stripped of his titles, and many members of the court won’t deal with him anymore.  He is being sent into exile.  Meanwhile, he is thinking constantly about the letters from the women from chapter 11 whom he started an affair, makes rounds to other women he corresponds with and visits his father’s grave.  Then after one final farewell to Murasaki, he arrives at Suma and takes up residence in a mountain cottage.

In this chapter, there are parallel narratives of Genji and other peripheral characters, like the wife of the governor out at Suma.  Genji is sure he’s good and innocent if very entitled to do what he wants in spite of being caught in bed with a woman meant to marry the emperor and give birth to a prince. The governor’s wife notes Genji is a criminal and is generally bad news.  The governor, however, insists on a prospective marriage of Genji to their daughter.  His hope hinges, as is often the case in Western history for sure and even other cultures where women have no power, on the social and financial support of a well-connected man.  We also see some of the resignation to this social reality with Murasaki and Fujitsubo as well as the many other socially vulnerable women Genji seduces.  Even if they don’t particularly want or like him, they still need him unless they want to die in poverty.

In chapter 13, “Akashi,” fierce storms kick up in Suma and back in the city.  The emperor arranges for the Prajñāpāramitā Sutra was read.  What was that?  It’s the Heart or Diamond Sutra, which you can read about here:

Genji feels so entitled to any woman he wants that he’s sure the raging storm in Suma can’t be his punishment.  All of his prayers protesting his innocence are met with even fiercer storms, and finally lightning sparks a fire in his house.  Again, as in the “Suma” chapter, we see more female characters declaring Genji to be “troubled” while the male characters are much more soft-hearted and easily manipulated by Genji.  Murasaki Shikibu seems to be playing the fence herself here, trying to have to both ways by having the gods punish Genji for his crimes then backing away and having his adversary Kokiden punished for harming him, causing her son the Suzaku Emperor to call Genji back and restore his position.  This maintains the appearance that Genji is flawed but untouchable.  But generally, I think the exile segment in chapters 12 and 13 are quite good, and we get to see Genji in more natural surroundings at a time when he is not focused on seducing a new woman.

The story line also gets repetitive as chapter 13 progresses with Genji finding yet another girl with no money and no future that he can coerce into an affair.  Again, it is surprising given the reputation of this novel how many of the girls don’t actually warm to him.  He has to push really hard and overwhelm them with his advances or their ambitious parents or attendants admonish them to accept him.  So his beauty doesn’t get him everything, and there certainly are other men in the story who are described as handsome, such as the Suzaku Emperor, Kokiden’s son, or Genji’s good friend and brother-in-law Tō no Chūjō.  Yet the women aren’t overwhelmingly interested in them either.  I do have to wonder, though, if Genji’s interest in the women of whatever Emperor is on the throne is some sort of revenge for his father reducing him to a commoner, which kept the throne well beyond his reach.

Suddenly, Genji’s son with Fujitsubo is near adulthood at age 11, and I think they talk about marrying him off.  Like many characters, he doesn’t have a name either, and translator Edward Seidensticker had to add them.  Genji starts bringing the various women he had affairs with to his residence at Nijō with Murasaki.  Some of his earlier potential love interests who rebuffed him then still rebuff him now, and the governor of Kii’s wife, known as the Locust Shell in this translation, chooses to become a nun rather than go with Genji.

Once Lady Rokujō dies, Genji steps in to be her daughter’s surrogate father when she returns to court after her stint as priestess of Ise;  Akikonomu, as she is known, is paired with the Crown Prince, Genji’s son by Fujitsubo, though she’s quite a bit older than him and the Suzaku Emperor is in love with her.  She would be considered a better match for the Suzaku Emperor, yet she does become the woman Genji’s son chooses as Empress from the women he adds to his harem once he takes the throne.  At long last, someone tells the new Emperor the secret that Genji was actually his father, which causes some consternation.

The woman Genji seduces at Akashi gives birth to his daughter, and just as she rebuffed Genji’s advances quite forcefully at first, she refuses to move in with him at Nijō for quite a long time.  She ends up at a family villa at Oi, and Genji, irritated at her refusal, ends up taking the child from her and bringing her for Murasaki to raise as her own since she has no children with Genji.  When he takes his daughter away from the Akashi lady, he wonders if this is a crime he’ll be punished for (p. 349).

This section of the novel also shows Genji’s relationship with Murasaki getting more uncertain.  She is more insecure and unsure that Genji won’t abandon her in favor of one of his other women.  Even when he does show her affection, he always is thinking she is Fujitsubo, so it was never really about Murasaki herself anyway.  He seems to have a hard time seeing the three women, his mother, Fujitsubo and Murasaki, whom he is obsessed with as the same person rather as individuals.

With all of that going on, the storyline I really found delightful was actually the one about his son with his official wife Aoi.   Yūgiri’s coming of age ceremony and his romantic difficulties appear in chapter 21, “The Maiden.”   Genji leaves Yūgiri in the care of Aoi’s mother, Princess Omiya, who also raises Aoi’s brother Tō no Chūjō’s second daughter in the same household.  As thechildren’s love becomes clear to the adults, Tō no Chūjō will have none of it and is angry at his mother.  After the failure of his eldest daughter to become Empress, he now hopes his second daughter will make up for this by arranging a politically advantageous marriage for her, and he takes her away, leaving Yūgiri quite upset.

He had only one daughter, Kumoinokari, besides the lady who had gone to court. It could not have been said, since her mother came from the royal family, that she was the lesser of the two daughters, but the mother had since married the Lord Inspector and had a large family of her own. Not wishing to leave the girl with her stepfather, Tō no Chūjō had brought her to Sanjō and there put her in Princess Omiya’s custody. Though he paid a good deal more attention to the other daughter, Kumoinokari was a pretty and amiable child. She and Yūgiri grew up like brother and sister in Princess Omiya’s apartments. Tō no Chūjō separated them when they reached the age of ten or so. He knew that they were fond of each other, he said, but the girl was now too old to have male playmates. Yūgiri continued to think of her, in his boyish way, and he was careful to notice her when the flowers and grasses of the passing seasons presented occasions, or when he came upon something for her dollhouses. She was not at all shy in his presence. They were so young, said her nurses, and they had been together so long. Why must the minister tear them apart? Yet one had to grant him a point in suspecting that, despite appearances, they might no longer be children.

In any event the separation upset them. Their letters, childish but showing great promise, were always falling into the wrong hands, for they were as yet not very skilled managers. But if some of her women knew what was going on, they saw no need to tell tales. (Seidensticker translation, p.384-5)


He saw that it would be difficult even to exchange notes with his cousin. Dinner was brought but he had no appetite. He lay down in his grandmother’s room, unable to sleep. When all was quiet he tried the door to the girl’s room. Unlocked most nights, it was tightly locked tonight. No one seemed astir. He leaned against the door, feeling very lonely. She too was awake, it seemed. The wind rustled sadly through the bamboo thickets and from far away came the call of a wild goose.

“The wild goose in the clouds–as sad as I am?”  Her voice, soft and girlish, spoke of young longing.

“Open up, please. Is Kojijū there?”  Kojijū was her nurse’s daughter.

She had hidden her face under a quilt, embarrassed that she had been overheard. But love, relentless pursuer, would be after her however she might try to hide. With her women beside her she was afraid to make the slightest motion.

“The midnight call to its fellows in the clouds

Comes in upon the wind that rustles the reeds, and sinks to one’s very bones.”

Sighing, he went back and lay down beside his grandmother. He tried not to move lest he awaken her.

Not up to conversation, he slipped back to his own room very early the next morning. He wrote a letter to the girl but was unable to find Kojijū  and have it delivered, and of course he was unable to visit the girl’s room.

Though vaguely aware of the reasons for the whole stir, the girl was not greatly  disturbed about her future or about the gossip. Pretty as ever, she could not bring herself to do what seemed to be asked of her and dislike her cousin. She did not herself think that she had behaved so dreadfully, but with these women so intent on exaggerating everything she could not write. An older boy would have found devices, but he was even younger than she, and could only nurse his wounds in solitude. (Seidensticker translation, p.391-2)

Eventually Genji brings Yūgiri to Nijō, and I find it rather amusing that Genji won’t let Yūgiri near Murasaki, remembering how he himself had seduced other men’s wives for so long.  Talk about irony!  Not that Yūgiri is anything much like Genji, but it’s funny how things are different now that the shoe is on the other foot.

One thing to note with the Yūgiri incident is that in the book, children are frequently taken from their parents and raised by strangers, rarely seeing their parents.  I’m sure this is important to the theme of Genji searching for his mother figure.  In this chapter, Princess Omiya remarks that her son only takes an interest in his second daughter when he has plans for a political marriage for her.  Suddenly everything is so important to him,and she herself is in trouble for not keeping the child away from Yūgiri.  Status is everything, and marriage is, shall we say, for social climbing.

I forget where I read it, but it was suggested by someone that the character of Genji was like someone Murasaki Shikibu knew or heard of.  I suppose that is possible.  There were suggestions from an earlier translator that her male patron at court Fujiwara no Michinaga pressured her into an affair, so some of what she writes could also be from experience with cads at court.  However, perhaps since The Tale of Genji was written to entertain the ladies of the court, it has more in common with modern soap operas.  How true to life is “As the World Turns” exactly?  It is reported apparently in her diary, which I have not read yet, that Michinaga snuck into her room one night to steal the next chapter to read, and that would support this idea that it was just something salacious to keep everyone interested.

We’ll continue with the story next time.

About Lady Xiansa

Lady Xiansa is a writer, linguist, artist, and dancer. She has been a core volunteer for the Silk Screen Asian Arts Organization from 2007 to 2018 and has provided content for Pitt JCS anime events since 2011. She has taught both ESL and Beginning Korean. Her gothic horror novel, The Haunting at Ice Pine Peak, won the Bronze Award for Young Adult Fiction E-book in the 2016 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards and earned the 2018 Story Monsters Approved Seal in the Tween Category.
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