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Chapter 1 Notes

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I read Arthur Waley's translation of chapters 1-10 last summer, but since it's been so long, and since supposedly Waley's version is more a romance novel inspired by the Tale of the Genji than an actual translation, I thought that rather than continue I'd start over with a different translator.

Stedensticker was slightly cheaper, so that's who I'll be reading. I'm keeping notes: things that seem important, things I like, things that strike me as odd, and (for the first ten chapters) differences in the translation.

Please excuse mispelling, I'm typing this directly into the "update journal" field.

Chapter One, The Paulonia Court

The Tale of Genji begins like a fairytale: during a certain reign, there was one lady the emperor liked more than all the others. The lady was a very good woman, simple and gentle, but because the emperor's favor was marked, the other women of the court became jealous of her, and did all they could to make her miserable.


The only thing missing from the fairytale beginning is the part that sets the story in the distant past, the "long ago" or "once upon a time." It could be that this is implied.

Something else that's implied: the lady's ill treatment. Murasaki spends very little time on the jealousy of the other woman. Only one example is given, and it isn't so bad: one night when traveling from her own quarters to the emperor's rooms, the lady is locked in a hallway. In contrast, Arthur Waley makes their torments into a major focus of the chapter, describing in detail not just that one incident, but inventing others and also describing in greater detail the exact psychological effects of being isolated, surrounded by people who hate you. Murasaki's mitigating factor, the mother who does all she can to improve her daughter's situation, is not even mentioned in that translation.

All this is probably because Murasaki expects the reader to know what being despised at court means. She doesn't try to prove that it was hard, she tries to prove that there were some things that made it less hard. Also, the bullying is not really the focus here, since its main purpose is to set up the good lady's tragic death -- which, in turn, will explain the emperor's attachment to her only child, a beautiful little boy (Genji).


After about two pages, the lady dies. The reader understands she has died from the constant torment of the other women (Waley makes this explicit).

What I like about this section, and Genji (Stidensticker translation) in general, is how well characterization reflects circumstance. After the lady dies, the other ladies suddenly recall that she was a good person who didn't deserve their treatment of her; except for the mother of the emperor's oldest son (Kokiden), who fears that the emperor's lingering affection will be an obstacle to own her son's future prospects. Okay, maybe that wasn't the most illuminating example. But compared to what was being written in Europe at this time, all those epics where the characters might as well have been space aliens for all their actions matched actual human motivation? Dude, this story is awesome.

I also like the way Murasaki always gives emotions concrete expression. We are told that the emperor's grief continues for a long time, but more importantly we see that it continues in the way he is always careful to send offerings to the weekly memorial services.


After many days, the emperor's grief has still not abated, and he has a female servant (Myobu) deliver a note to the lady's mother inviting both her and her grandson to court. In his letter he calls Genji "a momento" of his deceased love.

You really have to feel for the grandmother at this point. She used to keep her house in repair for her daughter's visits, but since her death she's hasn't put in the effort and now the garden is all overgrown and the house is falling apart. Additionally, the woman, who either is or considers herself to be very old, doesn't feel that she would fit in at court -- I'm not sure about this, was the Heien court very young? -- but since she can't refuse the emperor's request, she agrees to send Genji -- even though it means consigning herself to exile in a delapidated house with no company. In fact she is so lonely that she asks Myobu, the servant, to visit her sometimes! Poor woman. She had to send her daughter into torment, too, because the emperor requested it. I wonder if she resents him.

The above scene is incredibly romantic. It's the night of a full moon, it's autumn, the garden is wildly overgrown, Myobu and the lady exchange wistful autumn poetry in farewell. It's the sort of scene that will reappear many, many times in future chapters.


The emperor, meanwhile, has been neglecting his duties. People are beginning to talk. Comparisons are made between himself and a certain neglectful Chinese emperor, just as comparisons had been made between the lady and the Chinese emperor's favorite concubine.

I think it's worth mentioning at this point that the duties of a Heien-era emperor were entirely ceremonial. So the malicious talk is, for the most part, just that: malicious talk. It's not like the emperor's preoccupation is destabilizing his reign or causing his people to suffer.


Genji returns and is very beautiful, more beautiful than most women. He's so beautiful that maybe he won't last very long -- it's the classic Japanese equation of beauty with transience. His beautiful mother, certainly, died young. Because Genji is beautiful, everyone likes him. Even Kokiden, the mother of the emperor's oldest son, likes Genji.

Genji is finally given his name, a commoner's name. His father takes another woman as his favorite, a princess (Fujitsubo) who looks remarkably like his lost love but who, because of her much higher rank, he can love as much as he wants, without fear that the other ladies will do to her as they did to the other one -- who, it turns out, did not like the emperor as much as he liked her anyway. XD

Genji naturally (?!) finds himself attacted to Fujitsubo as well, in what is at first a completely platonic way (he's about ten). The whole court loves both of them and gives them complimentary nicknames -- Genji is "the shining one," Fujitsubo is "the lady of the radiant sun."

Murasaki almost does not have to describe Kokiden's reaction to all this.


Genji turns twelve and there's a ceremony celebrating his adulthood. There is some description of physical objects -- gifts -- here. This used to be my favorite part of any story set in ancient China, India, or Japan, but now I find these sections incredibly boring. Too bad for me there's a lot more of them in the next few chapters.

That evening, Genji is married to the daughter of the Minister of the Left (Aoi). Aoi is kind of ...ehh about the whole thing, since she, unlike Genji, is not twelve. Kokiden, by the way, is married to the Minister of the Right, and so now on top of everything else she can dislike Genji for increasing the importance of her husband's political rival. Kokiden has been figuring pretty prominently into the narrative so far, with Murasaki giving her reaction to almost every developement. I don't remember her having too much to do with the first ten chapter's of Waley's version, but you definitely get the sense that she will be important later.

Lest we overestimate the importance of the rivalry between the Left and Right ministers, Murasaki mentions that a daughter of the later is married to a son of the former (Aoi's brother, To no Chujo). So it's not like Hatfields and McCoys or anything.


Genji spends very little time at Aoi's and most of his time at the palace, where he pines for Fujitsubo. Now that he's an adult, he's not allowed behind the ladies' curtains anymore, so doesn't even have those infrequent glimpses of her face to ease his longing (now transitioning from platonic to romantic).

I think it's hilarious -- and probably very convenient for the translator -- that "pine" has almost the same double meaning in English that it does in Japanese. In his introduction Seidensticker mentions that the poetry in Genji, at least, is filled with untranslatable puns. In Japanese "pine" sounds like "wait" and denotes an unrequited longing. Which, really, is close enough to what it means in English.

If only, thought Genji, he could have with him the woman he longed for.

I wonder if there's an equivilent double meaning to the English word "sap."

That took longer than I expected; in the next chapter I'll try sticking to notes instead of summaries with commentary.

Chapter Two
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On March 9th, 2006 02:12 am (UTC), telophase commented:
The Heian court did indeed tend to be young - from what I remember, as part of their campaign to remain the power behind the scenes the Fujiwara family pressured the emperor to abdicate in favor of his son at a very early age, so you had boy and teen emperors for the most part, with the retired emperor being in his late 20s and early 30s.

In The Confessions of Lady Nijo, a Heian diary, Lady Nijo is married to the retired emperor GoFukakusa, who'd abdicated in favor of his brother at 16. (Wikipedia entry.)
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On March 9th, 2006 02:13 am (UTC), telophase replied:
* So if you're looking at the bit where the ladies are tormenting Murasaki and thinking, "Man, this is so highschool" ... yup.
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On March 10th, 2006 01:34 am (UTC), kate_nepveu commented:
Good point about "pine", and thanks for posting--I've got a cold _AGAIN_ and I just can't deal with Genji when I'm sick, but I've been feeling very guilty about not reading or posting.
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On March 10th, 2006 10:00 pm (UTC), edonohana replied:
Me too. But I will be back soon!
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On March 10th, 2006 10:01 pm (UTC), edonohana replied:
Signed in on wrong journal, oops.
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On January 9th, 2008 07:09 am (UTC), imiteshun commented:
Thank you, thank you, thank you. We've just started reading the unabridged version by Royall Tyler in my Japanese lit class, and after reading two chapters I knew it was going to drive me nuts if I couldn't find some sort of summary to have handy for when I need to review! I just happened to come across your page through google, and I'm very, very happy to see it!
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On January 9th, 2008 08:10 pm (UTC), sub_divided replied:
You're welcome! I'm glad you found this helpful. ^^; Sadly, I didn't stick with the project to summarize/comment on the book -- I only made it to chapter four -- but some of the other members managed more, and you can find a links to everything that's been done at the Reading Genji Wiki.
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On May 30th, 2008 09:56 pm (UTC), portinari commented:
I've heard that in the original Japanese it's clearer that the story takes place in the distant past. Murasaki makes references to characters playing old fashioned instruments, the emperor isn't named, etc. But before you mentioned it, I'd never noticed how similar it is to a fairy tale!

It's interesting to hear your comparisons between the Seidensticker and Waley translations, I only have access to the Royall Tyler version.
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