A medieval romantic novelist returns to Japan and discovers how love has changed
A THOUSAND YEARS after completing the world's first great psychological novel, "The Tale of Genji", its author, Lady Murasaki Shikibu, returned to Japan. Though she had always believed in ghosts, she was quite surprised to be one. She was even more surprised to see how her homeland had changed over the course of a millennium. Fortunately, a journalist from The Economist was at hand to show her around.
lady murasaki: My guide to the future is not pleasant to look at. He is some kind of foreigner, with a huge nose, eyebrows like hairy caterpillars and ridiculously plain clothes. He is so lacking in decorum that he neither wears perfume nor alludes to Chinese poetry when talking. However, I am lost, so I will have to stay with him for now. He appears to be a fan of "The Tale of Genji", which is pleasing.
THE ECONOMIST: The honour is all mine. Your story of the "shining prince", Genji, and his lovers is the seed from which whole groves of literature have grown. Though the aristocracy of the Heian period [794-1185] lies so far from the world of today, your rollicking romance still brings it alive for us. Tell me, is it true, as scholars say, that one of Genji's lovers is based on you?
lm: It would hardly be appropriate for me to answer that.
te: I apologise for my shameful temerity. But having looked through the window you opened onto a vanished world of great artistic sensitivity, where noblemen wooed noblewomen with calligraphy and verse, I am, like so many of your readers, intensely curious about you. You lived in an age when women were not supposed to study much, yet you devoured the men-only books in your father's library and outshone every male writer your country has ever produced. Gaye Rowley, a professor at Waseda University, calls you a "feminist icon".
lm: So you have women professors now?
te: We do.
LM: That is strange. But it pleases me. And do the men of knowledge from your lands admire me too?
te: They do today. In the past, not always. The first to read you, in Victorian times, were often shocked by your...sophistication. One Scottish historian denounced your aristocrats as "foully licentious, utterly effeminate...pampered minions and bepowdered poetasters". Others, however, were entranced by the cult of beauty you describe. As am I by your magnificent dress.
lm: It's just a simple thing. Twelve layers of silk robes, each with a different colour to match the hues of the winter landscape.
te: In such simplicities lie marvels. And with your eyebrows shaved off and repainted halfway up your forehead, and your teeth dyed black, you look very stylish...but I am afraid in today's world you may attract unwanted attention. Would you like to borrow something more comfortable?
LM: I hardly think I should take advice on robes from a man who wears no silk. Where are we?
te: This is the capital.
TE: No, the city we call Kyoto has ceased to be Japan's capital, and the palaces and temples you remember are gone--though the shrines to the sun goddess at Ise are still rebuilt every 20 years, as they were in your day. The Emperor has moved to a new eastern capital. In your life you would not have deigned to notice it. It was a humble fishing village.
LM: It has grown, I take it?
te: It is home to five times more people than lived in all of your Japan. Shall we step outside?
LM: No. I do not go outside unless it is a festival day and the Empress commands me to accompany her.
te: Perhaps the Empress grants ghosts more freedom?
LM: Perhaps. Just this once. Goodness gracious! Hundreds of palaces, so tall that I can barely see the top of them. Carriages moving without servants to carry them. Why is everyone so tall? Why are the streets so dazzling when the sky is dark? And where are all the dirty people?
te: Those are shops, cars and artificial lights. All these passers-by are what you would call "mere people" (tadabito), who work for a living. But they wash in hot water every day and are far richer than the "good people" (yoki hito) of the Heian court.
LM: You mistake me for someone who cares about mere people, however disturbingly well they live. Speak to me instead of the things that matter: art, poetry, music, love. Do people still drink rice wine under the cherry blossoms, marvel at their fleeting beauty and sadly contemplate the transience of life?
te: Yes, and they still find sumo wrestling tawdry but amusing. They have also invented new art forms: a ceremony for drinking tea, a way of arranging flowers and a kind of musical theatre called noh. You might enjoy those. You will hate their kabuki, though. It is all about warriors disembowelling themselves with swords.
LM: You jest, in your dull way. Warriors offer nothing but crass manners and dull repartee. They are to be laughed at, not made the subject of tales.
te: I'm afraid ignoring the warrior class didn't work out well for your "good people". I'll lend you a history book.
LM: Then let us speak of something less ugly. Do modern Japanese have contests to see who can compose the best love poem? Or "winding water parties", where friends sit by a stream on which cups of sake float, taking turns to pluck out a cup, sip from it and then recite a fitting verse?
TE: No, but they often stand up in front of their friends and sing love songs loudly after they have had too much to drink. Indeed, they occasionally sing songs by a group of musicians who call themselves Hikaru Genji (Shining Genji).
LM: Aaah, Genji. When he danced the "Waves of the Blue Sea" he was so graceful that the Emperor himself was moved to tears.
te: People still cry at dance, and music. At concerts by famous singers who dance with energy, the young people even scream.
LM: I hope they act with more refinement when courting. May I ask: how many wives and concubines do you have?
te: Just the one.
lm: You are a mere person, then, not a good person?
te: Very mere. But today even the Emperor has only one wife.
lm: I see. So if she produces no sons, he would have to name a son by one of his concubines as his heir?
te: As far as I know, he doesn't have any concubines.
lm: The Emperor has no concubines? That is disgraceful.
te: Almost all married men have only one wife. Some have mistresses, but they keep quiet about them. Some young people give up on romance entirely. They find it too much bother, and stay at home staring at their screens instead.
LM: Romance is too much bother? I cannot believe that. Still, I am glad to hear that people still have screens at home. Mine was elegant. The frame was of polished wood, the drapes changed colour with the seasons. It was a delight to sit behind it and listen to a suitor declare his ardour by talking about the fading autumn leaves. If he was charming I would invite him round to my side of the screen to "see" me...
TE: I see.
LM: If he was boring, I would slip off into another room and he would be left talking without a notion that there was no one there.
te: I think we are talking about different types of screen.
lm: No doubt your modern screens are less tasteful. But tell me more about young people today being too lazy to love. I find that hard to imagine. For us, the rituals of the chase were a joy. A nobleman would hear rumours of a lady's beauty. He would send her a letter--and it would have to be a work of art.
te: Yes, that has certainly changed.
lm: First, he would choose the right paper. Then, he would compose a 31-syllable poem on some aspect of nature, with an allusion to a classical Chinese poem and a hint at the depth of his passion. He would write it with perfect calligraphy, and attach a sprig of willow or plum blossom that matched the mood of the poem. Then he would send it by a well-dressed messenger boy and wait, with palpitating heart, for her reply.
te: The calligraphy was crucial?
lm: No one could love a man or woman who did not master letter-writing. I remember once, when Prince Genji was lying with me in my room, he received a missive from his new wife, the 13-year-old Princess Nyosan. I was worried. I could not expect Genji to be faithful to me; that would hardly be fitting for a man of his exalted rank. As one of his favourite lovers, though, I hoped that his new wife would not capture too much of his attention. And she wrote as a child! Genji needed the family ties of marriage--but he let me glimpse the letter and said: "Well now, you see you have nothing to worry about."
TE: Bad handwriting is no longer an absolute bar to finding love. A bigger problem today is poor social skills. There was a vivid example recently, when a 35-year-old Japanese man married a moving picture--we call it a hologram--of an imaginary singer. He organised an expensive wedding ceremony, explaining that unlike real women, his virtual wife would never call him otaku (a geek), cheat on him or grow old.
lm: That's not so odd. The Emperor Ichijo promoted his cat to the fifth rank of the nobility, entitling it to wear a prestigious head-dress.
te: Cat-lovers, eh? Back to courtship: modern young people who can be bothered write messages to each other on their shiny screens, which deliver them instantly. If two people like each other, they meet at a restaurant and eat raw fish together.
lm: Raw fish? That does not sound nice. And if they have not met, how do they recognise each other?
te: Again, it is through the screen. Take this one, in my hand. It is displaying Tapple, one of Japan's most popular dating apps. It makes romance simpler.
lm: Why would you want to make it simpler? Surely the fun is in the endless complications?
te: Many young people are shy, so the machine asks them questions to draw out information that lovers might want to know. You can search for someone who lives in the same area, or has the same hobbies. For men the most popular hobbies, according to Tapple, are drinking, staying at home and music.
lm: Noble pastimes! And this machine which is a screen and a letter and a messenger boy, it can find people who like the same kind of things as you?
lm: Can you find men who love "The Tale of Genji"?
te: Here are ten of them. Genji is still popular, even if some people read it in manga form, with pictures.
lm: How gratifying. And I do like the pale, puffy face and wispy suggestion of a beard on this one. What's his calligraphy like?
One historian denounced
Heian-era aristocrats as "foully
licentious, pampered minions"