New Light on a Delicate Subject

The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan by Ivan Morris
Vintage (Reprint), May 21st, 2013 (Originally published in 1964)

This began as a post related to a previous post on The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu and my commentary on the Michael Crichton novel Rising Sun. When I began writing however, I have more to add and so am classifying this as a review. As I believe I’ve said before, I do not pretend to be an expert on Japan. I am not fluent in the language and certainly can’t claim an academic credentials in any aspect of the countries language, culture or history. I just share observations as someone who has lived among the Japanese and read reasonably widely of their literature and history — though never in a rigorous way. Ivan Morris (whose work I have covered before), was an expert and so his opinion carries a lot more weight. This should be kept in mind for what follows.

As a short general review, The World of the Shining Prince is an absolute and unqualified recommendation to anyone who is studying or has enjoyed reading The Tale of Genji. It is only limited by being written when the only full translation* that existed was Arthur Waley’s and there are now three additional English translations not discussed in this work. That the edition above was published just a few years before the fourth English translation and almost fifty years later demonstrates its continued relevance despite this. I do recommend you skip the introduction by Barbara Ruch though which is less about the subject than it is herself.

I purchased The World of the Shining Prince a few years ago but only read it recently in preparation for my second reading of The Tale of Genji, this time with Edward G. Seidensticker’s translation. 

In my original commentary I mentioned Genji’s son Yūgiri and how he contrasts with his philandering father:

Yugiri, his son from his first wife, Aoi is far more restrained in his passions though even he has love affairs. One in particular disappointed me as it followed the marriage of his childhood sweetheart, Kumoi which had been long prevented by their families; somewhat like a Japanese Romeo and Juliet.

This disappointment I learned in reading The World of the Shining Prince, is natural for someone with my cultural background as Morris comments,

Of all the upper-class households described in Heian literature none has a homelier and, in some ways, more familiar air for the modern reader than that of Yūgiri and his wife, Kumoi. It will be recalled that this is a love match, Kumoi’s family having been opposed to Yūgiri because of his low rank, and also that when the young people finally do get married they adopt the up-to-date fashion of living in their own house rather than with the wife’s family. Yūgiri is a most exceptional gentleman for the time and may well be reacting against the rampant polygamy of his father’s ménage: during the first ten years of his marriage he does not add a single concubine to his household. Instead he lives quietly at home, enjoying his wife’s voluptuous charms and fathering a large brood of children, all of whom are to make brilliant marriages.

Yet even this paragon of male fidelity finally succumbs to social convention and the lure of novelty.

 The Women of Heian and their Relations with Men, pg. 247

So Yūgiri and Kumoi’s marriage was unusual for their class and time. Although much of The Tale of Genji follows the love affairs pursued by Genji himself and then later by Prince Niou and Kaoru, this was not exceptional but expected of men of that class. Even the domestic arrangement of having multiple women living in the same house did happen despite the obvious jealousy this could (and did) provoke. The only limitations on any of this was elevating concubines above the principal wife and marrying or relationships outside of the upper-classes. No matter how beautiful, men of that class would apparently not even think of taking a peasant girl as a wife or concubine.

Earlier in the same chapter Morris states,

In the first place, we must remember that the possession of several wives and the frequentation of several mistresses were normal and, in the full sense of the word, respectable behaviour for any Heian gentleman.

pg. 236-237

This is elaborated on with a lengthy footnote that I will also quote in full:

This, of course, is peculiar neither to the Heian period nor to Japan. Both the Chinese and the Japanese have traditionally separated their attitudes to marriage, which concerns the welfare of the family, from attitudes to love and sex, which are regarded as needs of the individual. Love, sex, and marriage were never combined into the same set of values as they are, for example, in the Christian marriage service. Far Easter society rigidly prescribed a man’s duty to his family, but was extremely tolerant about how he satisfied his romantic and physical desire, sexual self-gratification never being condemned so long as the man played his proper role in the family. Erotic pleasures (the ‘abomination of the flesh’ of the medieval Christian Church) were regarded as a natural need, to which it would be absurd to attach any sense of sin or moral guilt. Much of the difficulty that the Jesuits experienced in trying to convert the military leaders of the feudal period came from their insistence that a promiscuous sexual life and polygamy were morally wrong per se.

pg. 237

This is a more academic version of the statement Crichton puts into the mouth of his character John Connor in Rising Sun. That the Japanese and Chinese don’t have the same “hang-ups” so to speak, about sexual relations. Morris also quotes Arthur Waley earlier in a footnote, ‘… the most fundamental different between the Japanese (or, for that matter, any Far Eastern nation) and us is the fact, obvious indeed yet constantly overlooked, that they were not Christians.’ Which is undoubtedly true. It is also true that Arthur Waley was not a Christian and even associated (though loosely) with the Bloomsbury group — who were certainly not known for their religious piety. Ivan Morris was married three times which was certainly unusual in his own time outside of Hollywood actors and actresses.

My bias is certainly towards monogamy and the Christian ethic which does intrude on my own analysis but so to with Morris and Waley, despite their academic credentials and undoubted brilliance. I remind readers once again, that I don’t have a patch of the knowledge they did on Japanese culture, language and history.

With this out of the way, Morris also notes that the Heian court was much less than 1% of the Japanese population at the time and that most of the country lived in monogamous circumstances; whether they wanted to or not. From my knowledge of polygamy, it has always been restricted by social position or wealth whether considering Islamic, Pacific Islander or Oriental societies. It is to the best of my knowledge, not something widely practiced even in societies where it is accepted. The great difference that came with Christianity was that it forced (at least officially), monogamy across all classes. There was of course still adultery, prostitution and kings and nobles still had concubines but many also didn’t. This will always be so until the end of time.

When we consider something to be normal, we also have to ask why. As Morris and the text discussed shows clearly, the acceptance of polygamy in the Heian Court did not prevent widespread jealousy and ill-feeling between spouses — such is the drama of The Tale of Genji. It was also necessary to be clandestine about these affairs — even in more legitimate courtship. For something to be really normal, the husband should have no more trouble telling his wife he is going to sleep with his concubine than he would telling her he is going to meet a friend for a drink. I would expect that excepting the most decadent and fallen societies, that there was always an element of secrecy in this behaviour. The concept of natural law is discernable even where Christianity is entirely absent. In short, something limited to a small fraction of the population that had to be conducted in secret, is not really normal.

One additional consideration is the biological reality and indeed — purpose of sexual congress: pregnancy and children. Heian Japan obviously didn’t have the forms of contraception that exist today. Morris doesn’t cover this in depth and I expect very little is known for certain. Considering the amount of fornication in the novel, there are relatively few pregnancies that result. I expect coitus interruptus was used in the riskier affairs but this is not discussed. Nonetheless, the normal expectation is that children will follow with sexual intercourse whether wanted or not so this is a moral consideration. In The Tale of Genji alone, we can see this still produced a fair number well-born offspring and the resulting struggles for these children if not acknowledged (made legitimate) by their father.

I am not accusing Morris (or Waley for that matter of this), but the different moral outlooks of societies is often used as a justification for behaviour outside of Christian norms today. Though in every case I’ve seen, the degree of sexual freedom has been exaggerated. As an example from this text alone, the amount of etiquette behind these affairs would stagger the average fornicator today and to some would seem hardly worth the effort. 

Lastly on this point, I do agree that despite all of the above that the east Asian societies certainly did look upon sexual relations differently to Christian societies. However, when one compares both Medieval European with their Chinese and Japanese equivalent, they would have far more in common with each other than things as they exist today — even earlier in the 20th century.

In contrast to the contemporary author Haruki Murakami, Murasaki Shikibu is anything but explicit on the twilight liaisons of her characters. One really does have to read between the lines and I was therefore troubled by the implications of one such passage earlier in the novel that could imply Genji had sodomised a minor. There were no commentaries I could find on this passage but Morris does refer to it in a brief digression about homosexuality in the same chapter. Morris’ lengthy footnote is a lot more restrained than I would expect from a modern academic and I will quote in full,

A discussion of sexual behaviour in the Heian period raises the question of whether male homosexuality (which became so prevalent in later centuries especially among warriors, priests, and actors) was widely practiced in Murasaki’s time. I have found little evidence on the subject. As we have seen, the gentlemen described in contemporary literature often give a somewhat epicene impression; yet nearly all of them, even those who may seem most effeminate, had numerous involved relations with women. Sei Shōnagon, who would not be likely to remain silent on this subject if it had ever come to her attention, does not say a single word about it. The only possible hint that I have found in The Tale of Genji occurs in the scene where the hero, having been turned down by Utsusemi, lies next to her young brother, who has been acting as his messenger. The lad has just told Genji that he cannot take him to where his sister is sleeping. ‘ “Very well, my boy,” said the prince, laying him down beside him. “But you at least must not desert me.” Utsusemi’s brother was delighted to find himself lying next to the handsome young prince, and Genji for his part found the lad very sympathetic (aware) after his unyielding sister.’ Even this is ambiguous; and at most it is a case of fate de mieux [nothing better available].

Homosexual relations among the court ladies were probably quite common, as in any society where women are obliged to live in continuous and close proximity but here again I have found no specific evidence. 

pg. 220

I must admit, that considering the way the men behave in the novel, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been widespread but that sodomy is not mentioned at all, suggests it was not met with approval or at the very least — wasn’t fashionable; the latter which seems the moral core driving the people of the time. The Jesuits certainly observed it to their great disgust, when they arrived many centuries later as I mentioned in a separate post

Another little comment early in the book I found knowingly amusing was this: 

One might expect that Heian gentlemen, who spent so much of their time trying to write Chinese would have welcomed the opportunity to meet people who actually conversed in the language; but from contemporary literature one gathers that they had no such ambition. Evidently they preferred to regard Chinese as a dead language—much like those modern teachers of English and French in Japan for whom inability to speak the language comes near to being a mark of academic distinction.

The Setting, pg. 16

This was published in 1964 and yet I experienced exactly the same over forty years later. English teachers I encountered within schools often couldn’t (or could barely) speak English and most didn’t seem the slightest bit bothered about it. I was even witness to a Professor of English giving an extremely poor speech in broken English at a local school speech contest. I freely admit I couldn’t do better in Japanese but then, I’m not a Professor of Japanese. I suspect Morris must have had plenty of similarly bitter experiences. I know I’ve written at length about my frustrations before.

Lastly, to finish with something which puts in contrast literal and literary translations. Morris includes this in his final chapter which is something of a potpourri of subjects related to Shikibu’s masterpiece. I have only included the two example passages but Morris’ further commentary is also very interesting. The first passage is literal but Morris has added additional text in brackets to make it somewhat readable. The second is obviously the literary translation:

‘recalling all sorts of things [and thinking] what an underhand thing this is to the person/people who joining [his/their] heart/hearts (kokoro) [with me] to a remarkable (ayashiki) extent led me and since even in the capital [he] was not under any circumstances able to go about indiscreetly without people/a person knowing wearing an outlandish (ayashiki) disguise and though the feelings [of him] who was on the horse were fearful and guilty since [his] heart (kokoro) was advanced in the inquisitive direction thinking as [he/they] came deep into the hills when how will it become to go back without even meeting would indeed be unsatisfying (? lonely) and disgraceful (? absurd = ayashi) [his] heart (kokoro) was stirred up’

‘Various thoughts occurred to Niou. He recalled how remarkably helpful Kaoru had been in introducing him to Uji in the first place. Even in the capital Niou was never in a position to come and go as he pleased without people knowing about it, and for this expedition he had put on an outlandish disguise. Now as he rode up to Uji his feelings of guilt towards Kaoru were mixed with a sense of fear. Yet his was an unusually inquisitive temperament, and as they came deeper into the hills he grew more and more excited. When would they arrive, he wondered, and how were things likely to turn out. Perhaps he would have to go back to the capital without even having met Ukifune. How frustrating that would be—and what a disgrace!’

Aspects of ‘The Tale of Genji’, pg. 282

There is a lot more that I have not even mentioned so this should not be taken as a comprehensive review. As already stated, these were some areas I wanted to add comment on as they involved previous posts. I definitely recommend reading the whole study to anyone who is loves or is learning to love The Tale of Genji. It filled in many questions I had about the society and gave me both a better understanding and appreciation for one of the greatest literary works ever created.


*I am aware that Arthur Waley did not translate Chapter 38: The Bell Cricket and that there was an earlier translation by Suematsu that did not translate the entire work.

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