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Reviewed by:
  • Reading “The Tale of Genji”: Sources from the First Millennium ed. by Thomas Harper and Haruo Shirane
  • Lawrence Marceau
Reading “The Tale of Genji”: Sources from the First Millennium. Edited by Thomas Harper and Haruo Shirane. Columbia University Press, 2015. 632pages. Hardcover $65.00/£45.00.

No work of narrative fiction in any language has enjoyed the continued reactions, reinterpretations, and critical reception that Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji; ca. 1001–1008) has. Until now, however, it has been difficult for readers of the Genji to grasp the extent of this reception over time. In recent years, a number of medieval commentaries have been compiled, resulting in the ongoing publication of Genji monogatari kochū shūsei (Collection of Old Commentaries on the Tale of Genji; Ōfū, 1978–2014), whose volumes number twenty-five to date. Nine of these volumes were edited by Ii Haruki, at one time professor of Japanese at Osaka University and later director of the National Institute of Japanese Literature. It is no coincidence that this compilation of Genji-related sources is dedicated to Professor Emeritus Ii.

However, only one text from those twenty-five volumes—Shimei shō (Explicating Murasaki; pre-1294), by Sojaku—has found its way into this compilation. Much medieval commentary is focused on explaining specific vocabulary items found in the text or on attempts to resolve disputes regarding textual variants, so it often makes for tedious reading. The editors of Reading “The Tale of Genji” have instead selected some fifty-four texts (surely coincidental to the number of chapters in the Genji!). The texts, divided into eight chapters, are generally in chronological order.

The seven texts presented in chapter 1 are devoted to informal “discussions” of monogatari, and six of them were written by women. One of these includes the famous “Defense of Monogatari” found in the “Hotaru” (The Fireflies) chapter of The Tale of Genji itself, and another is the discussion of illustrated romances found in the “Eawase” (The Picture Contest) chapter (all Genji chapter titles in this review follow Royall Tyler’s translations). These selections give readers a sense of how narratives were envisioned within the Genji.

While the first chapter focuses on how women were composing, copying, and reading monogatari in general, chapter 2 gives us glimpses into how people, again primarily women, were actually reading the Genji itself. Referred to as “women’s talk” (onnagoto; p. 39), this “gossip” about the Genji reveals the sense of wonder and amazement that readers held regarding the work. A young character in the earliest extended discussion of the Genji, Mumyōzōshi (A Nameless Notebook; ca. 1200), exclaims breathlessly, “One day, someone, following [Murasaki Shikibu’s] example, may manage to produce something that surpasses Genji. . . . I just don’t see how it could be the work of a mere mortal.” Tellingly, we soon learn the following: “It’s such a pity I haven’t read it yet. Do tell us the story. We’re ever so eager to listen” (p. 43). Many early readers of [End Page 74] the Genji seem to have been obsessed by the narrative and its reputation, even before they had actually read the text (or had it read to them).

The chapters that follow present readers with a shift in Genji reception from “a woman’s romance into a men’s classic” (p. 158, quoting from another source). For medieval readers, though, this process of canonization was not without its difficulties. By the mid-Tang period, poets in China such as Bai (or Bo) Juyi (772–846) were well aware of Buddhist teachings that proscribed several types of language misuse listed among the “‘Ten Evils’ (jūaku)”: “falsehood (mōgo), equivocation (ryōzetsu), slander (akku), and frivolous or specious talk (kigo or kigyo)” (p. 177). Bai Juyi cleverly manipulates his sinfulness in engaging in “wild words and fancy phrases” (kyōgen kigyo) by paradoxically reciting an oath to “transform it into the karma of praising the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma of Buddha’s Vehicle for ages and ages to come” (p. 202, note 26); this episode also finds its way into the highly influential anthology Wakan rōeishū (c. 1013; the...


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