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  • Shining Genji
  • Charles De Wolf (bio)

In The Tale of Genji, the main character, known as Shining Genji, is no more than seventeen when, in the second chapter, he has a chance tryst with the young wife of the Deputy Governor of Iyo. Ostensibly horrified at his advances, she nonetheless yields to him, while tearfully insisting that the gulf in social rank (he is, after all, a son of the reigning emperor) renders impossible any enduring relationship. She then avoids further meetings by hiding herself away. Genji composes a verse likening her to the mythological broom tree (hahakigi) on the moors of Sonohara, which, on being approached, recedes into the distance. Nonetheless, undeterred, Genji pursues her, utilizing her younger brother—also his page—as his go-between. At the end of the third chapter, again foiled, he compares his elusive prey to the shell left behind by a molting cicada.

The episode, conventionally entitled "Utsusemi" (lit., empty cicada), reminds us of the extent to which aristocratic Heian-Period life seems to take place either in darkness or in the dimmest of light. Genji has presumably made love to a woman whose face he does not see until he spies her playing Go with a vivacious companion, the daughter of the deputy governor and thus her stepdaughter. (The board game appears with some frequency in The Tale of Genji, here for the first time. It is significant that women engage in it no less than do men.)

The Lady of the Cicada Shell will continue to haunt young Genji. Eventually, she goes off with her husband to the distant province of Hitachi, still thinking wistfully of her brief encounter. Once she is widowed, she finds herself the object of most unwelcome advances by her stepson, the governor of Kawachi, and so resolves to become a nun, eventually taking u p residence in Genji's magnificent estate, along with other women from his past adventures. Having long since returned to her the garment that he has compared to a cicada shell, he bestows on her as a New Year's gift a woven garment of appropriately subdued bluish black. [End Page 87]

Charles De Wolf

Charles De Wolf is a professor emeritus–teacher at Keio University in Japan. His published translations include Tales of Days Gone By, stories from the twelfth-century folktale collection Konjaku monogatari-shū; and Mandarins: Stories, a collection by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke. In 2010, he received the Prince Takamado Distinguished Scholar Award from the Asiatic Society.