The Tale of Prince Genji by Lady Murasaki known as the first novel offers us a glimpse of the decadent court life in Kyoto during the Heian Period. Decadent Prince Genji was a lover not a fighter, his life of seduction and intrigue was typical of royalty at that time. Many of the institutions found in the novel had their beginnings in the Nara period or even the Asuka period some five centuries prior to the events in the Novel. It is important to understand this background to better appreciate Lady Murasaki’s tale of Seduction and Betrayal.
Spaning from 538 to 710 Asuka Period or Asuka Jidai was period of flowering in the history Japan. This period was defined by the raising of numerous Imperial Palaces in Asuka and Nara in honor of the Yamato Emperors. It was known for significant artistic, social, and political transformations brought about by the arrival of Buddhism to Japan. Asuka Jidai was also the first time that Japan sent emissaries to China and Korea.
The Yamato state which emerged in the late 5th Century AD, would rise to from local chieftain-ship to become the ruling Imperial dynasty of Japan. It is worth noting that the current Emperor of Japan Akihito is a descendant of the Yamato kings making their dynasty the longest reigning dynasty in the world. He is also the last reigning ‘God-Emperor’, according to Japanese mythology the Yamato kings are descendants of Jimmu Tenno grandson of Amaterasu the Sun Goddess making them gods in their own right.
Just as the ruling family reigned in male hereditary line hereditary chieftains also ruled the Uji or clans. Uji leaders were both chieftains and priests. They were diviners of the Shinto faith, through them the commoners could commune with the ancestors, nature and even Amaterasu. Their power was passed down through their bloodlines. The Yamato organized them by rank into Omi, Muraji and other lesser lines. But, the superior hereditary line was the ‘Sun line’ the descendants of Amaterasu.
The succeeding period was known as the Nara Jidai which lasted from 710-794. The transfer of the Imperial Capital to Nara marked that period. The majority of the people still practiced Shinto and remained a rural agricultural society but life in the city of Nara blossomed. Built in envy of Ch’ang An, capital of Tang China, Nara was the focal point of architecture, culture and religion in that era hence the name Nara Jidai.
The focus on city life in the Nara Jidai transformed the Uji nobles into court nobility. Before the Nara period, most Uji warred with each other for territory. Towards the end of the Asuka period the Uji began to recognize the lordship of the Yamato Uji. The Uji leaders were drawn to Nara. There they were enamored by the developments. Soon they lost their roles as religious leaders to the Buddhists who dominated the religious scene. The relative peace of the Nara period and the authority of the Emperor precluded warfare. Unable to practice their previous roles the Uji lords were reduced to courtiers who appear to have lost their importance in Japanese society. However, as history would show, they were to play an even more prominent part in the development of their country. One example is the Soga Clan whose actively promotion of Buddhism led to a revolt.
In the late Asuka period Nakatomi Kamatari was granted by Emperor Tenchi the rare privilege of changing his name hence forth he would be surnamed Fujiwara. Kamatari and his descendants would play a critical role in Japanese politics for centuries to come. Kamatari was a trusted advisor to the Emperor and together they would begin the Taika reforms.
Taika, meaning great change, was the name Tenchi gave to the late Asuka period. This was the era of reform where Chinese culture was imported wholesale, embassies were sent to China to observe and bring back what they learned. Chinese laws, architecture and religion was brought in on a massive scale. After Tenchi died, the capital was moved to Nara which as mentioned was modeled after Ch’ang An.
The Emperor, as the head of the Shinto cult as a divine being could not be expected to debase himself with day to day concerns of running his empire. Hence, the court nobility, most notably the Fujiwara took over the burden of rule. The Emperor’s Private Office, an important court position, would become a hereditary position held by the Fujiwara clan. By the 9th Century the Fujiwara had intermarried into the ‘Sun Line’. Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1027) was grandfather of three emperors, father to six empresses or imperial consorts and grandfather to seven additional consorts. In other words, he practically owned the imperial line. The clan was so powerful that they could exile the Emperor to Kyushu, the westernmost island of Japan, for daring to appoint a government official against their will.
The Fujiwara family had effectively emaciated the Chrysanthemum throne and subverted it to their purposes. In Nara and later in Kyoto were none above them save the ineffectual Emperors. The Emperor spent his days performing largely ritualistic duties while the Fujiwara ran the nation as if it were one massive Shoen of the clan.
Despite the lack of actual temporal power the Imperial family was not without its perks. Prince Genji himself was a member of the ‘Sun Line’ even if he was relegated to civilian status and surnamed Minamoto he was still given wide latitude to do as he pleased. For example, when he seduces Oborozukiyo her protests are silenced when he says “It will do you no good. I am always allowed my own way.” He is even more brazen in his efforts to seduce Fujitsubo, he lies with her no less than three times always against her wishes.
However, it is towards Lady Murasaki that his behavior is most shocking. He immediately falls in love with the 12 year old Murasaki and when her family refuses to let him take her Genji kidnaps her Several years later he marries Murasaki making her his de facto wife with out her family’s consent although by the rules of the Imperial court she can only be a concubine. Clearly his exploits with these women and still others would have earned him a severe punishment had he been anything less than an Imperial Prince. Only once in the whole tale is Genji punished for his dalliances when Emperor Suzaku learns that Genji was conducting an affair with his concubine Oborozukiyo Genji is exiled although in private, Suzaku is amused by his brothers prowess.
Beyond the decadence of Genji the Heian period was famous for the many Chinese rituals that had completely permeated the Japanese court. For example, the Japanese tea ceremony still widely practice today was in fact an import from Tang China. The Confucian ideal of male superiority had also been adopted in Japan, in the 7th Century there was an Empress in Japan. Partly due to her own imprudence she was reviled after her death in 770 there was never again a reigning empress in Japan. Like the empress the rights of other women were also greatly restricted. For instance, in the past some Uji leaders were women but with the rise of Buddhism and the relative peace of the Heian women lost their prominent position as priestess and war chief.
Women of high rank like Lady Murasaki also a Fujiwara, were often reduced in status. At best they could expect to be wives of prominent men or as in her case a lady in waiting to the Empress. This is not to say they were relegated to ignoble lives as mere courtesans. Lady Murasaki was certainly literate and well read otherwise she could not have written her famous novel. Other court women also excelled as poets, writers and artists. However, the could also gain power and influence as the mother, wife or concubine of the Emperor. Again, this was largely the province of the powerful Fujiwara clan. In fact, Emperor Go-Sanjō (1068-73) was the first non-Fuijiwara emperor since (887-897) a span of almost 200 years.
To finance the extravagant building projects and opulent court life in Nara as system of Taxation built around the Shoen system. Shoen were private estates owned by noble families who soon turned to tax evasion citing their relationship to the ‘Sun line’ or the Fujiwara Clan. Even Imperial owned Shoen, run by administrators soon began to follow the ill example of the others. The Shoen holders would use the earnings of their land to hire retainers called Bushi like the Samurai, professional gentleman warriors who would soon captivate the imagination of the world. Bushi’s skills were passed down from generation to generation and by the 12th century and later would be much prized by their Daimyo or lord.
Towards the end of the Heian, the Emperor’s were better able to resist the influence of the Fujiwara. The Fujiwara had become fractionalized and weak. The rise of the Minamoto clan in 1185 marked the beginning of the Kamakura Shogunate and the age of the Shoguns. It is of interest to note that Yoritomo Minamoto and the Minamoto line are descended from the ‘Sun line’ making them kinsmen of the Fujiwara.
Henceforth, the Emperor would become even more secluded in his palace in Kyoto. Real power went with the Shogun who claimed to rule in his name. These warlords will call upon Daimyo and their Samurai to subdue their enemies and enforce their will on the land in the name of the Divine Emperor of course. Yet many of the institutions set up in the during those times endure. Emperor Akihito is still worshiped as a god emperor by the Shinto Cult. Emperor Showa’s daughters were still married off to Fujiwara lords while the consorts of the Emperor are still recruited from Fujiwara descendants. Finally, until Emperor Meiji came to power Shoen holding Daimyo still formed basis of political power in Japan.
Murphy , Rhoads. A History of Asia 3rd ed., New York: Harper Collins College Div., 1992.
Roberts, J.M. The New History of the World, New York: Oxford University Press.,
- Worden, Robert. “Kofun and Asuka Periods, ca. A.D. 250-710”, A Country
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Seidensticker. The Tale of Genji translated and abridged. New York: Random House 1985
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 Rhoads Murphy, A History of Asia 3rd Ed, (New York: Harper Collins College Div., 1992) 155
 Rhoads Murphy, A History of Asia 3rd Ed, (New York: Harper Collins College Div., 1992) 154
 Rhoads Murphy, A History of Asia 3rd Ed, (New York: Harper Collins College Div., 1992) 156
 Rhoads Murphy, A History of Asia 3rd Ed, (New York: Harper Collins College Div., 1992) 160
 Seidensticker. The Tale of Genji translated and abridged 38
 Seidensticker. The Tale of Genji translated and abridged 86, 202, 204
 Seidensticker. The Tale of Genji translated and abridged 100
 S eidensticker. The Tale of Genji translated and abridged 180-183
 Rhoads Murphy, A History of Asia 3rd Ed, (New York: Harper Collins College Div., 1992) 157
 Rhoads Murphy, A History of Asia 3rd Ed, (New York: Harper Collins College Div., 1992) 157
 Rhoads Murphy, A History of Asia 3rd Ed, (New York: Harper Collins College Div., 1992) 165