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Workshop on Japanese Old and Rare Books in the Honolulu Museum of Art 2017 (Kotenseki Workshop at HoMA 2017): Abstract 要旨

The Kotenseki Workshop at the Honolulu Museum of Art (HoMA) 2017 sponsored by the University of Hawaii at Manoa East Asian Languages & Literatures (EALL), UHM Library, HoMA, and the National Institute of Japanese Literature (NIJL) was held on February 17,


"The Plot of The Tale of Genji and the Emperor System 源氏物語のストーリーと天皇制" was delivered by Dr. Yuichiro Imanishi, Director-General of the NIJL on February 16, 2017 at the University of Hawaii at Hawaii Library.

Abstract in English

Written at the beginning of the 11th century, The Tale of Genji (源氏物語), takes as its setting Japan’s Heian court. The tale depicts the Emperor and the inner palace when the splendor of court culture was at its peak, before bushi, the armed warrior class, began to put pressure on this group of elites. It is these depictions which produced the foundation of Japanese culture that would follow.

However, this splendid court tale is not simply an inventory of courtly traditions without any internal contradictions. The story begins with an adaptation of Bai Juyi’s Song of Everlasting Sorrow (長恨歌), a long poem which tells of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty’s tragic affair with Yang Guifei. Hikaru Genji, the main character of the The Tale of Genji is the child born of a similar affair between the emperor of Japan and Kiritsubo no Koi. Genji turns his affections to his step-mother (Fujitsubo) whom his father brings to court in place of Genji’s deceased mother. Eventually, Genji fathers a child with his step mother. They keep the relationship between father and son a secret, and their child rises to the throne. To tell such a tale of the court was unprecedented at the time of Genji’s composition, and it remains an unparalleled feat in the history of Japanese literature.

The plot of Genji runs absolutely counter to the myth of the unbroken imperial line which grew quite powerful in Japan’s early modern era. It follows that in the period of ultra-nationalism before the Pacific War, The Tale of Genji was stripped from textbooks and labeled subversive. While it is easy to dismiss such ultra-nationalism, that will not help us understand how such a story was composed in the courts of the Heian period, or how it garnered enough praise for even the emperor of the time to have deemed it worthy of reading. These questions have still yet to be answered.

Several interesting theories have been proposed about this, which I will present today. However, at some point, these questions vanished from the academic world. Now, there are no researchers taking up such questions.

Though it’s a fiction, how could a story that depicts imperial succession so disrespectfully have been written? Was it accepted as pure fabrication? Merely the workings of the author’s imagination? While that might be tenable if it were a work of early modern literature, it’s quite difficult to imagine such in the case of something written in ancient times.

It is my personal opinion that this story traces a shared but unspoken knowledge of prior history of imperial lineage, and because of that, this shocking story was accepted in its time.

This “unspoken knowledge” is, I believe, the rumored change in bloodlines that occurred when the Yōzei Emperor was replaced by his grandfather’s younger brother, the Kōkō Emperor. This sort of troubling switch of imperial bloodlines is a rare occurrence in the history of Japan. While scholars of Japanese history have from early on pointed out the importance of this change, scholars of Japanese literature have never attempted to approach this problem directly. Using interpretations of The Tales of Ise (伊勢物語), a work even older than Genji, I will attempt to explain how The Tale of Genji relates to these problems of imperial lineage.