A thousand years ago, a Japanese woman began writing a story that was not quite
fiction, not quite non-fiction, telling the story of the world of the Japanese
imperial court but creating its own world, too—the world of Genji.
The Tale of Genji is the story of the royal and noble classes of ancient Japan; the
small yet intriguing world they lived in, where protocol is everything, and
everyone’s loves, thoughts, and actions are dictated by social standing and social
consciousness. Yet we can relate to the characters, people who are so very
different from us, whose society is so strange to our understanding, because their
humanity comes through.
The story of Genji is full of adventure, poetry, and ritual. He is the son of the
Emperor by one of his lower-ranking wives; as such, Genji cannot be made the
heir-apparent because that would require him to take the place of the son of a
much higher-ranking royal wife. Widely known to be a son of the emperor, and
endowed with exceptional abilities and beauty, Genji is a mixture of the royal and
Many of the events in Genji’s life seem to be driven by women. What can we
make of Genji’s many exploits in ladies’ bedrooms? Genji the literary character
can do things that a real nobleman could not. Throughout the novel, Genji himself
remains the perfect gentleman, taking liberties with women that are pardonable
only because of his status and his personal beauty, manners, and integrity. His
flings are always carried off beautifully, and even respectfully—he never loves
and leaves anyone.
The following excerpt is from a chapter very early in the tale when Prince Genji is
about seventeen years old and just beginning to embark on his various adventures
and liaisons with different women. He encounters a young woman, Yûgao, whom
he chances upon while visiting his old nurse who took care of him as a child.
The “Yûgao” chapter reveals how courtship took place and what role poetry plays
in that process. It also hints at class issues, as we view Yûgao’s embarrassment at! 2!
having Genji hear the sounds of her commoner neighbors conducting their daily
routine. The chapter also gives us some idea of the position in which women
appeared to be placed in the period and how they dealt with jealousy issues in a
world where men are free to have many liaisons with different women.
Points to Consider:
1. How are Genji and Yûgao portrayed? Are both equally assertive? Is one more
passive in the relationship? Why or why not?
2. How does Yûgao die? Is the text explicit?
3. Who is the strange figure who comes in the night to disturb the two lovers
sleep? Why does she come?
4. How does Genji react to Yûgao’s death?
On his way from court to pay one of his calls at Rokujo, Genji stopped to
inquire after his old nurse, Koremitsu’s mother, at her house in Gojo.
Gravely ill, she had become a nun. The carriage entrance was closed. He
sent for Koremitsu and while he was waiting looked up and down the
dirty, cluttered street. Beside the nurse’s house was a new fence of plaited
cypress. The four or five narrow shutters above had been raised, and new
blinds, white and clean, hung in the apertures. He caught outlines of pretty
foreheads beyond. He would have judged, as they moved about, that they
belonged to rather tall women. What sort of women might they be? His
carriage was simple and unadorned and he had no outrunners. Quite
certain that he would not be recognized, he leaned out for a closer look.
The hanging gate, of something like trelliswork, was propped on a pole,
and he could see that the house was tiny and flimsy. He felt a little sorry
for the occupants of such a place–and then asked himself who in this
world had more than a temporary shelter. A hut, a jeweled pavilion, they
were the same. A pleasantly green vine was climbing a board wall. The
white flowers, he thought, had a rather self-satisfied look about them.
“‘I needs must ask the lady far off yonder,'” he said, as if to himself.
An attendant came up, bowing deeply. “The white flowers far off
yonder are known as ‘evening faces,'” he said.” A very human Sort of! 3!
name–and what a shabby place they have picked to bloom in.”
It was as the man said. The neighborhood was a poor one, chiefly of
small houses. Some were leaning precariously, and there were “evening
faces” at the sagging eaves.
“A hapless sort of flower. Pick one off for me, would you?”
The man went inside the raised gate and broke off a flower. A pretty
little girl in long, unlined yellow trousers of raw silk came out through a
sliding door that seemed too good for the surroundings. Beckoning to the
man, she handed him a heavily scented white fan.
“Put it on this. It isn’t much of a fan, but then it isn’t much of a flower
Koremitsu, coming out of the gate, passed it on to Genji.
“They lost the key, and I have had to keep you waiting. You aren’t
likely to be recognized in such a neighborhood, but it’s not a very nice
neighborhood to keep you waiting in.”
Genji’s carriage was pulled in and he dismounted. Besides Koremitsu,
a son and a daughter, the former an eminent cleric, and the daughter’s
husband, the governor of Mikawa, were in attendance upon the old
woman. They thanked him profusely for his visit.
The old woman got up to receive him. “I did not at all mind leaving
the world, except for the thought that I would no longer be able to see you
as I am seeing you now. My vows seem to have given me a new lease on
life, and this visit makes me certain that I shall receive the radiance of Lord
Amitabha with a serene and tranquil heart.” And she collapsed in tears.
Genji was near tears himself. “It has worried me enormously that you
should be taking so long to recover, and I was very sad to learn that you
have withdrawn from the world. You must live a long life and see the
career I make for myself. I am sure that if you do you will be reborn upon
the highest summits of the Pure Land. I am told that it is important to rid
oneself of the smallest regret for this world.” …
Koremitsu reported back. “I am unable to identify her. She seems
determined to hide herself from the world. In their boredom her women
and girls go out to the long gallery at the street, the one with the shutters,! 4!
and watch for carriages. Sometimes the lady who seems to be their mistress
comes quietly out to join them. I’ve not had a good look at her, but she
seems very pretty indeed. One day a carriage with outrunners went by.
The little girls shouted to a person named Ukon that she must come in a
hurry. The captain was going by, they said. An older woman came out
and motioned to them to be quiet. The passage from the main house is by
a sort of makeshift bridge. She was hurrying and her skirt caught on
something, and she stumbled and almost fell off. They told her that the
man in the carriage was wearing casual court dress and that he had a
retinue. They mentioned several names, and all of them were undeniably
Lord To no Chujo’s guards and pages.”
“I wish you had made positive identification.” Might she be the lady
of whom To no Chujo had spoken so regretfully that rainy night?
Koremitsu went on, smiling at this open curiosity. “I have as a matter
of fact made the proper overtures and learned all about the place. I come
and go as if I did not know that they are not all equals. They think they
are hiding the truth and try to insist that there is no one there but themselves when one of the little girls makes a slip.”
“Let me have a peep for myself when I call on your mother.”
Even if she was only in temporary lodgings, the woman would seem
to be of the lower class for which his friend had indicated such contempt
that rainy evening. Yet something might come of it all. Determined not to
go against his master’s wishes in the smallest detail and himself driven by
very considerable excitement, Koremitsu searched diligently for a chance
to let Genji into the house. But the details are tiresome, and I shall not go
Genji did not know who the lady was and he did not want her to
know who he was. In very shabby disguise, he set out to visit her on foot.
He must be taking her very seriously, thought Koremitsu, who offered his
horse and himself went on foot.
“Though I do not think that our gentleman will look very good with
tramps for servants.”
To make quite certain that the expedition remained secret, Genji took
with him only the man who had been his intermediary in the matter of
the “evening faces” and a page whom no one was likely to recognize. Lest
he be found out even so, he did not stop to see his nurse….! 5!
The lady had his messengers followed to see how he made his way
home and tried by every means to learn where he lived; but her efforts
came to nothing. For all his secretiveness, Genji had grown fond of her and
felt that he must go on seeing her. They were of such different ranks, he
tried to tell himself, and it was altogether too frivolous. Yet his visits were
frequent. In affairs of this sort, which can muddle the senses of the most
serious and honest of men, he had always kept himself under tight control
and avoided any occasion for censure. Now, to a most astonishing degree,
he would be asking himself as he returned in the morning from a visit how
he could wait through the day for the next. And then he would rebuke
himself. It was madness, it was not an affair he should let disturb him. She
was of an extraordinarily gentle and quiet nature. Though there was a
certain vagueness about her, and indeed an almost childlike quality, it was
clear that she knew something about men. She did not appear to be of very
good family. What was there about her, he asked himself over and over
again, that so drew him to her?
He took great pains to hide his rank and always wore travel dress, and
he did not allow her to see his face. He came late at night when everyone
was asleep. She was frightened, as if he were an apparition from an old
story. She did not need to see his face to know that he was a fine gentleman. But who might he be? Her suspicions turned to Koremitsu. It was that
young gallant, surely, who had brought the strange visitor. But Koremitsu
pursued his own little affairs unremittingly, careful to feign indifference
to and ignorance of this other affair. What could it all mean? The lady was
lost in unfamiliar speculations.
Genji had his own worries. If, having lowered his guard with an
appearance of complete unreserve, she were to slip away and hide, where
would he seek her? This seemed to be but a temporary residence, and he
could not be sure when she would choose to change it, and for what other.
He hoped that he might reconcile himself to what must be and forget the
affair as just another dalliance; but he was not confident.
On days when, to avoid attracting notice, he refrained from visiting
her, his fretfulness came near anguish. Suppose he were to move her in
secret to Nijo. If troublesome rumors were to arise, well, he could say that
they had been fated from the start. He wondered what bond in a former! 6!
life might have produced an infatuation such as he had not known before.
“Let’s have a good talk,” he said to her, “where we can be quite at our
“It’s all so strange. What you say is reasonable enough, but what you
do is so strange. And rather frightening.”
Yes, she might well be frightened. Something childlike in her fright
brought a smile to his lips. “Which of us is the mischievous fox spirit? I
wonder. Just be quiet and give yourself up to its persuasions.”
Won over by his gentle warmth, she was indeed inclined to let him
have his way. She seemed such a pliant little creature, likely to submit
absolutely to the most outrageous demands….
The bright full moon of the Eighth Month came flooding in through
chinks in the roof. It was not the sort of dwelling he was used to, and he
was fascinated. Toward dawn he was awakened by plebeian voices in the
shabby houses down the street.
“Freezing, that’s what it is, freezing. There’s not much business this
year, and when you can’t get out into the country you feel like giving up.
Do you hear me, neighbor?”
He could make out every word. It embarrassed the woman that, so
near at hand, there should be this clamor of preparation as people set forth
on their sad little enterprises. Had she been one of the stylish ladies of the
world, she would have wanted to shrivel up and disappear. She was a
placid sort, however, and she seemed to take nothing, painful or embarrassing or unpleasant, too seriously. Her manner elegant and yet girlish,
she did not seem to know what the rather awful clamor up and down the
street might mean. He much preferred this easygoing bewilderment to a
show of consternation, a face scarlet with embarrassment. As if at his very
pillow, there came the booming of a foot pestle, more fearsome than the
stamping of the thunder god, genuinely earsplitting. He did not know
what device the sound came from, but he did know that it was enough to
awaken the dead. From this direction and that there came the faint thump
of fulling hammers against coarse cloth; and mingled with it–these were
sounds to call forth the deepest emotions–were the calls of geese flying
overhead. He slid a door open and they looked out. They had been lying
near the veranda. There were tasteful clumps of black bamboo just outside! 7!
and the dew shone as in more familiar places. Autumn insects sang busily,
as if only inches from an ear used to wall crickets at considerable distances.
It was all very clamorous, and also rather wonderful. Countless details
could be overlooked in the singleness of his affection for the girl. She was
pretty and fragile in a soft, modest cloak of lavender and a lined white
robe. She had no single feature that struck him as especially beautiful, and
yet, slender and fragile, she seemed so delicately beautiful that he was
almost afraid to hear her voice. He might have wished her to be a little
more assertive, but he wanted only to be near her, and yet nearer.
“Let’s go off somewhere and enjoy the rest of the night. This is too
“But how is that possible?” She spoke very quietly. “You keep taking
me by surprise.”
There was a newly confiding response to his offer of his services as
guardian in this world and the next. She was a strange little thing. He
found it hard to believe that she had had much experience of men. He no
longer cared what people might think. He asked Ukon to summon his man,
who got the carriage ready. The women of the house, though uneasy,
sensed the depth of his feelings and were inclined to put their trust in him.
Dawn approached. No cocks were crowing. There was only the voice
of an old man making deep obeisance to a Buddha, in preparation, it would
seem, for a pilgrimage to Mitake. He seemed to be prostrating himself
repeatedly and with much difficulty. All very sad. In a life itself like the
morning dew, what could he desire so earnestly?
“Praise to the Messiah to come,” intoned the voice.
“Listen,” said Genji. “He is thinking of another world.”…
The moon was low over the western hills. She was reluctant to go with
him. As he sought to persuade her, the moon suddenly disappeared behind
clouds in a lovely dawn sky. Always in a hurry to be off before daylight
exposed him, he lifted her easily into his carriage and took her to a nearby
villa. Ukon was with them. Waiting for the caretaker to be summoned,
Genji looked up at the rotting gate and the ferns that trailed thickly down
over it. The groves beyond were still dark, and the mist and the dews were
heavy. Genji’s sleeve was soaking, for he had raised the blinds of the
“This is a novel adventure, and I must say that it seems like a lot of
trouble. I am afraid.”
She did seem frightened, and bewildered. She was so used to all those
swarms of people, he thought with a smile.
The carriage was brought in and its traces propped against the veranda
while a room was made ready in the west wing. Much excited, Ukon was
thinking about earlier adventures. The furious energy with which the
caretaker saw to preparations made her suspect who Genji was. It was
almost daylight when they alighted from the carriage. The room was clean
and pleasant, for all the haste with which it had been readied.
“There are unfortunately no women here to wait upon His Lordship.”
The man, who addressed him through Ukon, was a lesser steward who had
served in the Sanjo mansion of Genji’s father-in-law. “Shall I send for
“The last thing I want. I came here because I wanted to be in complete
solitude, away from all possible visitors. You are not to tell a soul.”
The man put together a hurried breakfast, but he was, as he had said,
without serving women to help him.
Genji told the girl that he meant to show her a love as dependable as
“the patient river of the loons.” He could do little else in these strange
The sun was high when he arose. He opened the shutters. All through
the badly neglected grounds not a person was to be seen. The groves were
rank and overgrown. The flowers and grasses in the foreground were a
drab monotone, an autumn moor. The pond was choked with weeds, and
all in all it was a forbidding place. An outbuilding seemed to be fitted with
rooms for the caretaker, but it was some distance away.
“It is a forbidding place,” said Genji. “But I am sure that whatever
devils emerge will pass me by.”
He was still in disguise. She thought it unkind of him to be so secretive, and he had to agree that their relationship had gone beyond such
“I hid my name from you because I thought it altogether too unkind
of you to be keeping your name from me. Do please tell me now. This
silence makes me feel that something awful might be coming.”
“Call me the fisherman’s daughter.” Still hiding her name, she was! 9!
like a little child.
“I see. I brought it all on myself? A case of warekara?”
And so, sometimes affectionately, sometimes reproachfully, they
talked the hours away.
Koremitsu had found them out and brought provisions. Feeling a little
guilty about the way he had treated Ukon, he did not come near. He
thought it amusing that Genji should thus be wandering the streets, and
concluded that the girl must provide sufficient cause. And he could have
had her himself, had he not been so generous.
Genji and the girl looked out at an evening sky of the utmost calm.
Because she found the darkness in the recesses of the house frightening,
he raised the blinds at the veranda and they lay side by side. As they gazed
at each other in the gathering dusk, it all seemed very strange to her,
unbelievably strange. Memories of past wrongs quite left her. She was
more at ease with him now, and he thought her charming. Beside him all
through the day, starting up in fright at each little noise, she seemed
delightfully childlike. He lowered the shutters early and had lights
“You seem comfortable enough with me, and yet you raise difficulties.”
At court everyone would be frantic. Where would the search be directed? He thought what a strange love it was, and he thought of the
turmoil the Rokujo lady [his previous mistress] was certain to be in.
She had every right to be resentful, and yet her jealous ways were not
pleasant. It was that sad lady to whom his thoughts first turned. Here
was the girl beside him, so simple and undemanding; and the other was so
impossibly forceful in her demands. How he wished he might in some
measure have his freedom.
It was past midnight. He had been asleep for a time when an exceedingly beautiful woman appeared by his pillow.
“You do not even think of visiting me, when you are so much on my
mind. Instead you go running off with someone who has nothing to recommend her, and raise a great stir over her. It is cruel, intolerable.” She
seemed about to shake the girl from her sleep. He awoke, feeling as if he
were in the power of some malign being. The light had gone out. In great
alarm, he pulled his sword to his pillow and awakened Ukon. She too! 10!
“Go out to the gallery and wake the guard. Have him bring a light.”
“It’s much too dark.”
He forced a smile. “You’re behaving like a child.”
He clapped his hands and a hollow echo answered. No one seemed to
hear. The girl was trembling violently. She was bathed in sweat and as if
in a trance, quite bereft of her senses.
“She is such a timid little thing,” said Ukon, “frightened when there
is nothing at all to be frightened of. This must be dreadful for her.”
Yes, poor thing, thought Genji. She did seem so fragile, and she had
spent the whole day gazing up at the sky.
“I’ll go get someone. What a frightful echo. You stay here with her.”
He pulled Ukon to the girl’s side.
The lights in the west gallery had gone out. There was a gentle wind.
He had few people with him, and they were asleep. They were three in
number: a young man who was one of his intimates and who was the son
of the steward here, a court page, and the man who had been his intermediary in the matter of the “evening faces.” He called out. Someone answered
and came up to him.
“Bring a light. Wake the other, and shout and twang your bowstrings.
What do you mean, going to sleep in a deserted house? I believe Lord
Koremitsu was here.”
“He was. But he said he had no orders and would come again at
An elite guardsman, the man was very adept at bow twanging. He
went off with a shouting as of a fire watch. At court, thought Genji, the
courtiers on night duty would have announced themselves, and the guard
would be changing. It was not so very late.
He felt his way back inside. The girl was as before, and Ukon lay face
down at her side.
“What is this? You’re a fool to let yourself be so frightened. Are you
worried about the fox spirits that come out and play tricks in deserted
houses? But you needn’t worry. They won’t come near me.” He pulled
Ukon to her knees.
He reached for the girl. She was not breathing. He lifted her and she
was limp in his arms. There was no sign of life. She had seemed as defense! 11!
less as a child, and no doubt some evil power had taken possession of her.
He could think of nothing to do. A man came with a torch. Ukon was not
prepared to move, and Genji himself pulled up curtain frames to hide the
“Bring the light closer.”
It was a most unusual order. Not ordinarily permitted at Genji’s side,
the man hesitated to cross the threshold.
“Come, come, bring it here! There is a time and place for ceremony.”
In the torchlight he had a fleeting glimpse of a figure by the girl’s
pillow. It was the woman in his dream. It faded away like an apparition
in an old romance. In all the fright and honor, his confused thoughts
centered upon the girl. There was no room for thoughts of himself.
He knelt over her and called out to her, but she was cold and had
stopped breathing. It was too horrible. He had no confidant to whom he
could turn for advice. It was the clergy one thought of first on such
occasions. He had been so brave and confident, but he was young, and this
was too much for him. He clung to the lifeless body.
“Come back, my dear, my dear. Don’t do this awful thing to me.” But
she was cold and no longer seemed human.
The first paralyzing terror had left Ukon. Now she was writhing and
“She can’t possibly be dead.”
He found the strength to speak sharply. “All this noise in the middle of
the night–you must try to be a little quieter.” But it had been too sudden.
He turned again to the torchbearer. “There is someone here who
seems to have had a very strange seizure. Tell your friend to find out where
Lord Koremitsu is spending the night and have him come immediately. If
the holy man is still at his mother’s house, give him word, very quietly,
that he is to come too. His mother and the people with her are not to hear.
She does not approve of this sort of adventure.”
He spoke calmly enough, but his mind was in a turmoil. Added to
grief at the loss of the girl was horror, quite beyond describing, at this
desolate place. It would be past midnight. The wind was higher and whistled more dolefully in the pines. There came a strange, hollow call of a bird.
Might it be an owl? All was silence, terrifying solitude. He should not have
chosen such a place–but it was too late now. Trembling violently, Ukon! 12!
clung to him. He held her in his arms, wondering if she might be about
to follow her lady. He was the only rational one present, and he could
think of nothing to do. The flickering light wandered here and there. The
upper parts of the screens behind them were in darkness, the lower parts
fitfully in the light. There was a persistent creaking, as of someone coming
up behind them. If only Koremitsu would come. But Koremitsu was a
nocturnal wanderer without a fixed abode, and the man had to search for
him in numerous places. The wait for dawn was like the passage of a
thousand nights. Finally he heard a distant crowing. What legacy from a
former life could have brought him to this mortal peril? He was being
punished for a guilty love, his fault and no one else’s, and his story would
be remembered in infamy through all the ages to come. There were no
secrets, strive though one might to have them. Soon everyone would
know, from his royal father down, and the lowest court pages would be
talking; and he would gain immortality as the model of the complete fool.
Finally Lord Koremitsu came. He was the perfect servant who did not
go against his master’s wishes in anything at any time; and Genji was angry
that on this night of all nights he should have been away, and slow in
answering the summons. Calling him inside even so, he could not immediately find the strength to say what must be said. Ukon burst into tears, the
full horror of it all coming back to her at the sight of Koremitsu. Genji too
lost control of himself. The only sane and rational one present, he had held
Ukon in his arms, but now he gave himself up to his grief.
“Something very strange has happened,” he said after a time. “Strange
–‘unbelievable’ would not be too strong a word. I wanted a priest–one
does when these things happen–and asked your reverend brother to
“He went back up the mountain yesterday. Yes, it is very strange
indeed. Had there been anything wrong with her?”
He was so handsome in his grief that Koremitsu wanted to weep. An
older man who has had everything happen to him and knows what to
expect can be depended upon in a crisis; but they were both young, and
neither had anything to suggest.
Koremitsu finally spoke. “We must not let the caretaker know. He
may be dependable enough himself, but he is sure to have relatives who! 13!
will talk. We must get away from this place.”
“You aren’t suggesting that we could find a place where we would be
less likely to be seen?”
“No, I suppose not. And the women at her house will scream and wail
when they hear about it, and they live in a crowded neighborhood, and
all the mob around will hear, and that will be that. But mountain temples
are used to this sort of thing. There would not be much danger of attracting
attention.” He reflected on the problem for a time. “There is a woman I
used to know. She has gone into a nunnery up in the eastern hills. She is
very old, my father’s nurse, as a matter of fact. The district seems to be
rather heavily populated, but the nunnery is off by itself.”
It was not yet full daylight. Koremitsu had the carriage brought up.
Since Genji seemed incapable of the task, he wrapped the body in a
covering and lifted it into the carriage. It was very tiny and very pretty,
and not at all repellent. The wrapping was loose and the hair streamed
forth, as if to darken the world before Genji’s eyes.
He wanted to see the last rites through to the end, but Koremitsu
would not hear of it. “Take my horse and go back to Nijo, now while the
streets are still quiet.”
He helped Ukon into the carriage and himself proceeded on foot, the
skirts of his robe hitched up. It was a strange, bedraggled sort of funeral
procession, he thought, but in the face of such anguish he was prepared
to risk his life. Barely conscious, Genji made his way back to Nijo….