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Shikibu’s “Tale of Genji” as Japan’s Cultural Legacy

Having been detached culturally from the West, Japan has always been a mystery to the rest of the world with its unique culture and philosophy. However, even though Japan has undergone substantial changes over the course of its development, some of the cultural markers of the bygone era remain essential in the perception of Japan by foreigners. Examining the factors that have led to the specified idea of Japan and its aesthetics, one must mention the “Tale of Genji,” known as the first known epic, as the likely culprit. Centering on the life of the aristocracy of the Heian Period, the “Tale of Genji” captures the essence of the values of the period, portraying the alluring and irresistible aesthetics of power.

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The aesthetic aspect of the “Tale of Genji” is, perhaps, its most easily recognizable aspect since it incorporates the cultural elements and artifacts that currently represent japan in the global context for most foreigners. Thus, in a way, the “Tale of Genji” keeps Japan in the same unchangeable status for outside readers, representing Japanese culture in its embryo shape. Specifically, the novel features the aesthetics of exquisiteness and refinement, particularly the author lauding elegance as the purest form of aesthetic delight and the focus on passion and lust as the manifestations of human nature.

At the same time, the emphasis on composure and the ability to remain reserved in the face of grief and strong emotions, in general, is also prevalent in the novel. The specified philosophy shines especially evidently in the descriptions of how the leading characters control the expression of their feelings. For instance, the novel provides the following description of an old woman’s grieving: “Although it is a bitter fate to live on after the death of my child, I am deeply humbled that a messenger from the Emperor should part the dew on these overgrown grasses just to make her way to my abode” (Murasaki). The poetic description of the tragic feeling of overwhelming loss that the woman experiences indicates that the described culture struggles between prioritizing the aesthetics of the expression and the need for experiencing emotions in a raw and uninhibited manner.

Thus, the novel depicts the aesthetic specifics of the Heian Period quite accurately, encapsulating the era and cementing the aristocratic perspective on art in Chinese culture as the traditional and ubiquitously known interpretation of Chinese culture. Although the lack of a critical perspective makes the specified portrayal of Chinese culture of the aristocracy era slightly controversial, with the struggles of the lower-class citizens being largely dismissed and ignored, it still cements the image of Japanese culture perfectly. As a result, the novel becomes a priceless specimen of Japanese cultural legacy, allowing one to take a glimpse at the epoch that defined the current perception of japan.

The socioeconomic perspective allows pinpointing the unique nature of “Tale of Genji’s” aesthetic and defining the main message that it strives to convey. Namely, the focus on power as the main driving force behind the aesthetic of the Heian Period becomes evident after considering some of the key cultural markers of the time period referred to in the novel. The relationships between men and women in the novel, particularly the presence of gender roles and competition and unwavering compliance with them portrayed in the novel, shed a particularly harsh light on the dynamics of power within the novel. Specifically, Genji spies on women and watches them surreptitiously: “That night I saw her relaxing and playing Go with her stepdaughter, my lady of the molted cicada shell possessed a modesty and grace that more than made up for her ugly profile” (Murasaki).

In turn, the novel does not portray the specified actions as worthy of reproach; instead, the author mentions the specified inclination of Genji in passing (Murasaki). Thus, the novel cements the culture in which the oppression of women and the absence of equality in the relationships between men and women are normalized. The specified perspective is particularly characteristic of the Heian Period, where the aristocracy, represented mostly by affluent men, defined the traditions and values to be upheld (Murasaki). Therefore, the power dynamics depicted in the novel in relation to sex-based oppression are quite striking.

Despite the focus on the concept of exquisiteness and elegance as some of the key markers of the Heian period, the book unmistakably outlines the aesthetics of power as the main driving force behind the relationships between the characters and the key reasoning behind their decision-making. The presence of power and the idea of not only accepting but also lauding it and the perspectives that it introduces emanate from every interaction within the novel. For instance, the culture of aristocracy and the associated beliefs, particularly the focus on patriarchy and the promotion of a rigid social structure with corresponding principles of wealth distribution, is rendered in the scene depicting the contest designed for Emperor Reizei. Specifically, the author depicts the role that sox women play in the specified arrangement: “Six young page girls sat next to the stands, each wearing a ceremonial outer robe of white with red lining and layered robes of scarlet and wisteria underneath” (Murasaki).

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Although the scene itself cannot be considered quite egregious, the following clarification about the perception of the women’s appearance makes the scene quite questionable: “They looked truly beautiful—not only because of their appearance but also because their bearing revealed how well they had been trained” (Murasaki). Thus, the author demonstrates the propensity toward objectification of women in the Heian culture as the direct effect of the aristocratic perceptions of culture defined by centuries of patriarchal tradition (Murasaki). Thus, while the book represents quite a number of references to the importance of the cultural contribution of the Heian period, it also details, even if unintentionally, the drastic effects of the patriarchal ideas that the aristocratic perspective promoted, reinforcing the concepts of class- and sex-based oppression.

Focusing on the aristocracy of the Heian Period as the end of the classic Japanese aesthetic, which is it mostly known in the West, the “Tale of Genji” encapsulates the era by depicting the aesthetics of uninhibited and expressive power. Representing the turn of the era and the last breath of the Japanese aristocracy as the driving cultural force, the “Tale of Genji” is a perfect time capsule in its aesthetic representation of Japan.

From the art mentioned and incorporated in the novel to the manner in which the relationships between the characters are depicted, the “Tale of Genji” is filled to the brim with ideas and symbols that represent the aesthetics of aristocracy. Combining the ideas of hedonism with the emphasis on familial bonds, the “Tale of Genji” represents a unique slice of the Heian time period, therefore, cementing some of the crucial ethical principles such as family values.

Work Cited

Murasaki, Shikibu. Tale of Genji. Translated by Dennis Washburn, W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.

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