The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan

The World of the Shining PrinceAuthor: Ivan Morris
Publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9781568360294
Released: June 1994
Original release: 1964

Several years ago I read the entirety of The Tale of Genji, a novel written by Murasaki Shikibu in the eleventh century. It was a pretty big undertaking, but absolutely worth it. I love the novel. Ever since finishing The Tale of Genji for the first time, I’ve been meaning to read Ivan Morris’ The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. The volume takes its title from the hero of The Tale of Genji who is referred to as the shining prince due to his exquisite visage and exceptional character. In many ways, The World of the Shining Prince serves as a companion to The Tale of Genji as Morris explores the historical reality of the aristocracy of Heian-era Japan. The World of the Shining Prince was originally published in 1964. Beginning in 1994, later editions of the work also include an introduction by Barbara Ruch. I recently read and was rather impressed by another of Morris’ works, The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan, and so was looking forward to reading The World of the Shining Prince even more.

In addition to the introductions, preface, appendices, bibliography, and topical index, The World of the Shining Prince examines a number of different aspects of tenth-century Japan, Heian court society, and The Tale of Genji within it ten chapters. Morris begins with a broad overview of the era in the first chapter, “The Heian Period.” Though the Heian Period lasted from 782 to 1167, The World of the Shining Prince largely, but not exclusively, focuses on the 900s. The next chapter, “The Setting” looks at Heian architecture, city planning, and geography. From there Morris delves into more detailed analysis of Heian culture in the chapters “Politics and Society,” “Religions,” and “Superstitions.” Next, attention is specifically turned to the Heian nobility and aristocracy. “The Good People and Their Lives” details day-to-day activities, amusements, and ceremonies while “The Cult of Beauty” looks at the particular aesthetics of the era. The eighth chapter, “The Women of Heian and their Relations with Men” outlines household and family structures as well as the place of romantic liaisons. The World of the Shining Prince concludes with chapters devoted to Murasaki Shikibu and to The Tale of Genji itself.

Although written more than five decades ago, The World of the Shining Prince has held up remarkably well. Admittedly, it is nearly impossible to write a completely objective cultural study—Morris’ analysis is informed and influenced by his own cultural subjectivity. In the half-century since The World of the Shining Prince was written, Western thought and scholarly approaches to cultural analysis have also changed. (For example, as Ruch mentions in her introduction, views on gender politics and the relationship between religion and superstition has shifted over the years.) The World of the Shining Prince is a product of its time, but that doesn’t at all diminish its value as a resource on Heian-era Japan, and more specifically on Japanese court life in the tenth century. Additionally, the volume is written with a general audience in mind. It is quite approachable, even for the average reader, and is engagingly written. Granted, the subject mater of The World of the Shining Prince is fascinating to being with.

Although Morris does provide some important general context within which he situates The World of the Shining Prince, the volume’s scope is relatively narrow, concentrating on a very specific part of Heian society. However, this specificity also allows him to explore that subject from several different perspectives. Information about the Heian Period is somewhat limited, especially in regards to the lower classes, which is another reason that The World of the Shining Prince is so focused on the era’s nobility. The Tale of Genji is a major source for Morris’ study of the Heian-era Japan, as are other works of contemporary literature—The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon especially features prominently—as well as diaries and court records from the time period. The World of the Shining Prince is an extremely informative and absorbing work. It’s more than just a companion to The Tale of Genji and reaches beyond its literary connections. The volume should appeal to anyone interested in learning more about classical  Japanese history.

The Tale of Genji

Author: Murasaki Shikibu
Translator: Royall Tyler
U.S. publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 9780142437148
Released: November 2002
Original release: 11th century

When I began looking for an English edition of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji to read, I had only two major requirements. First, I wanted a complete and unabridged translation, and second, I wanted a translation that was true to the original. The most comprehensive edition that I was able to find, and the one I ended up reading, was Royall Tyler’s translation. Penguin first released Tyler’s translation of The Tale of Genji in 2001 as a two-volume hardcover box set and then later in 2003 in a massive single-volume paperback edition (which is the version I own and read.) I wanted to read The Tale of Genji for several reasons. It is a major work of Japanese literature that continues to be highly influential. It was also written during the Heian period in the eleventh century, making it one of the first novels to have been written. But one of the primary reasons I wanted to read The Tale of Genji was to understand all of the references made to it that I keep coming across.

The Tale of Genji is an epic, inter-generational story filled with court intrigue, passion, desire and longing, with just a touch of the supernatural. It’s almost like reading a Heian period soap opera. The eponymous Genji is the son of the Emperor’s favorite Intimate. An exceptional man in both appearance and character, much of The Tale of Genji follows his life and romantic exploits. And because of his good looks, he is able to get away with much more than he really should. The last third of the novel turns to the lives of his heirs and descendants and their own romantic follies. While there is certainly an overarching narrative to The Tale of Genji, the novel frequently feels like a collection of very closely interconnected short stories. There is also a fair amount of humor in the tale. It’s as if the reader is privy to the best court gossip and scandals.

One of the things that I love about Tyler’s translation of The Tale of Genji is that it is so much more than just a translation. In addition to the copious and very helpful footnotes, Tyler provides an abundance of other useful information about the work and its context in the form of an extensive introduction, maps and diagrams, a chronology, general glossary, explanations of the importance of clothing and color, descriptions of offices and titles, a summary of the numerous poetic allusions, a list of characters, and suggestions for further reading. Each chapter begins with an explanation of its title, its relationships to other chapters, and indicates which characters are involved and the current title by which they are known. Also included are delightful line illustrations by Minoru Sugai depicting scenes and objects from The Tale of Genji, originally commissioned by Shogakukan Publishing. The only thing missing that I would have liked to have seen would be a family and relationship chart since things can get pretty complicated.

Granted, I haven’t read any others to be able to compare, but I am very glad that I chose Tyler’s translation of The Tale of Genji. Because Tyler remains so faithful to the original Japanese it’s not always an easy read due to the amount of detail that must be gleaned from context rather than being explicitly stated and the complicated sentence structures. But Tyler offers plenty of guidance for the reader who wants it and I found his translation to be both elegant, accessible, and informative. Even excluding the additional material provided by Tyler, The Tale of Genji is a lengthy novel. Instead of ploughing through the book like I might have, I chose to take my time with the novel, reading a few chapters every few weeks and extending my enjoyment over a long period. Reading The Tale of Genji was a wonderfully immersive experience into Heian period Japan. For me, it was completely worth the time and effort required to really appreciate the tale.