The basis of The Tale of Ise is criticism of power

Many people might think that The Tale of Ise and The Tale of Genji, written in the early to the middle Heian Period, are romance stories of the aristocratic society of the day.

However, the components of these stories are more than that. The relationship with reality behind these romantic stories indicates the reason why these stories have been read for more than a thousand years.

For example, The Tale of Ise is said to have become its present form between the death of Ariwara no Narihira (825-880) and the early 11th century, however, its author is anonymous. It is the biography of a man mainly about his love affairs. It consists of 125 short stories and is called a poetic tale since characters’ emotions and feelings are shown by Waka (Japanese poetry).

On the other hand, The Tale of Ise was said to be the diary of Narihira, one of the six major poets of Kokin Wakashu (a collection of Japanese poetry of the Heian period). However, today, it is generally thought to include a lot of fiction.

For example, the love story of Narihira and Nijo no Kisaki (Fujiwara no Takaiko), Nyogo (a court lady) of a real emperor, the Emperor Seiwa (who ruled from 858 to 876) is famous as the forbidden love of a young couple. However, it lacks reality considering the actual difference in the ages of Narihira and Nijo no Kisaki (17 years).

The forbidden love with Saigu of the Ise-jingu Shrine (a maiden imperial princess serving the Deities of the Ise-jingu Shrine) is also famous, though, it doesn’t seem to be true that their child was Takashina no Moronao.

These episodes might have been created for Narihira, who was not only famous as a good-looking man but had poetic talent.

Instead, I think “Nagisa no In” (section 82) is one of the remarkable stories. This section is about men’s close relationships such as hunting and parties under the cherry blossoms.

The center of the scenes is Prince Koretaka. He was the first Prince of the Emperor Montoku (who ruled from 850 to 858), who couldn’t become the successor of the Imperial Throne because a daughter of the Fujiwara no Yoshifusa, who had entered into the Imperial Court, gave birth to a boy.

In fact, Narihira was also a grandchild of the Emperor Heizei (who ruled from 806 to 809), however, descendants of Emperor Heizei lost the possibility of imperial succession in Kusuko no Hen in 810, and later, they were demoted from nobility to subject. In other words, they were excluded from power.

I think people of the day had antipathy to the Fujiwara clan who exerted power at that time and sympathy toward the losers’ resentment, and that’s why these stories such as men gathering and deepening their relationship or scandalous stories between a handsome man, Narihira, and noble ladies such as an empress or Saigu, were created.

I mean, The Tale of Ise is not just an entertainment book of love and scandal, but the fact that the main character of the story is clearly known to be Narihira reflects feelings and criticism by people of the day.

Actually, at that time, when noblemen gathered, it was natural to create Chinese poetry. However, in The Tale of Ise, men enjoyed cherry blossoms and made Japanese poetry. This can be seen as defiance toward the mainstream of the aristocratic society of the day.

Hikaru Genji is also a man excluded from power

The Tale of Genji, which was written after The Tale of Ise, has the same kind of structure.

First of all, the main character Hikaru Genji is a son of Koi (a court lady of lower status), who was favored most by the Emperor of the day, and Genji’s looks and talent were suitable for Emperor. However, a prince born earlier by Kokiden no Nyogo, a daughter of Udaijin (Minister of the Right) became Togu (Crown Prince) and Genji was demoted from nobility to subject. Though Hikaru Genji is likely considered to have a brilliant life, he is also a man excluded from power.

And like the main character of The Tale of Ise, Genji committed adultery with Hujitsubo, who later became the empress of his father, and she gave birth to Genji’s child. The child ascended the throne and reopened Genji’s way of glory, which had been closed. In this sense, this is the story of the reinstatement of a man who had been excluded from power, which was a rare case in real society.

The family of Udaijin and Kokiden no Nyogo in the tale represent the Fujiwara clan and their daughters who enter into the Imperial Court in reality. Genji was given a hostile look from Kokiden no Nyogo and left Kyoto for Suma.

During that time, the family of Udaijin exerted power and ruled the Imperial Court. The author Murasaki Shikibu never wrote about that period as a good time. She described everyone as feeling uncomfortable.

Furthermore, in reality, the Fujiwara clan employed strategies to make their daughters empresses (Chugu) as the base of their power structure. However, in the tale, empresses were from Genji (a royal family) over three generations, not from the family of Udaijin. This indicates a criticism of marriages of convenience, and it seems that Murasaki Shikibu had an ideal empress in her mind.

For example, Fujitsubo, who bore the prince the Emperor expected to be a new imperial heir, became the empress ahead of Kokiden no Nyogo, the mother of Togu (the first Prince). In real history, however, no one became the empress ahead of Togu’s mother.

Then what kind of person was Fujitsubo? Her father was the previous emperor and her mother was his empress, so her social status was perfect. That is to say, Murasaki Shikibu might have thought the empress was of a similar rank as the emperor and a royal family member was suitable for the position.

She might have thought the empresses of the emperor of the time, the Emperor Ichijo, Teishi and Shoshi, who were from the Fujiwara clan, a subject’s family and very young in their early teens, were inadequate as an empress.

Murasaki Shikibu herself was a kind of tutor of Shoshi who entered into the Imperial Court, a daughter of Fujiwara no Michinaga. She might have aimed to lead Shoshi to be an ideal empress of similar rank as the emperor.

On the other hand, Hikaru Genji had a lot of love affairs, but the relationships were changing from temporary, self-willed love to long-lasting connections showing concern for and taking care of the ladies to the end. In contrast, his political marriages with Aoi no Ue or Onna Sannomiya didn’t go well.

I think these love stories were written from the perspective of a female author.

There are more viewpoints special to a female author which tell us people have not changed for a thousand years.

For example, women had dissatisfaction and jealous feelings because Hikaru Genji had relationships with other women at the same time. It was shameless for noblewomen to speak of such feelings.

However, Rokujo no Miyasudokoro, the widow of a former crown prince who died before the Emperor Kiritsubo, who had a high status and pride as a woman, became Genji’s lover, and once she was humiliated by the group of Aoi no Ue, the legal wife of Genji, her vengeful spirit escaped from her body out of vexation.

Her vengeful spirit killed Aoi no Ue, and after her own death, Rokujo no Miyasudokoro became a ghost and haunted Murasaki no Ue.

Until The Tale of Genji, there was no story of a woman becoming a vengeful ghost. Why did Murasaki Shikibu made a woman a vengeful ghost?

In fact, Rokujo no Miyasudokoro became talkative as a ghost after she died as if freed from something. This means that Murasaki Shikibu made a woman a ghost in order that she could speak of a woman’s true feelings that she couldn’t speak of when she was alive such as resentment against a man or curses on hateful people.

Furthermore, Aoi no Ue and Murasaki no Ue also had their own worries and dissatisfactions. They were haunted as if waves of such feelings resonated with the feelings of Rokujo no Miyasudokoro. This might be a female author’s perspective as well.

The characters’ feelings, behavior and ways of life seem to be the same as ours today, not just those of a thousand years ago.

The opening story of The Tale of Genji about Kiritsubo no Koi facing harassment is likely to happen even today. And basically, a social structure by which a person who left the right path can hardly be reinstated, which underlies The Tale of Ise and The Tale of Genji, doesn’t seem to have changed even up to today.

In other words, people in adversity today can find out that they are not alone through classical literature.

Classical literature tells us that though there have been many difficulties for over a thousand years, people have been seeking new ways of life, and there have been supporters for them.

In The Tale of Genji, a woman called Tamakazura, in her misfortune, looked for the same kind of person as her by reading fiction. Murasaki Shikibu expected that people with similar feelings would read her stories.

Akashi no Nyudo (Priest Akashi) who Genji met in Suma began living in a mountain to get his affairs in order and left his will to his wife and a daughter when he knew his granddaughter had entered into the Imperial Court and gave birth to a boy saying that he attained his long-cherished desire, and was not trying to exert power.

When I expound this story in a culture center, elderly people listen seriously. They seem to see themselves in Akashi no Nyudo, who knew when it was time to leave and withdraw from life without leaving a trace.

Classical literature can be read again and again. Reading in older age, stories or characters which didn’t leave any impression on us when we were young sometimes strike us. It is because people have joys and worries specific to their age, however old they are. Classical literature tells us that such joys and worries are not just our own.

* The information contained herein is current as of December 2020.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.


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