Ask; Tell

22 Jun

I started out writing a long comment to the previous post about Genji and Women, but I’m selfishly going to keep it for a post of my own, since it segues nicely.

I come to The Tale of Genji from a nonacademic, vaguely middlebrow vantage point—basically, I’m a sucker for a good epic tale. But I’m also an armchair anthropologist, and I appreciate the care Royall Tyler has taken with this translation. As exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting—that print doesn’t get any bigger as the hour grows later) as the footnotes are, they’re endlessly helpful on all sorts of cultural and linguistic subtleties that I might not even think to question otherwise. I find, four chapters in, that the experience has gotten smoother: My eye is getting the muscle memory of bouncing between text and footnotes, and the effect is something like the point in a foreign movie where you suddenly seem to hear the subtitles being spoken aloud. Also, the layering of the endless multiple meanings is getting easier to anticipate, if not suss out—Tyler’s done that work for us.

So because I’m a geek and always read the Introduction, I can tell you that Tyler is inclined to interpret much of the veiled language as euphemism for intercourse: for instance, yume, “dream,” and katarau, “chatting.” He also points out that because of the proscriptions against unaffiliated men and women actually looking at each other straight on—hence the endless delicacies of screens and latticework—he calls out that first encounter between Genji and Utsusemi as a rape: “Genji’s having ‘seen’ Utsusemi in a pitch-dark room (chapter 2) means bluntly that he has possessed her.” Thus, also, the fabulously straightforward Freudian appeal of Genji’s Peeping Tom habits: “through a crack in a fence, a hole in a sliding panel, a gap in a curtain.” No wonder the young man was such a rake, with all that codified titillation at every turn.

But at the end of The Broom Tree, Tyler’s willingness to annotate all these sexual nuances stutters and skips a fairly major beat. In the wake of Utsusemi’s rejection of his advances, Genji engages Kogimi, her preadolescent brother, in service. On the surface this is a good devious plan: The boy can carry private messages to his sister without arousing suspicion, and he can keep Genji apprised of her whereabouts. But being used as a go-between discomfits Kogimi, as he’s torn between loyalty to his sister and wanting to please his master—the text makes it clear that everyone involved is quite aware of this:

Genji, whose plans were laid, had his entourage retire early and sent her a note, but her brother could not find her. Only after hunting high and low did he go down the bridgeway and come across her at last. “He’ll think I’m no use at all!” the boy cried, nearly weeping with anger and frustration.

“I will not have you take this awful attitude!” she scolded him. “They say a child should never carry such messages. Tell him that I am not feeling well and that I have kept my women with me for a massage. Everyone will be wondering what you are doing here.”

Genji, crushed and angry, demands to see Utsusemi; Kogimi is torn, but doesn’t dare take him to where she is sequestered with the other women. The chapter ends as follows:

“Very well, then you, at least, shall not leave me.” Genji had the boy lie down with him. The boy so appreciated his master’s youth and gentleness that they say Genji found him much nicer than his cruel sister.

And for this, there are no footnotes. All of a sudden Tyler is uncharacteristically silent.

I don’t pretend to be particularly knowledgeable about historical gender identity issues, but I do know that there was a tradition of homoerotic relationships among Japanese Buddhists and their young acolytes, similar to the arrangements in Greek and Arab cultures and probably most other places as well (anyone better-schooled in LGBT studies than I am, please chip in or disagree). A quick Google survey confirms that homosexuality in ancient Japan wasn’t strictly considered a sin in either a religious or social context, although I’m sure it was subject to just as many constraints and taboos in terms of conduct—no doubt a lot more—as heterosexual relations.

So why the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell treatment from Tyler? If we were reading the Waley translation from 1933 it would make more sense; even from Seidenstricker in the ’70s. But it seems strange to have this passage—the conclusion of an action-packed, sex-saturated chapter—glossed over in a 21st-century translation. Even if mention of boy love offends Tyler’s sensibilities, doesn’t he have a responsibility to put the work first? It seems a shame that he should pull back from such obviously dedicated research because either he finds a custom distasteful or—worse—he imagines the reader will, and wants to spare us. I found the omission jarring, coming at the climax (sorry) of a great chapter, and I’m wondering if anyone else was as bothered by it.

Moronobu Hishikawa (1618-1694), Male couple on a futon


6 Responses to “Ask; Tell”

  1. Chris Kern June 22, 2010 at 8:41 am #

    I think the reason for the omission is that it’s very hard to say for certain exactly what happens here. For the other things (yume, etc.) there’s a lot of other evidence you can point to to build a case for what it means. But if we look at Genji, the poetic tradition at the time, and other tales preceding Genji, there is nothing that would suggest homosexual relationships. Of course we can say that they occurred, as they must have occurred in any society, but they do not seem to have been a part of the tradition of courtly decorum that Murasaki was writing about. Perhaps a note of some sort should have been included but none of the Japanese editions have notes either, so maybe Tyler was unwilling to make an interpretative leap of that kind.

  2. Lisa Peet June 23, 2010 at 7:33 pm #

    True, but Tyler’s willing to give every other euphemism the benefit of the prurient doubt, and makes sure we know when there are two possible meanings to anything. That’s an odd instance of delicacy on his part.

  3. Chris Kern June 23, 2010 at 10:23 pm #

    Well, I’m not sure it’s necessary delicacy — reading some of Tyler’s other articles, he has some interesting and offbeat takes on Genji, but none of them made it into the notes of his translation. I think he wanted to stay fairly conservative with the notes; all the double meanings and euphemisms he discusses in the notes are standard, well-accepted interpretations that can be found in most Japanese editions of the Tale. As I said in my previous post, none of the Japanese editions (that I have) have any note about this or any mention of what it means — this could definitely be delicacy or squeamishness on the Japanese commentator’s part, but Japanese editions tend to be pretty conservative as well.

    There must be some article somewhere on this topic. I remember Ivan Morris mentioning it in World of the Shining Prince, but I think he basically said what I’m saying here, that this single mention is not really enough to say for sure whether homosexuality was accepted as part of the “ideal” culture that would have been represented in such a tale.

    • Royall Tyler June 24, 2010 at 8:40 pm #

      (If I may… A correspondent brought this discussion to my attention.)

      The absence of a note at this point has nothing to do with squeamishness, discomfort, disapproval, or any other such feeling. I just didn’t think that anything further about the sentence needed explaining. The most I could have done would have been to assure the reader, “Yes, you didn’t dream what you just read. The book really says that. For whatever reason that was apparently acceptable to Murasaki Shikibu’s audience.” But why add yet another footnote to say something that obvious?

      But if anyone is interested, I much more recently published an essay on this sort of issue. It isn’t the last word on the subject, and it by no means answers all the questions that arise. But I put together, and tried within my limits to reflect on, all the related material that the Tale itself offers on this theme. The essay is entitled “Feminine Veils over Visions of the Male,” and it’s chapter 7 of a volume of Genji essays. The volume (individual chapters or the whole book at once) is available for free download at

      • lisa peet June 25, 2010 at 12:44 pm #

        Thank you for your reply, Mr. Tyler. I very much appreciate your taking the time to weigh in, and I certainly don’t mean to rake you over the coals for your discretion. I dislike kneejerk political correctness as much as anyone, but I do find myself wanting to speak up when I perceive silence, and since this blog is all about taking note of what strikes us in the course of our reading it seemed appropriate. And in fact, having opened up this whole dialogue is really pleasing. It seems to me this is exactly what this kind of group commentary is about. Again, Mr. Tyler, thanks.

  4. Chris Kern June 25, 2010 at 8:23 am #

    Thanks for the response! I guess I was wrong in my suppositions, then.

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