Genji and the Imperial society
Knowledge of a society's family system is essential to understanding that society. In the case of Japan, it is especially important because the family rather than the individual is considered to be the basic unit of society. Furthermore, the family plays an important role in determining individual life direction. Hikaru Genji, the son of the emperor from the classic work of japanese literature, “Tale of Genji” has a major role in this family. Being the second son of the emperor, Genji is thrusted into these imperial ways which evidently causes Genji’s path to turn in many unexpected directions.
Unlike American society, less concerned with social class and power when determining social relationships, Japanese society demonstrated in Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji describes social relationships much more determined by class as well as power. The first chapter in Murasaki Shikibu’s book demonstrates this importance of social stature dealing with relationships. During an undetermined time in Japanese history an emperor who is unnamed falls in love with a strikingly beautiful lady named Kiritsubo. Despite the fact that this lady is of higher rank, she is not fully highborn and must remain a secret for the emperor. As their relationship continues to progress the imperial court eventually finds out about the emperor’s new favorite lady Kiritsubo. This does not sit well with the other royal wives, who are of higher social station, so they routinely speak against this upstart woman who holds the emperor's affections. The emperor is able to keep so many women at court because polygamy was allowed in Japan at the time that Murasaki Shikibu wrote this story. The emperor and many other men, including Genji, are able to be married to several women at once. This is another example of how our societies differ and why japanese families, especially that of the imperial or Yamato dynasty during the Heian period were much larger.
As time goes on Kiritsubo frequently spends her evenings with the emperor. She becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son she names Genji. Just like the mother, Genji becomes the emperor's favorite, more favored than the crown prince. Of course, this creates even more jealousy in the court, especially in the mother of the crown prince, and causes the other ladies to speak against the new favorite even more. Traditionally the crown prince is the eldest son of the emperor and empress which makes him the heir to the throne of Japan. The mother of the crown prince is particularly upset by the fact that Genji is the emperor’s new favorite. If the emperor chose to make Genji the next in line for the throne the crown prince as well as his mother would not reek the social advantages intended for the eldest son.
Although the emperor wishes to name Genji the next crown prince, he resists his temptations in an effort to protect his son. One reason for this is because Genji, unlike the true crown prince, does not have any influential relatives making him worthy. Naming him crown prince may result in unwanted trouble for Genji. Instead, the emperor decides to keep his eldest son as the heir and, to protect his favorite son, gives him the status of a commoner. The emperor knows that without influential maternal relatives, Genji's position as a crown prince would be tentative, especially after his own death. Giving Genji the status of a commoner will eliminate any unwanted jealousy from other royal wives or members of society. Unlike our society where every newborn is considered a common citizen, the emperor from this work of literature must label these children for future rankings within the imperial family.
Eventually Genji's mother grows weary of the constant rumors and stress that come with her position as the emperor's beloved, and she falls ill and dies. This does not sit well with the emperor who was madly in love with her. In order to get his mind off his beloved deceased wife he...
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