Vegder's Blog

February 25, 2013

Genji, Not Genji – Part One: Ishiyamadera

Years ago, actually decades, when I first became interested in Japanese woodblock prints I was shown several prints that I was told were illustrations of The Tale of Genji (源氏物語) by Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部: ca. 978-1014). How did they know they were Genji? Because they had a Genji mon (or crest) somewhere on the print. That’s how! But, let me tell you they were wrong, wrong, wrong. A Genji mon does not a Genji picture make.

eGenji_mon_eg. 2                  Genji_mon_eg. 3c              Genji_mon_1d

Now let’s move forward to just a few years ago. I have a friend who collects Japanese woodblock prints. One day he said to me, look at this, it’s a Genji print. I said: “No it isn’t? It’s a Rustic Genji print and that is not the same thing. The next year we had another conversation about one of the newest additions to his collection. Again, he said: “Look, I got a new Genji print.” And, again  I corrected him. This went on year after year until I just couldn’t stand it anymore and I sent him an e-mail with the subject line “Until I am blue in the face…” In that e-mail I attached a couple of jpegs with printed quotes which explained the difference between true Genji-related images and faux or Rustic Genji ones.

My friend is nothing if not intelligent. He just takes a lot of convincing. I think I succeeded this time. Besides, I operated for years under the same misconceptions and it took me ages to figure out what is Genji and what is not. I have a slow learning curve sometimes. That brings me to the point of this post. I NEVER wanted to tackle the issues of the Genji tale. Too much had already been said. Too much scholarship had been produced. [Some people would say – au contraire, not enough.] And personally I wasn’t sure that I could add anything constructive to the issues involved. But something must have snapped in me and I decided “What the hell, I’ll do it.”

The Great Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919 – On January 15, 1919 a huge vat holding tons of thick, syrupy molasses failed killing 21 people, injuring 150 more, destroying many buildings and seriously damaging part of the structure of an elevated train. Why am I telling you this? Because it seems to me that trying to deal with the Genji/non-Genji issues is akin to trying to sludge one’s way through the muck and the mire left by that disaster. At times it will seem a pointless task and often it will seem impossible., but I will try anyway. Boston recovered, so might I. (Below is a photograph of the Boston disaster. I found it at commons.wikimedia.)


Lady Murasaki drawing inspiration at Ishiyamadera (石山寺) – Fact or Fiction? – In the late nineteenth century Suematsu Kenchō (末松謙澄: 1855- 1920) made the first translation of The Tale of Genji into English. He wrote: “It was the evening of the fifteenth of August. Before her eyes the view extended for miles. In the silver lake below, the pale face of the full moon was reflected in the calm, mirror-like waters, displaying itself in indescribable beauty. Her mind became more and more serene as she gazed on the prospect before her, while her imagination became more and more lively as she grew calmer and calmer. The ideas and incidents of the story, which she was about to write, stole into her mind as if by divine influence.” This is quoted by Linda H. Chance in her essay ‘Genji Guides, or Minding Murasaki’ in Manners and Mischief: Gender, Power, and Etiquette in Japan.

In ‘Divine Impersonations: Nioirin Kannon in Medieval Japan’ Sarah Alizah Fremerman wrote on page 74: “No one really knows if Murasaki ever visited or stayed at Ishiyamadera, though it is possible that many court nobles did visit or go on retreat there in her time.”

Below is a 17th century fan painting of Murasaki leaning on her writing table at Ishiyama Temple.

Honolulu_17th_century_fan_Lady_Murasaki_7    © Honolulu Museum of Art

The earliest woodblock printed version of Murasaki sitting in the covered open space staring out at the moon is from an ehon published in 1713, the Onna Genji kyōkun kagami or ‘Women’s Mirror of Genji Lessons’. The book was authored by a ‘Yama Asako’, a woman’s name, but the author, in fact, was probably a man according to Linda H. Chance. Below is a partial display of a “two-page woodblock illustration…” This image is from a 1796 edition, but is, for all intents and purposes, the same as the one in the 1713 version.


Below is a print by Masunobu (益信) from ca. 1744-48. It shows Lady Murasaki sitting in a sheltered space at the Ishiyama Temple which is located at the south end of Lake Biwa. Many artists painted or printed the 8 famous views of this lake, this temple being one of them. Here Murasaki is looking at an orange moon on the left. The inscriptions on this print identify the other 7 views – if you can read them.

BM_Masunobu_Murasaki_Ishiyamadera_1744_1748_no.7b   © Trustees of the British Museum

Harunobu presented the poet sitting, lost in thought, while drawing inspiration from the moon. This print came out in ca. 1767 and was entitled ‘Faith’ (信). The example shown below is from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


About 17 years later, in ca. 1784, Kiyonaga produced his own version of Murasaki sitting on the engawa at Ishiyama Temple. In this print the moon is out there, but not visible to the viewer. However, knowing the pattern, the moon is implied. Below is the example in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

AIC_Kiyonada_Murasaki_Ishiyama_7   ©The Art Institute of Chicago

Hiroshige gave us his version of Murasaki on a fan print in 1848.

MIA_Hiroshige_fan_Murasaki_Ishiyamadera_7c   Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Yoshitoshi, a man who frequently broke the previous molds  only to give us new ones, presents Murasaki here in the conventional form, wistfully leaning on her writing table while staring at the sky, in his Ishiyama no tsuki (石山月) or Ishiyama moon. John Stevenson wrote about this print: “There is a tradition that Lady Murasaki retired to the temple at Ishiyama, overlooking Lake Biwa, to begin writing. She arrived on the fifteenth evening of the eighth month, when the moon was full, and prayed through the night for divine help in the project. Inspired by the beauty of the moonlight reflected on the lake, she used the nearest paper at hand to write down several long trains of thought before she forgot them. The paper happened to be a scroll of the Daihanya, a Buddhist sutra; later she copied out a new scroll, to atone for using the scripture profanely. This scroll is still shown to visitors to the temple, as is the room in which tradition says she worked.” Later Stevenson adds: “When Yoshitoshi was considering the coloration of this design, the choice for Lady Murasaki’s robe was simple: murasaki means violet. This may be a sort of nickname derived from the family name Fujiwara, which means ‘field of wisteria,’ or it may be derived from a sympathetic character called Murasaki in the text of the novel…. Lady Murasaki in her violet robes was such a well-known figure [by this time, 1889] that Yoshitoshi did not include her name in the title-cartouche.”

BM_Ishiyama_no_tsuki_Yoshitoshi_7b   © Trustees of the British Museum

A slightly different version of this story told by Stevenson is the one told by Roger Riordan and Tozo Takayanagi in their Sunrise Stories: A Glance at the Literature of Japan from 1896.  They relate how Lady Murasaki was told to create a novel for a little princess who was sent to Ise to act as the Sacred Virgin. Nothing like writing one of the world’s most famous love stories for a sacred virgin. Murasaki’s “…choice of a retreat throws a still more curious light on the manners of the day, for she retired to a Buddhist monastery to write her romance, and, being apparently short of parchment, used the back of one of the Sacred Rolls, the Mahaprajnaparamita,* on which to jot down two of her chapters. The identical roll which she later copied out to replace the one she had desecrated is still preserved in the room where it was written, at Ishiyamadera.” The asterisk (*) is the authors: “Or, rather, the Chinese translation.”

Perhaps it was Chikanobu who did break the mold – Below we have a ‘new’ motif. Murasaki is standing there, gathering her wits about her in an elegant and stately manner. If someone created a standing Murasaki at Ishiyamadera before Chikanobu I don’t know who that was. If I find an earlier example and it is available I will display it here for you. If anyone knows of an earlier example please get in touch.


Look at what we got with the age of lithography – Below is a large detail from a colored lithograph by Ariyama Teijirō (有山定次郎) from 1891.


So, what exactly is the Mahaprajnaparamita? – The Prajñāpāramitāhṛdayasūtra is the Heart Sutra, or, as the Japanese call it the Hannya shinkyō (般若心経). It’s obvious that Murasaki Shikibu couldn’t have written on the back of a sutra created on dark blue paper with gold lettering. However, this is what turned up when I began searching for a decent example to show you. Of course, I strayed way far away from my mission. The examples shown below are indeed from a Heart Sutra, just not like the one she used. “Not like the one she used…?” What in the hell am I talking about? The story of Murasaki writing The Tale of Genji by the light of the moon is a fantasy, an apocryphal fantasy. Or… I am completely wrong and she really did sit there getting her inspiration from the moment. True or not, it makes for a lovely account that is just filled with romantic symbolism.

In the General Glossary at the end of volume 2 of Royall Tyler’s magnificent translation of The Tale of Genji he writes: “Legend has it that Murasaki Shikibu conceived the tale there.”

BM_12th_c._Heart_Sutra_Japanese_7b   © Trustees of the British Museum

Both of the examples shown here are from the same sutra, but apparently were photographed under different lighting conditions. Or so it would seem. Also, I think you should know that I chose to post them because I am a complete and total sucker for the beauty of this type of sutra. In fact, I find them among the most aesthetically pleasing works ever produced – and that means from the beginning of time and from all cultures.

BM_Heart_Sutra_detail_7b   © Trustees of the British Museum

The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen says: “The pith sentence of the Heart Sutra is, ‘Form is no other than emptiness; emptiness is no other than form,’ an affirmation that is frequently referred to in Zen.”

Go(ing) to Hell –  Did you know that “According to the Imaka-gami (1170 or 1180) and the Hobutsushū, the famous novelist Murasaki Shikibu is also said to have been damned for telling lies in her Genji monogatari. For this reason, nuns copied sutras to save her as well as her female readers from infernal torments. Gradually, however, Murasaki came to be identified as an avatar of the bodhisattva Kannon of Ishiyamadera, the temple where she is said to have written her novel. As to the Genji monogatari, it was identified with the Lotus Sūtra, and presented as an upāya to realize the impermanence of the world.” This is quoted from footnote 60 in Bernard Faure’s The Power of Denial: Buddhism, Purity and Gender.

Footnote 65 in Faure’s book is equally fascinating. While it isn’t about Murasaki Shikibu it is about another woman at the court, a contemporary and what came to be thought of her.  Steven D. Carter described Izumi Shikibu as ” – perhaps the finest poet of the group. Notorious for her many love affairs even in her own lifetime…” Faure’s note reads: “The sexual element, latent in this story, comes to the foreground in a related story in which the famous courtesan Izumi Shikibu, emulating the bodhisattva Kannon, had vowed to make love to one thousand men to bring them to enlightenment. She almost failed when the last man turned out to be a sickly old mute.” Racy times, those Heian days.

A statue – There is a statue of Murasaki Shikibu at Ishiyamadera. She isn’t staring into space or up at a supposed moon, but rather is looking down and away from the writing table, holding her brush, while  pensively lost in thought. There is more than one bronze casting of this poet in Japan, but this one seems the most fitting to me. I found it posted at commons.wikimedia by 663highland.


Arakida Reiko (荒木田麗子: 1732-1806) wrote at the beginning of her principal work, Iki no mokuzu (池の藻屑) or ‘Weeds Floating on a Pond’, written in a 12th century style: “In the Month of the Falling Leaves, I set out for the capital. Since I had not worshiped for a long time at Ishiyama-dera, I visited it on this occasion. Although the maples in the mountains were still green, the atmosphere of autumn was clearly perceptible and both the capricious forms of the boulders and the mountain streams were possessed of a purity detached from the dust of this floating world. On the surface of the lake, visible in the distance, the autumnal atmosphere was discernible in its feathery waves – a peerless view! In days of yore the court-lady Murasaki Shikibu at first shut herself up in this temple in order to write The Tale of Genji and prayed to the Bodhisattva. It is said that, while viewing the reflection of the mid-autumn moon on the lake, she completed the chapters Suma and Akashi there – a great achievement!” (This is from ‘The Role of Women in Tokugawa Classicism’ by F. Vos, University of Leiden.) Some legends say she composed the whole tale in one night while at Ishiyama-dera. I don’t believe that one either.

Basil Chamberlain threw in his 2¢’s worth – “A little room to the r., known as the Genji no Ma, is said to have been occupied by Murasaki Shikibu, a famous authoress about A.D. 1000, during the composition of her great romance, the Genji Monogatari. A small fee to the custodian will unlock the door, and enable the visitor to inspect the ink-slab she used, an M.S. Buddhist Sûtra said to be in her handwriting, and some mineralogical specimens.” This was published in 1891.

Chamberlain also noted that at the time of his visit “The building [housing the ‘Two-Armed Omnipotent Kwannon] is dingy within. The altar is so dark that the image of Kwannon can barely be distinguished.” He also pointed out that the temple itself was originally ordered by the Emperor Shōmu. It had to be rebuilt by Yoritomo 100 years after a devastating fire in 1078. The main structure was built in the late 16th century by the mother of the Toyotomi Hideyori (豊臣秀頼: 1593-1615).

Kannon miracle – Sarah Alizah Fremerman gives a translation from the Ishiyamadera engi, compiled in 1324-26, in which more details about the fire in 1078 are revealed:

On the second day of the second month of Jōryaku 承暦 2 [1078], there was a fire at this temple, and its central hall burned down, but the main deity flew out of the smoke and alighted on top of a willow tree on an island in the lake, where it shone with light. It is said that one of the monks put it in his sleeve and brought it back.

So, what do we know about Ishiyamadera? – F. Vos (see above) says: It “…was built in 749 by the Kegon priest Ryōben (良弁: 689-773), the founder of the Tōdaiji (728). Because of a revelation seen in a dream he built a smelting-furnace at Ishiyama. Soon afterwards gold was received as a tribute from Mutsu Province which was used in making the Kannon statue.”

Donald Ritchie gives a more thorough account: “…it was said to be in the year 749 that the emperor Shomu requested the famous monk Roben Sojyo to pray for gold. Though it was unusual for a Buddhist clergyman – even of the Nara persuasion – to so openly concern himself with wealth, the reason sanctified the request. A large amount of gold was urgently needed for the gilding of that enormous image of the Buddha that was being cast at Todai-ji. [¶] Roben complied by going into retreat and invoking the powers. A being duly appeared (in a dream) and told Roben to go and pray at a place sacred to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, at Ishiyama. [¶] This he did and shortly afterward a large amount of gold was discovered, though some distance away in Mutsu, the northern part of Honshu. The Buddha was gilded and a temple was consequently constructed and a new image of the Nyoirin Kannon installed at Ishiyama, site of the providential dream. The grateful emperor designated the temple as imperial and by 754 had presented the library with a set of Buddhist canons that he himself, it was said, had copied out.” Ritchie adds that soon the newly gilded Kannon was sequestered in a special shrine and was only shown to the public every 33 years. And, in case you are wondering, the next showing will be in 2024.

Below is an 1858 print designed by both Hiroshige II and Toyokuni III dealing with Ryōben and the statue for Ishiyamadera. The series is based on the miracles of Kannon. Below is the example from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.


I have no concept of what the golden Kannon at Ishiyamadera looked like, but… I did find two more modern examples which might be able to convey a bit of the effect Ryōben’s statue might have made – at least in effect somewhat. The first one is clearly a modern statue placed outdoors. The one at Ishiyama would have been displayed indoors. The image was posted at Flickr by DJ Anderson. That one is on the left. The second one is a Nyoirin golden Kannon which I found at a Japanese web site. If I have infringed upon their copyright by posting this image, I apologize, and will remove it if requested by the appropriate administrator.

Golden_Kannon_DJ_Anderson_Flickr_7b                     Nyoirin_golden_Kannon_7b

Just so you don’t get the wrong idea (again) – Not all images of the temple at Ishiyama include images, fanciful though they are, of Japan’s most famous author. Some simply stress the beauty of the place. Nevertheless, the concept of Murasaki sitting there in deep concentration cannot be far from the mind of any literate Japanese. Her presence is implied – probably. Maybe this is what Hokusai had in mind when he produced an untitled series of the 8 views in the early years of the first decade of the 19th century. Below is his Autumn Moon at Ishiyama (石山の秋の月).

Harvard_Hokusai_Autumn_Moon_Ishiyama_7b   © Harvard University

In 1917 Shinsui, one of the giants of modern Japanese prints, created his own view. Redolent, isn’t it? Next to it is a photo posted by 663highland at commons.wikimedia and appears to be ‘the spot’.

Shinsui_Ishiyamadera_scene_7b_large_detail                         Ishiyamadera_663highland_commons_7

Do you know the way to San Jose? errrr, I mean Ishiyama – Ishiyama meaning stone  (石) mountain (山) is at the southern end of Lake Biwa. Visitors would arrive by boat from Otsu, once for five years the ancient capital of all of Japan. When they had arrived at their destination they would climb the numerous stairs to the temple. Begun in 8th century Ishiyamadera and its gardens seem to grow right out of the rocks. Chris Bamforth wrote in a Japan Times article from May 28, 2004: “Ishiyama-dera’s great pride is that part of the 11th-century ‘Tale of Genji’ was supposedly written here. By way of substantiating its claim, in an alcove next to the main hall a mannequin of author Murasaki Shikibu sits: wistful, brush in hand, looking very much the Heian Period lady. ¶ However, despite the fact that Murasaki is arguably the greatest writer this country has ever produced, the mannequin artist didn’t feel especially compelled to make her look like the sharpest knife in the drawer. The temple pamphlet carefully explains how she did her writing in August 1004, composing her epic by the light of the moon — a romantic piece of fiction that would be worthy of the great author herself. In moonlight is, however, how Ishiyama-dera should be viewed (though the place shuts at 4:30 p.m.).”

Sawa Sekkyō, a minor artist of the early 19th century, created a print of that approach. Below is an example of that print from the collection of the Library of Congress.

LOC_Sawa_Sekkyo_Ishiyamadera_approach_7   Library of Congress

I found an image of some of the stairs on the climb up to the temple. It is a photo posted at commons.wikimedia by Daderot. The rock is identified as Wollastonite and Daderot posted another dramatic picture of it from this local. I have placed that one to the right of the one with the stairs.

Wollastonite_Ishiyamadera_stairs_Daderot_commons_7c   Wollastonite_Ishiyamadera_Otsu_Shiga_Daderot_commons_7b

J. Thomas Rimer quotes a poem by Ishikawa Jōzan (石川丈山: 1583-1672) about a visit to Ishiyama:

Outside the gates of this monastery
we tie our little boat,
climb high among the green mists
and yellow leaves of autumn.
A strip of mountain cloud sweeps off what’s left of the rain;
a waterfall cuts through the cliff,
plunging hundreds of feet to the lake.
Soaring towers, twisting stone paths –
truly habitation for immortals!
Fantastic rocks and bizarre escarpments –
hiding places for spirits!
Here Lady Murasaki wielded her brush
and wrote The Tale of Genji:
was her store [sic?] of love ever accepted
as a volume in the Canon?

Something a little bit off the beaten path – Centuries ago Ishiyamadera controlled more property in their vicinity than they do today. This area was meant to be a sanctuary for all living creatures. Even those in the rivers and the lake nearby. That made them more attractive to poachers. So, the temple had a cadre of soldier priests meant to enforce the anti-poaching rules.

Since it came up let’s tackle the subject of Wollastonite – in a cursory way, at least. One web site says: “…wollastonite has no unusual elements in its chemistry and it is somewhat. common and not considered very exotic among collectors.” Not a good start, eh? It is formed by the contact of limestone and magma with a pinch of silica thrown in. Actually it is the most common form of calcium silicate – CaSiO3. It does have it practical uses in producing heat resistant ceramics and as a filler in paint, in plastics and as a substitute for asbestos. Oh, and automobile brakes, too. This mineral is named after the English chemist and mineralogist William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1828). Among his many accomplishments he is the man who discovered palladium, rhodium and how to process platinum ore. Just for good measure I thought you might want to see what the man the mineral is named after looked like.

NPG_Wollaston_mezzotint_7b    © National Portrait Gallery, London

Wollaston often has a natural pearly luster, but “it is usually white but also may be gray, cream, brown, pale-green, or red depending on the impurities and grain size.” Since I have never been to Ishiyamadera and can’t say if the wollastonite there exhibits this particular quality, but if it does then it must make for quite an effect. According to Robert Virta, in a report published by the USGS said: “Some of the properties that make it so useful are high brightness and whiteness, low moisture and oil absorption, low volatile content, and the acicular nature of some wollastonite.” I had to look up the word ‘acicular’, but luckily it meant just what I thought it would.  Here is a sample of wollastonite from Poland as  posted at commons.wikimedia by Piotr Sosnowski.


Bashō wrote:

I visited a Kannon temple at Nata

whiter than
the rocks of Ishiyama
autumnal wind

Bashō visited Ishiyama with a number of students on October 9, 1691. Prior to that he had stayed for four months at Ishiyama in a hut offered to him in 1690.

Donald Ritchie refers to the feminine nature of Ishiyamadera – “The old guide books to the temples of Kyoto make much of the masculine nature of Enryaku-ji.” Ishiyama on the other hand has a “perceived femininity”. Women went there in times of troubles -being forced into an unwanted marriage or because of spousal abuse – and to make certain, what seemed to them as indelicate, requests. Women went to Ishiyamadera to pray to the ‘concealed Buddha’. “It was here that women came to pray for easy childbirth, for a good marriage, and for deliverance from a marriage which had turned out bad. A presumed gift of the famous Prince Shotoku, this ‘invisible’ Buddha gave hope to many generations of women and is, in fact, still much visited.” Imagine – the invisible Buddha is still there! [The ‘invisible’ part is probably explained further up this page where Ritchie is cited as telling us that the golden Kannon is only shown every 33 years.]

Ritchie added: “Ishiyama-dera was among the first temples to neglect a careful citification, to instead cultivate a certain rustic look. With its rocks… its many gentle levels, and its modest heights, this temple seemed to be almost an elegant country residence. Too, the rocks themselves (wollastonite, an odd combination of limestone and granite, white, it was said, as a woman’s skin) are decorative to a degree. The ‘mountain name’ of the temple is Shakkozan which means ‘Shinning Rock Mountain.’ ”

In time the bond between Murasaki and this temple became inseparable. “In deed, it may be because, according to the Noh drama Genji Kuyo, the Lady Murasaki was actually an incarnation of the local deity, the Ishiyama Kannon. She had written her novel solely, you see, in order to teach the Buddhist truth that the world is but a dream.”

Ihara Saikaku (井原西鶴: 1641-1693) and Ishiyama – Saikaku is credited with the starting the ukiyo-zōshi (浮世草子) genre of literature or ‘books of the floating world’. In Five Women Who Chose Love he starts off one section with a quote from The Tale of Genji. He wrote: ” ‘That which in this world lies quite past our control is the way of love’ – so it is recorded in The Tale of Genji.” The only problem is that this quote does not occur in the original. Ivan Morris in his notes to The Life of an Amorous Woman points out that no such passage exists in the original. “Saikaku may have found the spurious quotation in the Shinyūki (1643), and he himself had already cited it in his Kōshoku Nidai Otoko (1684) as coming from the volume in Genji entitled Kashiwagi.

Back to Donald Ritchie: “The hero of Saikaku’s The Life of an Amorous Man was here enjoying the view over Lake Biwa, and overheard a most attractive lady explaining to a companion that this was the very spot where The Tale of Genji was composed. Intrigued, he drew closer and, in so doing, caught the lady’s sleeve on his sword guard. Or she caught his. In either case they became lovers.”

Please take note that I have just started this post. It is in its infancy. And like all infants it should be dealt with gingerly. If you do that and come back often you will see it grow and grow and grow. How much? That is hard to tell, but this much I know – it will be large (relatively speaking, that is).

1 Comment »

  1. I take your point, and appreciate the distinction you are trying to draw. However, given the preponderance of mitate-e and other images which are in one way or another related to, or referring to, the Genji but are twisting it in one way or another, are there in fact any “true” Genji prints out there? If the Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji is not “true” Genji, then can any of these other prints, imagining a fictionalized or mythologized version of Murasaki, or of Genji, be “true” Genji prints?

    Comment by toranosuke — February 25, 2013 @ 5:51 pm | Reply

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