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three pairs of lovers with space


Genji monogatari源氏物語 (Tale of Genji), the oldest Japanese novel and a classic masterpiece with a profound influence on Japanese literature ever since, was written in about AD 1008 by Murasaki Shikibu, a noblewoman and imperial lady-in-waiting. It describes the life of Genji, the admired son of a Japanese emperor by a concubine, concentrating on his romantic life, and it thus offers priceless insight into mores at the imperial court of the time.

There is only one allusion to homosexuality. When Genji is seventeen, he befriends Kogimi, a boy of twelve or thirteen, both for the sake of Kogimi’s own beauty and to enlist his help in seducing Kogimi’s elder sister. The friendship is clearly emotional, and at one stage in Genji’s failure to seduce the sister, it is mentioned almost incidentally that he consoles himself in bed with Kogimi. Presented here is the entire story of their interaction.

The translation followed is by Edward C. Seidensticker (The Tale of Genji, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1976).

Chapter Two.  The Broom Tree

"Genji lay wide awake, not pleased at the prospect of sleeping alone" (above) and his later encounter with Utsusemi (below) by Tosa Mitsunobu, 1510

Genji has come to stay in the house of the governor of Kii:

Genji found a cool place out near the veranda and lay down. His men were quiet. Several young boys were present, all very sprucely dressed, sons of the host and of his father, the governor of Iyo. There was one particularly attractive lad of perhaps twelve or thirteen.[1] Asking who were the sons of whom, Genji learned that the boy was the younger brother of the host's stepmother, son of a guards officer no longer living. His father had had great hopes for the boy and had died while he was still very young. He had come to this house upon his sister's marriage to the governor of Iyo. He seemed to have some aptitude for the classics, said the host, and was of a quiet, pleasant disposition; but he was young and without backing, and his prospects at court were not good. [p. 47]

Later that evening:

Genji lay wide awake, not pleased at the prospect of sleeping alone. He sensed that there was someone in the room to the north. It would be the lady of whom they had spoken.[2] Holding his breath, he went to the door and listened.

“Where are you?” The pleasantly husky voice was that of the boy who had caught his eye.

“Over here.” It would be the sister. The two voices, very sleepy, resembled each other. “And where is our guest? I had thought he might be somewhere near, but he seems to have gone away.”

“He's in the east room.” The boy's voice was low. “I saw him. He is every bit as handsome as everyone says.” [p. 48]

That night Genji fails to seduce the boy’s sister (Utsusemi). The next day,

Spending most of his time now at Sanjō,[3] he thought sadly of the unapproachable lady. At last he summoned her stepson, the governor of Kii.

“The boy I saw the other night, your foster uncle. He seemed a promising lad. I think I might have a place for him. I might even introduce him to my father.”

“Your gracious words quite overpower me. Perhaps I should take the matter up with his sister.”

Genji's heart leaped at the mention of the lady. “Does she have children?”

“No. She and my father have been married for two years now, but I gather that she is not happy. Her father meant to send her to court.”

“How sad for her. Rumor has it that she is a beauty. Might rumor be correct?”

“Mistaken, I fear. But of course stepsons do not see a great deal of stepmothers.”

Several days later he brought the boy to Genji. Examined in detail the boy was not perfect, but he had considerable charm and grace. Genji addressed him in a most friendly manner, which both confused and pleased him. Questioning him about his sister, Genji did not learn a great deal. The answers were ready enough while they were on safe ground, but the boy's self−possession was a little disconcerting. Genji hinted rather broadly at what had taken place. The boy was startled. He guessed the truth but was not old enough to pursue the matter.

Utsusemi by Toyohara Kunichika, 1884

Genji gave him a letter for his sister. Tears came to her eyes. How much had her brother been told? she wondered, spreading the letter to hide her flushed cheeks.

It was very long, and concluded with a poem:

I yearn to dream again the dream of that
The nights go by in lonely wakefulness.
There are no nights of sleep.

The hand was splendid, but she could only weep at the yet stranger turn her life had taken.

The next day Genji sent for the boy.

Where was her answer? the boy asked his sister.

“Tell him you found no one to give his letter to.”

“Oh, please.” The boy smiled knowingly. “How can I tell him that? I have learned enough to be sure there is no mistake.”

She was horrified. It was clear that Genji had told everything.

 “I don't know why you must always be so clever. Perhaps it would be better if you didn't go at all.”

“But he sent for me.” And the boy departed.

The governor of Kii was beginning to take an interest in his pretty young stepmother, and paying insistent court. His attention turned to the brother, who became his frequent companion.

“I waited for you all day yesterday,” said Genji. “Clearly I am not as much on your mind as you are on mine.”

The boy flushed.

“Where is her answer?” And when the boy told him: “A fine messenger. I had hoped for something better.”

There were other letters.

“But didn't you know?” he said to the boy. “I knew her before that old man she married. She thought me feeble and useless, it seems, and looked for a stouter support. Well, she may spurn me, but you needn't. You will be my son. The gentleman you are looking to for help won't be with us long.”

The boy seemed to be thinking what a nuisance his sister's husband was. Genji was amused.

He treated the boy like a son, making him a constant companion, giving him clothes from his own wardrobe, taking him to court. He continued to write to the lady. She feared that with so inexperienced a messenger the secret might leak out and add suspicions of promiscuity to her other worries. These were very grand messages, but something more in keeping with her station seemed called for. Her answers were stiff and formal when she answered at all. She could not forget his extraordinary good looks and elegance, so dimly seen that night. But she belonged to another, and nothing was to be gained by trying to interest him. His longing was undiminished. He could not forget how touchingly fragile and confused she had seemed. With so many people around, another invasion of her boudoir was not likely to go unnoticed, and the results would be sad.

One evening after he had been at court for some days he found an excuse: his mansion again lay in a forbidden direction. Pretending to set off for Sanjō, he went instead to the house of the governor of Kii. The governor was delighted, thinking that those well−designed brooks and lakes had made an impression. Genji had consulted with the boy, always in earnest attendance. The lady had been informed of the visit. She must admit that they seemed powerful, the urges that forced him to such machinations. But if she were to receive him and display herself openly, what could she expect save the anguish of the other night, a repetition of that nightmare? No, the shame would be too much.

Genji moving through the Governor of Kii's residence (17th-century scroll by an unknown artist)

The brother having gone off upon a summons from Genji, she called several of her women. “I think it might be in bad taste to stay too near. I am not feeling at all well, and perhaps a massage might help, somewhere far enough away that we won't disturb him.”

The woman Chūjō had rooms on a secluded gallery. They would be her refuge.

It was as she had feared. Genji sent his men to bed early and dispatched his messenger. The boy could not find her. He looked everywhere and finally, at the end of his wits, came upon her in the gallery.

He was almost in tears. “But he will think me completely useless.”

“And what do you propose to be doing? You are a child, and it is quite improper for you to be carrying such messages. Tell him I have not been feeling well and have kept some of my women to massage me. You should not be here. They will think it very odd.”

She spoke with great firmness, but her thoughts were far from as firm. How happy she might have been if she had not made this unfortunate marriage, and were still in the house filled with memories of her dead parents. Then she could have awaited his visits, however infrequent. And the coldness she must force herself to display—he must think her quite unaware of her place in the world. She had done what she thought best, and she was in anguish. Well, it all was hard fact, about which she had no choice. She must continue to play the cold and insensitive woman.

Genji lay wondering what blandishments the boy might be using. He was not sanguine, for the boy was very young. Presently he came back to report his mission a failure. What an uncommonly strong woman! Genji feared he must seem a bit feckless beside her. He heaved a deep sigh. This evidence of despondency had the boy on the point of tears.

Genji sent the lady a poem:

I wander lost in the Sonohara moorlands,
For I did not know the deceiving ways of the broom tree.
How am I to describe my sorrow?

Utsusemi by Isoda Koryusai, ca. 1771

She too lay sleepless. This was her answer:

Here and not here, I lie in my shabby
Would that I might like the broom tree
   vanish away.

The boy traveled back and forth with messages, a wish to be helpful driving sleep from his thoughts. His sister beseeched him to consider what the others might think.

Genji's men were snoring away. He lay alone with his discontent. This unique stubbornness was no broom tree. It refused to vanish away. The stubbornness was what interested him. But he had had enough. Let her do as she wished. And yet—not even this simple decision was easy.

“At least take me to her.”

“She is shut up in a very dirty room and there are all sorts of women with her. I do not think it would be wise.” The boy would have liked to be more helpful.

“Well, you at least must not abandon me.” Genji pulled the boy down beside him.

The boy was delighted, such were Genji's youthful charms. Genji, for his part, or so one is informed, found the boy more attractive than his chilly sister. 


Chapter Three.  The Shell of the Locust

Genji lay sleepless.

“I am not used to such treatment. Tonight I have for the first time seen how a woman can treat a man. The shock and the shame are such that I do not know how I can go on living.”

The boy was in tears, which made him even more charming. The slight form, the not too long hair—was it Genji's imagination that he was much like his sister? The resemblance was very affecting, even if imagined. It would be undignified to make an issue of the matter and seek the woman out, and so Genji passed the night in puzzled resentment. The boy found him less friendly than usual.

Genji left before daylight. Very sad, thought the boy, lonely without him.

The lady too passed a difficult night. There was no further word from Genji. It seemed that he had had enough of her. She would not be happy if he had in fact given her up, but with half her mind she dreaded another visit. It would be as well to have an end of the affair. Yet she went on grieving.

For Genji there was gnawing dissatisfaction. He could not forget her, and he feared he was making a fool of himself.

“I am in a sad state,” he said to the boy. “I try to forget her, and I cannot. Do you suppose you might contrive another meeting?” It would be difficult, but the boy was delighted even at this sort of attention.

With childish eagerness he watched for an opportunity. Presently the governor of Kii had to go off to his province. The lady had nothing to do through the long twilight hours. Under cover of darkness, the boy took Genji to the governor's mansion in his own carriage. Genji had certain misgivings. His guide was after all a mere child. But this was no time for hesitation. Dressed inconspicuously, he urged the boy on, lest they arrive after the gates were barred. The carriage was brought in through a back gate and Genji dismounted.

Genji spying on the two women playing Go, by Tosa Mitsunobu, 1510

So young a boy attracted little attention and indeed little deference from the guards. He left Genji at an east door to the main hall. He pounded on the south shutters and went inside. [pp. 50-54]

Due to the heat of the evening, curtains have been raised that would usually block the women of the house from being observed, and Genji spies on Utsusemi playing Go with her step-daughter.

He felt a little guilty, but not so guilty that he would have turned away had he not heard the boy coming back. He slipped outside.

Apologetic that his master should still be at the beginning, the boy said that the unexpected guest had interfered with his plans.

“You mean to send me off frustrated once more? It is really too much.”

“No, sir. But I must ask you to wait until the other lady has gone. I'll arrange everything then, I promise you.”

Things seemed to be arranging themselves. The boy was very young, but he was calmly self−possessed and had a good eye for the significant things.

The game of Go was apparently over. There was a stir inside, and a sound as of withdrawing.

“Where will that boy have gone?” Now there was a banging of shut−ters. “Let's get the place closed up.”

“No one seems to be stirring,” said Genji after a time. “Go and do your best.”

The boy knew well enough that it was not his sister's nature to encourage frivolity. He must admit Genji when there was almost no one with her.

“Is the guest still here?” asked Genji. “I would like a glimpse of her.”

“Quite impossible. There are curtains inside the shutters.”

Genji was amused, but thought it would be bad manners to let the boy know that he had already seen the lady.

Murasaki imagining the Tale of Genji, by Tosa Mitsuoki, 17th century

“How slowly time does go by.”

This time the boy knocked on the corner door and was admitted.

“I'll just make myself comfortable here,“ he said, spreading bed-clothes where one or two of the sliding doors had been left open. “Come in, breezes.”

Numbers of older women seemed to be sleeping out near the veranda. The girl who had opened the door seemed to have joined them. The boy feigned sleep for a time. Then, spreading a screen to block the light, he motioned Genji inside.

Genji was suddenly shy, fearing he would be defeated once more. He followed the boy all the same. [pp. 55-56]

Utsusemi senses Genji’s presence and escapes, albeit with misgivings, leaving Genji, initially confused as to the identity of the remaining step-daughter,  to seduce her instead. Then he leaves, taking Utsusemi’s robe as a keepsake:

The boy was sleeping nearby. The adventure was on his mind, however, and Genji had no trouble arousing him. As he opened the door an elderly serving woman called out in surprise.

“Who’s there?”

“Just me,” replied the boy in some confusion.

“Wherever are you going at this time of the night?” The woman came out, wishing to be helpful.

“Nowhere,” said the boy gruffly. “Nowhere at all.”

He pushed Genji through the door. Dawn was approaching. The woman caught sight of another figure in the moonlight.

“And who is with you? Oh, Mimbu, of course. Only Mimbu reaches such splendid heights.” Mimbu was a lady who was the victim of much humor because of her unusual stature. So he was out walking with Mimbu, muttered the old woman. “One of these days you'll be as tall as Mimbu yourself.” Chattering away, she followed after them. Genji was horrified, but could not very well shove her inside. He pulled back into the darkness of a gallery.

Still she followed. “You've been with our lady, have you? I've been having a bad time with my stomach these last few days and I've kept to my room. But she called me last night and said she wanted more people around. I'm still having a terrible time. Terrible,” she muttered again, getting no answer. “Well, goodbye, then.”

Kogimi and Genji, by Utagawa Kunisada, 1857

She moved on, and Genji made his escape. He saw more than ever how dangerous these adventures can be.

The boy went with him to Nijo. Genji recounted the happenings of the night. The boy had not done very well, he said, shrugging his shoulders in annoyance at the thought of the woman's coldness. The boy could find no answer.

“I am rejected, and there is nothing to be done for me. But why could she not have sent a pleasant answer? I'm no match for that husband of hers. That's where the trouble lies.” But when he went to bed he had her cloak beneath his own. He kept the boy beside him, audience for his laments.

“It's not that you aren't a nice enough boy, and it's not that I'm not fond of you. But because of your family I must have doubts about the durability of our relationship.”

A remark which plunged the boy into the darkest melancholy.

Genji was still unable to sleep. He said that he required an inkstone. On a fold of paper he jotted down a verse as if for practice:

Beneath a tree, a locust's empty shell.
Sadly I muse upon the shell of a lady.

He wondered what the other one, the stepdaughter, would be thinking of him; but though he felt rather sorry for her and though he turned the matter over in his mind, he sent no message. The lady's fragrance lingered in the robe he had taken. He kept it with him, gazing fondly at it.

The boy, when he went to his sister's house, was crushed by the scolding he received. “This is the sort of thing a person cannot be expected to put up with. I may try to explain what has happened, but can you imagine that people will not come to their own conclusions? Does it not occur to you that even your good master might wish to see an end to this childishness?”

Badgered from the left and badgered from the right, the poor boy did not know where to turn. He took out Genji's letter. In spite of herself his sister opened and read it. That reference to the shell of the locust: he had taken her robe, then. How very embarrassing. A sodden rag, like the one discarded by the fisherman of Ise.

The other lady, her stepdaughter, returned in some disorder to her own west wing. She had her sad thoughts all to herself, for no one knew what had happened. She watched the boy's comings and goings, thinking that there might be some word; but in the end there was none. She did not have the imagination to guess that she had been a victim of mistaken identity. She was a light-hearted and inattentive creature, but now she was lost in sad thoughts.

The lady in the main hall kept herself under tight control. She could see that his feelings were not to be described as shallow, and she longed for what would not return, her maiden days. Besides his poem she jotted down a poem by Lady Ise:

The dew upon the fragile locust wing

Is lost among the leaves. Lost are my tears. [pp. 57-58]

Chapter Sixteen. The Gatehouse

Many years have passed, during most of which Genji was in exile, when by chance, at the Ōsaka Barrier, Genji observes the entourage of the former governor of Kii respectfully waiting for him to pass, and he deduces that Kogimi and Utsusemi are amongst them.

His blinds lowered, Genji sent for Kogimi, the lady's brother, now a guards officer.

“See, I have come all the way to the barrier. Should this not tell her something?”

Affectionate memories came flooding back, but he had to make do with this most ordinary of greetings.

The lady too was assailed by memories, of events which she had kept to herself all these years.

“It flowed as I went, it flows as I return, The steady crystal spring at the barrier rise.”

There was no point in trying to explain what she meant.

Genji leaning out of his carriage to talk to Kogimi, by Tosa Mitsunobu, 1510

Kogimi went out to meet Genji on the return from Ishiyama and to apologize for not having stayed with him that earlier day. He had been a favorite with Genji, whose patronage had seen him as far as the Fifth Rank. Fearing at the time of Genji's exile that the association would be damaging, he had gone off to Hitachi with his sister and brother-in-law. If, in the years since, Genji had been somewhat less fond of him, there was no sign of that fact in his behavior now. Though things could not be quite the same again, of course, Genji still thought the youth rather promising. The governor of Kii had since become governor of Kawachi. His younger brother, a guards officer, had been stripped of his commission and had gone into exile with Genji, and now he was being richly rewarded. Regret was usual among those who in those difficult days had given way to the pressures of the times.

Genji gave Kogimi a message for his sister. How very attentive he was to these details, thought Kogimi, when no one need have been surprised if he had forgotten everything.

“I wonder if it occurred to you the other day,” said Genji's note, “how strong a bond there must be between us. By chance we met, beside the gate of meeting. A pity its fresh waters should be so sterile. How I envy the occupant of the gatehouse. It all comes back, after years of silence. I have a way of looking back upon things of long ago as if they were of this very moment. Will you once again accuse me of promiscuity?”

The youth respectfully undertook to deliver it. “I do think you should let him have an answer,” he said to his sister. “I would not have been surprised if he had shown a certain hostility, but he was as civil and polite as ever. I could not have been more grateful. It does a man no good to be an intermediary in these matters, but I could not say no to him. You are a woman, and no one will reprove you, I think, if you concede a point and answer him.”

[There is no further mention of Kogimi.]


[1] His name is only finally given as Kogimi in chapter sixteen.

[2] She is later referred to as Utsusemi, meaning “the lady of the locust shell”, and is so generally referred to in discussion of the novel.

[3] Sanjō was where Genji’s wife Aoi lived.




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