Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Japanese Sex Scandal... And No Shades of Gray

One of the steamiest, most widely read novels of love, scandal, sex, and betrayals in world history has nothing to do with shades of any color - not even gray.

In Heian Japan, court society placed a heavy weight on obedience to rules of behavior and class.  People who did not appreciate the value of life, beauty, and education were out of sync with their society.  In the midst of this world, the first ever novel was written - by a woman, for women - about living life in a way that is good while enjoying the pleasures that tempt evil.

The Tale of Genji

You MUST watch the video at this link to catch a glimpse of the scandal, gossip, romance, and drama that unfolds in the novel.
Visits from spirits are a metaphor for the lovely world readers visit when they read The Tale of Genji.Courtesy Library of Congress Digital Collections
How could I have ever taught the Heian Period in Japan without having my sex-crazed teenage students read excerpts of this novel?  I've certainly taught them that it existed and that it was read voraciously as an entertaining guide to court life.  But the text itself would undoubtedly hook them with its scandal, and they would come to know Heian Japan with the themes it reveals.  Of course, they must see the text as the Japanese read it a thousand years ago.  Thanks to the Library of Congress, they can.
From the Japanese Rare Books Collection, Library of Congress
Against the backdrop of the amazing arts of the Heian Period, the Tale of Genji provides context and fascination.  After teaching my students about:

...I think the Tale of Genji would help them understand how people of the court were expected to act and reflect on such beauty in their daily lives.  Although it is a bit over-dramatic (so is our reality TV), it is something they could engage with.  They might be offended at the choices in bedfellows, or be heartbroken for some of the characters, or even feel as though the story could have happened today to our own American version of royalty... whatever that may be.  Perhaps the way to reach some students would be to introduce some of the Manga versions of the story.

I can't imagine that I'll ever teach the Heian Period again without a more in depth consideration of the Tale of Genji.

This post is a reflection based on the author's coursework through Primary Source in an online class called Japan and the World.
For more information, listen to an NPR podcast here.