Uncovering "The Tale of Genji"

In “Introduction to Japanese”, an Upper School FOCUS course, Chapin students are discovering the basic conversational language and vibrant culture of Japan through in-class activities and interactive field trips.

On a recent sunny day, the course’s 22 students and their teachers, Chinese teacher Hong Shepp and Director of Academic Program Ilana Pergam, made their way down 84th Street to The Metropolitan Museum of Art for a morning of discovery.

After posing for a class photo on the museum steps, they were greeted by docent Helen Lee, a former Chapin parent, who led them inside to a pair of glass doors surrounded by painted, golden clouds. Behind these doors was a temporary exhibit inspired by one of the most celebrated works of classic Japanese literature… “The Tale of Genji.”

Written in the 11th century during the Heian period, the story centers on the romantic affairs of a handsome, “shining prince” named Genji and contains an immense 54 chapters and 795 waka poems (a type of poetry found in classical Japanese literature).

Even more impressive than its length is the fact that this lauded tale was written by a noblewoman … Murasaki Shikibu. “She was always in court. That was her whole world. She had no freedom,” Ms. Lee explained. “Writing was her only escape.”

The docent noted how incredible it was, given their rights and societal roles at the time, that a woman in the Heian period wrote a story that would influence Japanese culture for centuries to come. “There is not a student in Japan, I would venture, who does not at least have an awareness of ‘The Tale of Genji.”

While the book voyeuristically follows Genji’s many affairs and romances, it also contains messages about political stability and the Buddhist concept that life is fleeting.

“This novel was written by a woman, for women,” Ms. Lee shared. “It displays humanity – universal qualities we all share and can relate to – through the experiences of the female characters.”

As they walked through the exhibit, the students discovered the far-reaching interpretations of this epic tale and learned the distinct features and styles that differentiate Japanese art.

Since “The Tale of Genji” is so long, Ms. Lee explained, iconography was developed to help readers recognize important scenes, reminiscent of western illuminated manuscripts. The students saw this first hand as they browsed the Met’s extensive collections of books, scrolls, screens, and kimono decorated to interpret and symbolize the complex story.

They explored kana, or “the women’s hand,” a style of Japanese calligraphy created for use in poetry and other written works, as they pored over lighted display cases full of handwritten and illustrated books.

The students also learned that reading a scroll is a lot like watching a movie “You unroll it frame by frame. It takes you on a journey,” Ms. Lee noted.

When they came across an intricately decorated kimono, the docent explained that these robes are traditionally decorated with symbols of nature, seasonal change and literary figures before demonstrating the proper way to wrap one around your body.  

Each piece of art the students observed was breathtakingly beautiful while also deeply informative about Japanese customs, history, and “The Tale of Genji.” 

As they left the exhibit, Ms. Lee recommended the students read the new Manga version of the story, “The Tale of Genji: Dreams at Dawn” by Yamato Waki, a multivolume interpretation that features historical details while making the story more accessible to modern-day, young adult readers…. further evidence of the lasting mark this written work has had on Japanese culture and beyond.

After saying thank you and wishing the docent well, the students made their way back to Chapin with a deeper understanding of the significance of “The Tale of Genji” and traditional Japanese art.  

Browse photos from the trip below: