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Major exhibition on 'Tale of Genji' launches at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art

Kyodo, JIJI

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opened a major exhibition Tuesday that focuses on artwork inspired by the 11th-century Japanese classic “The Tale of Genji.”

The epic tale written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting in the early 11th-century Imperial court, depicts the romantic life of a son of an emperor, and is generally considered to be the world’s first novel.

“The galleries will educate you about certain events, scenes and characters, including the complicated protagonist — the Shining Prince Genji himself — and the numerous female characters who more often than not upstaged him,” said Melissa McCormick, a professor of Japanese art at Harvard University and guest curator for the exhibit.

In addition to depictions of scenes from the story, “The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated,” set to run until June 16, includes 120 pieces of art — some of which date back at least a thousand years — and demonstrate the book’s historical impact on Japanese culture.

They include items designated as Japanese national treasures and important cultural assets that will be exhibited outside the country for the first time.

According to the museum, the art exhibition will be the most comprehensive to have been held on the “Tale of Genji” outside Japan.

One of the two Japanese national treasures on display is a 12th-century copy of the Lotus Sutra showing the tale’s influence on Buddhism. As the story grew in popularity, members of the elite class infused its poems and picture motifs into scripture.

“The tale was considered by many to be a Buddhist text,” McCormick said. “You could read it and get insights of Buddhist principles.”

“The galleries are organized thematically, each room designed to show each possible permutation of vibrant works of art created as a result of engagement with this book throughout history.”


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The exhibit also features 17th-century demon masks used in Genji-inspired noh plays, an Edo Period palanquin last used to carry Princess Atsu-hime into Edo Castle in 1856, and Edo Period parlor games. It continues to follow the tale’s representations through to modern pop culture and visual art, such as Yamato Waki’s popular manga adaptation “Asaki Yumemishi.”

It will also include 11 treasures owned by Ishiyamadera, a Buddhist temple in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture. Murasaki Shikibu is said to have conceived the basic concept of the “Tale of Genji” at the temple.

John Carpenter, a curator of Japanese art for the museum, said scholar Donald Keene, who died last month, visited the museum last year and was “completely astounded” by the “Tale of Genji” screens and cultural property albums on loan from Japan.

Carpenter recalled that Keene, a world-renowned scholar and translator of Japanese literature, mentioned coming across Arthur Waley’s translation of Genji in a New York bookstore at age 18, which would prove to be the inspiration that fueled his career.

“I think Professor Keene is looking down on us and enjoying the exhibition that we talked about a year ago,” Carpenter said of the luminary who died on Feb. 24 at age 96.