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Lady Murasaki on Genji's coming of age

Court life in 11th-century Japan was no bed of roses. Intrigue and passion seemed to stalk most relationships. Lady Murasaki, a lady of the imperial court and a gifted writer, watched the maneuvering and wrote ``The Tale of Genji,'' considered to be the greatest classic of Japanese literature. Equally as compelling as the novel was Lady Murasaki herself. Although women were forbidden serious study of any kind, she learned Chinese by overhearing her brother's lessons. In this excerpt the Emperor's son Genji (the ``Shining One'') is being initiated into manhood. Though it seemed a shame to put so lovely a child into man's dress, he was now twelve years old and the time for his Initiation was come. The Emperor directed the preparations with tireless zeal and insisted upon a magnificence beyond what was prescribed. The Initiation of the Heir Apparent, which had last year been celebrated in the Southern Hall, was not a whit more splendid in its preparations. The ordering of the banquets that were to be given in various quarters, and the work of the Treasurer and Grain Intendant he supervised in person, fearing lest the officials should be remiss; and in the end all was perfection. The ceremony took place in the eastern wing of the Emperor's own apartments, and the Throne was placed facing towards the east, with the seats of the Initiate-to-be and his Sponsor (the Minister of the Left) in front.

Genji arrived at the hour of the Monkey. He looked very handsome with his long childish locks, and the Sponsor, whose duty it had just been to bind them with the purple filet, was sorry to think that all this would soon be changed and even the Clerk of the Treasury seemed loath to sever those lovely tresses with the ritual knife. The Emperor, as he watched, remembered for a moment what pride the mother would have taken in the ceremony, but soon drove the weak thought from his mind.

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Duly crowned, Genji went to his chamber and changing into man's dress went down into the courtyard and performed the Dance of Homage, which he did with such grace that tears stood in every eye. And now the Emperor, whose grief had of late grown somewhat less insistent, was again overwhelmed by memories of the past.

It had been feared that his delicate features would show to less advantage when he had put aside his childish dress; but on the contrary he looked handsomer than ever. By permission of Allen & Unwin Ltd., from ``The Tale of Genji,'' translated by Arthur Waley.

Since August 1983 ``The loose-leaf library'' has been a weekly feature of The Home Forum. Excerpts from the works of nearly 200 writers have been published, with many writers suggested by readers. The final ``Loose-leaf'' will appear on June 9. A hearty thank you to all readers who wrote to us with praise, questions, and requests.

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