Beneath a Veil of Perfumed Smoke

Lady Murasaki depicts a world in which the creation of and appreciation of incense reveals essential aspects of character in her centuries-old tale, Genji Monogatari.

While many aesthetic endeavors reveal crucial hints of character in Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji Monogatari, perhaps the most intangible and illusive is that of incense. Throughout the century-old tale, incense blending is seen as an art of refined taste. In many a scene, mysterious and erotic tendrils of perfumed smoke creep through dimly lit corridors seeking to arouse the attentions of a passing suitor. These alluring scents, forever tied to the beauty of a stolen moment, linger in memory much like the wisps of smoke which emanate from behind each lover’s veiling blinds. Each mention of luxurious incense is described in elegant detail, painting it’s connected scene with intense feeling. Through this device, Shikibu reflects subtle elements of personality and strengthens the identity of each character in her tale.

The thirty second chapter of Genji, ‘Umegae,’ is perhaps the greatest example of how the creation and use of incense is able to reveal nuances of character and personality. As Genji prepares gifts for his daughter (Kumoi no Kari) to depart for service at the palace, he requests that each of his ladies provide her most superbly blended fragrance. Here, each participant’s submitted scent reveals not only individual refinement and depth, but also the most subtle and charming flaws akin to that of its creator. One such player, Lady Murasaki, is consistently associated with the unparalleled beauty of spring and blossoms. Her baika scent, with the essence of plum blossom, is decided at the competition to be “novel and brilliant, with a keen, personal touch that [gives] it a rare quality” (549). Such praise easily mirrors Murasaki’s own character: one of unique grace and elegance, warmth, and certainly novel brilliance.

Just as the great Lady Murasaki is associated with spring, Hanachirusato is likened to the perfume of summer’s blossoms. Her distinctive reticence and inclination toward melancholy is also reflected in the incense she provides for Kumoi no Kari’s donning to the train. Thinking her contribution inferior to what Genji’s other great ladies might offer, she is reluctant to join the incense competition: “The lady of the summer quarter had not wished to put herself forward among the others in the competition, and she quailed even to think of smoke from incense of hers rising in such company” (549). The unusualness and stirringly gentle quality of her summer lotus fragrance, combined with her humble reluctance, is surely a reflection of her uniquely somber disposition.

Asagao, Genji’s Lady of the Bluebells whom he never succeeds in winning, consistently shows her inclination toward properness and logic. Throughout Genji’s pursuit, she finds it neither prudent to completely reject nor submit to him, and routinely acts with discretion lest those inclined to gossip catch word of capriciousness. Genji finds her persistent coolness maddening, yet is all the more intrigued by her enigmatic refusal. It is of little surprise then, that at Genji’s request she sends a charmingly well done and proper gift of incense for Kumoi no Kari’s auspicious event, to which Genji remarks, “I took the liberty of making a request, and she seems to have met it bravely” (548). Asagao’s fragrance is judged to be wonderfully soothing, having been charmingly presented with utmost propriety. Genji teasingly conceals her added poem, which only increases the curiosity of his friends much like his own curiosity had swelled under Asagao’s unrelenting refusal. Her gift of incense and its accompanying poem reflect her sensible steadfastness and alluring unattainability.

The last of Genji’s ladies to submit a fragrance to the event is the proud lady of the winter quarter, Akashi no Kimi. Akashi is constantly at odds with her position in Genji’s household, forever lamenting her daughter’s forced adoption to Lady Murasaki. Akashi’s competitively tart personality is perhaps best illustrated in the eighteenth chapter, ‘Matsukaze.’ Upon weighing the difficulties of taking up residence in Genji’s newly completed estate, she remains sharply aware of her situation. “Having heard how the very greatest ladies could suffer from neglect, even when not yet wholly abandoned, she asked herself what consideration she enjoyed that she should go out into such company, and she feared to make an embarrassing spectacle of her daughter’s insignificance” (333). Though she is destined to become Genji’s lady of the winter quarter at Nijo, her character remains conflicted in both pride and fear. Her choice to concoct an unsurpassable “hundred paces” fragrance in place of the expected submission of a winter incense thus reflects her stubbornly imperious nature and subsequent distaste for being outdone.

Scent in Shikibu’s tale is truly telling of each lady’s true character, but it can be alternately viewed as merely a mask, carefully honed and refined to illicit utmost flattery of an otherwise flawed or cunning character. In a scene of fabricated personality, Genji elaborately conjures a plan to allow His Highness of War a peek at his adopted daughter Tamakazura. Because she is reluctant to entertain her suitor, Genji goes to great lengths in order to make her seem utterly irresistible. “The air wafting faintly from within, mingled with the more distinctive fragrance from Genji’s own person, enveloped [His Highness] in exquisite odors, and what he gathered of the lady’s presence suggested that she was even lovelier than he had imagined” (456). Overcome with desire from the sensuous aroma, His Highness of War is moved to declare his fervent devotion to the spurious lady. Although her own personality is by no means directly reflected by Genji’s illustriously incensed robes, it might be argued that her own meekness of character is evidenced by her powerlessness beneath Genji’s superlative elegance and taste.

Even minor characters in Shikibu’s tale are exposed through the device of incense. To no Chujo’s once lost daughter, Omi no Kimi, is certainly a personality of little import to the plot, yet her crudely strong persona is undeniably evident upon each encounter, for even the incense she chooses fails to mask her inelegance. Once raised in the countryside and unfamiliar with aristocratic appropriateness, she is described as unladylike, crass, and embarrassing to her father who constantly laments his daughter’s unfortunate taste and brazen foolishness. The way in which Omi no Kimi excessively steeps her clothing in incense of vulgar sweetness undeniably mirrors her perceived outrageous personality.

Briefer still is the reader’s introduction to Genji’s deliciously appealing lady Oborozukiyo, yet her character, too, is strongly associated with a distinctly stylish incense. Her scenes in the eighth chapter ‘Hana no En’ are both aesthetically pleasing and telling of character. Although Genji has yet to discover her identity after a night of reluctant yet amusing submission, he happens by her door on a festive evening to discover a most revealing aroma. “The fragrance of incense hung thickly in the air, and the rustling of silks conveyed ostentatious wealth, for this was a household that preferred modish display to the deeper appeal of discreet good taste” (160). Genji henceforth discovers that she is the daughter of a political rival, whose family’s shallow gaudiness is quite off-putting. While Shikibu’s use of incense here fails to reveal Oborozukiyo’s personality on a deeper plane, it certainly acts as an overarching identifier of both her upbringing and of her ties to a family which Genji finds disagreeable.

It can thus be concluded that Murasaki Shikibu uses incense as a device with which to directly reflect her cloistered ladies. Fragrance at times might serve to mask personality, yet even through its mysterious veil one can still find the faint reflection of a lady’s true character. The degree to which the appreciation of incense plays a role in Genji speaks to the solemn fate of each lady in the tale, whose sole pleasure it is to seek artistic and aesthetic refinement in their otherwise powerless and hermetic existence.


works cited

Shikibu, Murasaki. The Tale of Genji. Trans. Tyler, Royall. Deluxe ed. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.

© 2015 Devon Lois Duncan. All rights reserved.

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