Jimmy's Reviews > The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan

The World of the Shining Prince by Ivan Morris
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Oct 07, 10

bookshelves: japan, heian-culture
Read from August 09 to September 02, 2010 — I own a copy

Like many other cultural stereotypes, I associate so many negative characteristics with the Gaijin. The younger version - one that I've become all too familiar with living in Portland - is the manga-crazed-sorta-goth-teen, who just adores Japanese popular culture. I have so many issues with this type, that I just wouldn't even know where to begin. There is the overzealous foodie, who, so enamored with asian cuisine, will immerse themselves deeply in the culture just for a chance to eat more exotic food from Japan. The sort that I've become most familiar with is the cultural critic or academic Gaijin; usually white males in their fifties. Most of them, such as Donald Richie, Ivan Morris, and Donald Keene, are now either dead or in their eighties. Why is it that I think that it's so unfortunate that these are basically the men that I providing me with all of my cultural information on Japan? Because they didn't grow up in Japan. Because they're not Japanese. Because they're distant observers. Because Gaijin loosely translated, means "outside person". Of course this is just something that I'm going to have to get over. After all, I now consider myself one; not just an outside observer, but one who is interested enough in getting closer to Japan through language, culture, and books.

For the sort of person who harbors an intense and passionate amount of curiosity about the external world, eventually focusing this amount of intellectual energy on one aspect of it seems like a level-headed idea. This process aids in the global, and generally social, exchange of information and ideas that a variety of specialists seem to engage in. We can't all be William T. Vollmann. It also makes intellectual curiosity much easier to deal with, less stressful, and lends knowledge a more utilitarian aspect. At least I think that this is the case. I've chosen Japan; its language, politics, architecture, literature, art, cinema, and pastoral beauty. I've also chosen this particular country as an intellectual interest and focal point because it's a notoriously difficult culture to understand, and the spoken and written language is incredibly complex and beautiful.

I adore culture, in the most general sense. I have this natural tendency to speak in a hyper-critical manner, whether I really know what I'm talking about or not. I don't necessarily have a mathematical mind. I can understand it after enough practice and rote memorization, but it doesn't come naturally to me, or algorithmic proficiency just isn't an innate tendency that I have. Biology interests me, but hardly enough to sustain an academic career. The social sciences are just too obscure and opinion-driven to really hold enough solid motivation for me to take them seriously enough, and, I don't know, I just can't think of anything else. Learning another language seems like a pragmatic academic pursuit. More importantly, I can't imagine there being much room for made-up bullshit in the process of learning another language. I'd probably find some of that in papers on Japanese politics or literary criticism, but that's basically unavoidable. Learning this language could be put to good use, maybe in a diplomatic context?

Sure, it's more complicated than that. One doesn't merely learn another language, begin communicating overseas, and suddenly a solid cultural bridge is formed. There's history; some particularly gruesome memories between the U.S. and Japan, and the inevitable cultural divide. I'd like to strengthen this bridge though; help myself to understand as much as I can, teach other Americans what I know about Japanese language and culture, and utilize my ability to speak Japanese to share my culture with Japanese people. Of course, American Gaijins get a bad rap. We have our ancestors to speak for. Even many of our fellow citizens (who are morons) seem to think that our interest in a country such as Japan is primarily motivated by our "imperialist gaze", and they're quick to begin quoting Edward Said about our misinterpretations of the Orient, even though he was really only referring to the Middle East. That and he was just ... well ... intellectually hysterical at times. Oh, and he wasn't a very accurate historian anyway.

What I'm trying to articulate here is that I truly believe that I have a sincere interest in Japan, that is motivated by a desire to understand as much as I can about another country, and attempt to put this information to use in the most humane, selfless way possible. That, and I'm really just a huge fan. I remember when I first impulsively bought Ozu Yasujiro's The Story of Floating Weeds on a recommendation from Jim Jarmusch, and subsequently fell in love with everything about Ozu's films; from their formal perfection to their awareness*. Since then, I've cultivated a pretty sensitive palette for Japanese cinema, and I've recently begun exploring the world of Japanese literature. The first story I read was that of Life of an Amorous Woman which was translated by Ivan Morris, and preceded by a ridiculously informative introduction on the life of Japanese people during the Tokugawa period, with its four social hierarchies, rampant poverty, traveling rōnin, and feudal violence. Thanks to a recommendation from D., I picked up Morris' book on Heian period Japan.

The World of the Shining Prince is basically a literary supplement to Murasaki Shikubu's The Tale of Genji, which in and of itself is a work of fiction that provides most scholars with a majority of the information that we have on life during the Heian period. That in mind, I'd mainly recommend this book to people who are currently reading that, or have plans to do so eventually because it's a notoriously difficult narrative to follow, and an understanding of the marriage politics, role of female writers, and the idleness of court life is sort of essential information if you really want to enjoy the full extent of Murasaki's artistic prowess.

Also, I've always found Morris, as literary critic, wonderfully concise and perceptive. He contributes so much to the West's comprehension of Japanese literature and history with the wisest, self-deprecating skepticism. His writing is completely confident, yet he's also aware of the difficulty inherent in attempting to translate the meaning and context of a work so invariably obscure to so many people. The writing is great too, as I've always enjoyed his prose. Here is an excellent example of Morris paraphrasing the aspect of otherworldly salvation to be found in the practice of Buddhism.

"Having presented a thoroughly unattractive picture of the physical world and the human condition, Buddhism offered a solution. If the origin of universal suffering was desire, and if this was inseparable from normal life, then the only answer was to abandon the fleeting world of sorrow (shaba) and thereby to eliminate desire, above all the desire for individual survival."

To recapitulate the content and information of this book would be beyond tedium, but it's such a quick read if you're interested in the subject matter. Ultimately, Morris' book will aid in heightening the experience of reading the work of Murasaki and Shōnagon (even Lady Sarashina). And it's relatively devoid of Genji plot spoilers, which probably won't make a difference anyway because I can only assume that one only truly remembers the actual plot of that book after reading it at least four or five times. In other words, trust me, you need help.

*See the one footnote to my review of Japan Journals by Donald Richie.
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08/16/2010 page 17
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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by D. (new)

D. Pow Jimmy have you ever tried Morris' 'the nobility of failure'? brilliant. He is right up there with Donald Richie as one of the few gajin who get Japan.


Jimmy No, the only thing that I've read so far is his translation (and introduction to) The Life of an Amorous Woman by Saikaku, which was great. I read Mckinney's translation of The Pillow Book, but I really want to try Morris' when I have time. Thanks for the recommendation.


message 3: by Buck (new)

Buck For the sort of person that harbors an intense and passionate amount of curiosity about the external world, eventually focusing this amount of intellectual energy on one aspect of our world seems like a level-headed idea.

This appeals to me, and it does seem like a level-headed idea. It reminds me of something Meryl Streep's character says in Adaptation:

There are too many ideas and things and people. Too many directions to go. I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something, is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size.

True, Kaufman's no Ozu, but that's not bad, not bad at all. For some reason, I've been quoting this movie all over the place lately. Maybe I should give it another chance. I saw it years ago with a lady friend who wasn't, shall we say, down with meta-narratives.

Nice work, is what I'm getting at.


message 4: by Jimmy (last edited Sep 13, 2010 12:30AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jimmy Oh, that's so excellent, Buck. If I was gay ...

Josh (MFSO) and I quote that film back and forth on an almost weekly basis. Though I should admit that he does more than I do. I probably subconsciously had that quote about whittling the world down in mind, when I wrote that. But yes, I firmly believe in that. I find that when my reading interests get too broad, my head begins to hurt, I forget a lot, and I'm generally unhappy. What can I say, Japan is my Rushmore. Thanks for the input.


Jimmy Jimmy wrote: "Oh, that's so excellent, Buck. If I was gay ...

Josh (MFSO) and I quote that film back and forth on an almost weekly basis. Though I should admit that he does more than I do. I probably subcons..."


Also, I love Kaufman. Especially, the Malkovich screenplay and Synecdoche, NY.


message 6: by D. (last edited Sep 13, 2010 02:43PM) (new)

D. Pow Great great review. You said many things I feel about Japanese lit and culture only you said it with more precision and intellectual clarity. Great shout out to the passing of the guard with Keene, Ritchie, etc.

Dude! You've got to read David Peace's Tokyo Year Zero if you want to see a gajin perform an uncanny act of cultural ventriloquism.


Jimmy D. wrote: "Great great review. You said many things I feel about Japanese lit and culture only you said it with more precision and intellectual clarity. Great shout out to the passing of the gueard with Keene..."

Thanks, D..

I'll have to check that out. I'm really digging Mishima right now. I watched Patriotism last night. He definitely shoots films like a writer, but it was pretty interesting. Mishima is just a fascinating character to me. I even enjoyed Paul Schrader's sort-of-biopic on him, and I really dislike Paul Schrader.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Did someone mention Charlie Kaufman? Yes? Good, I knew my balls weren't tingling for no good reason.


Jimmy MyFleshSingsOut wrote: "Did someone mention Charlie Kaufman? Yes? Good, I knew my balls weren't tingling for no good reason."

Just about the biggest pair you ever seen ... dickleberry.


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