Colors in Genji

Question raised by: Lawrence Marceau

Discussants: Denise O'Brien, Elliot Berlin, Anthony Chambers, Amanda Stinchecum, Royall Tyler, Kai Nieminen, Christine M. Millett, Sharon Domier

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Date: Tue, 05 Nov 2002 17:00:43 -0500
From: Lawrence Marceau
Subject: [pmjs] Colors in Genji

This may be the type of question that a few days ago I complained about on this list. (Kyoushuku desu...) A student wishes
to write a short paper about the meanings, uses, and/or significations of various colors in the Genji, and I advised that she rely on internal evidence and her own reading of the text. She knows about the significance of the color "murasaki" (related to "murasaki no yukari" or "affinity," "shared karmic bond" etc.) and its reverberations in Kokinshuu and other texts, as well as in Genji.

Has anyone written in English about colors in Genji or Heian literature in general, and their meanings and reverberations? I've
checked the indices of various studies of Genji that have been published in English, as well as Morris's WSP, but not come up with much.

Thanks for any help you can provide.


Lawrence M.

Date: Tue, 05 Nov 2002 17:20:10 -0500
From: Denise O'Brien
Subject: [pmjs] Re: Colors in Genji

See two works by Liza Dalby:
The Cultured Nature of Heian Colors. The Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan. Vol. 3, 1988:1-20
1993 Kimono:Fashioning Culture. This book has great color illustrations, showing various combinations of colors as they could have appeared in Heian attire.
Regards, Denise O'Brien

Date: Tue, 5 Nov 2002 17:31:44 -0500
From: Elliot Berlin
Subject: [pmjs] Re: Colors in Genji

I am very curious about this question, and hope you will summarize publicly any information you receive that is sent to you off-list.

Elliot Berlin

Date: Tue, 05 Nov 2002 15:49:11 -0700
From: Anthony Chambers
Subject: [pmjs] Re: Colors in Genji

It's not Genji, but it might be relevant anyway: Maria Teresa Orsi wrote a very nice article, "The Colors of Shadows," in A TANIZAKI FEAST (Center for Japanese Studies, Univ. of Michigan, 1998, pp. 1-13. tc

Date: Tue, 5 Nov 2002 19:05:53 -0500
From: Amanda Stinchecum
Subject: [pmjs] Re: Colors in Genji

Textile historian Mary Dusenbury wrote her dissertation on this subject for the University of Kansas, and I believe is loosely affiliated with the university museum. She is also president of the Textile Society of America and should be reachable through the TSA website ( Her research is probably more reliable than Liza Dalby's.

Amanda Stinchecum

Date: Wed, 6 Nov 2002 11:22:48 +1100
From: Royall Tyler
Subject: [pmjs] Re: Colors in Genji

As far as I can see, you've given the student the best advice you could. "Murasaki" should be worth a paper by itself. Kinjiki ("forbidden color") comes to mind as another discrete color topic, but that issue doesn't come up in the tale--only the "permitted" counterpart, yurushi-iro. Otherwise, there are definite seasonal significances to color and to kasane combinations, although some colors, or at kasane, have no seasonal associations. One problem is that, for Murasaki Shikibu's time or before, the colors of some kasane are unclear. Another is that so many "colors" in the book are actually the name of the dye material, not the hue, and many dye materials could yield widely varying shades. In general, it's tempting to imagine, as your student may be doing, that there's a "language of color" behind all the colors in Genji, but I rather doubt it; and even if there is, I don't suppose that much of it is retrievable, even for specialists. But perhaps someone else knows knows more.

Royall Tyler

Date: Wed, 6 Nov 2002 02:27:21 +0200
From: kai nieminen
Subject: [pmjs] Re: Colors in Genji

Dear Lawrence Marceau,
This is not a proper answer to your question but a hint which might be useful for your student. A bunkobon book (in Japanese) called "Nihon no dentou iro" I bought in Genji Monogatari Museum in Uji a year ago lists and shows the traditional colours -- giving colour code numbers in Munsell-code ("manseru hyoushokukei") and English names for them. Author: Nagasaki Seiki. Publisher: Seigensha, 2001. Originally published 1987. -- The author also has written a book called "Kasane no irome", published by the same company, with colour plates, but no English explanations.

Warm regards,
Kai Nieminen

Date: Tue, 05 Nov 2002 19:46:10 -0500
From: Christine M. Millett
Subject: [pmjs] Re: Colors in Genji

Mary Dusenbury's 1999 ( University of Kansas) Dissertation is called,"Radiance and Darkness: Color at the Heian Court". I found it through a Pro Quest Digital Dissertation search. The UMI publication number is AAT 9961041. It appears to be available in both paper and electronic form. According the abstract--- Chapter 1 draws on women's writing in the 11th century to look at specific ways in which color functioned in the Heian court.

Christine Murasaki Millett

Date: Tue, 05 Nov 2002 20:38:08 -0500
From: Sharon Domier
Subject: [pmjs] Re: Colors in Genji

Hi Lawrence,
I hope you will also encourage your student to look at the actual colors. I am sure you can show her pages in your kogo jiten, but there are also scanned in images available on the web. Here is one by Anthony Bryant:

Sharon Domier
East Asian Studies Librarian
University of Massachusetts
Amherst, MA 01003
Proud to contribute to AskEASL (Ask an East Asian Studies Librarian)

Date: Wed, 6 Nov 2002 06:21:39 -0500
From: Amanda Stinchecum
Subject: [pmjs] Re: Colors in Genji

Royall's remarks about colors are right on target. An Osaka dyer and dye historian, Yoshioka Tsuneo, spent a lot of his life studying the dye chemistry of natural dyes and dyeing techniques of the Nara period. At his death he had been working on re-creating the dye formulae, and thus the colors, detailed in the Engishiki. As far as I know, nothing of his research in this area has been published except scattered comments in his book, Tennen senryou no kenkyuu (Mitsmura Suikoin, 1974), still the standard Japanese work on natural dye chemistry.

As Royall said, not too much should be made of "reading" a language of color into the kasane combinations. The kasane color charts that appear in so many books should be taken with a grain of salt.

Amanda Stinchecum

Date: Wed, 06 Nov 2002 07:23:46 -0500
From: Lawrence Marceau
Subject: [pmjs] Re: Colors in Genji

Many, many thanks to Amanda Stinchecum, Royall Tyler, Christine M. Millett, Kai Nieminen, Anthony Chambers, and Denise O'Brian for so much helpful information and advice regarding colors in Heian culture and Genji monogatari in
particular. To Elliott Berlin (and others), all of the substantive replies I received have been public, so there is nothing for me to summarize that you haven't already read. It is very encouraging to see very knowledgeable and thoughtful colleagues from around the globe freely sharing their insights in this manner.

Looks like my student (and her instructor = me) have our work cut out for us.

(I hope I haven't taken any attention away from the fascinating issue of "ura uta" and multiple ways of reading waka, though!)

Lawrence M.

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