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Stolen Glimpses: Convention and Variations

Vision à la dérobée : un lieu commun et ses variations
Daniel Struve


Kaimami (stolen glimpses) is an important motif in The Tale of Genji, the Japanese equivalent of the scene of love at first sight in Western fiction. Detailed analysis of three examples of kaimami leads to a consideration of variations produced by this motif; the objective is to identify the principal components of the kaimami scene and its significance in the exploration of the mechanisms of desire and illusion at the heart of the Genji.

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Editor’s notes

Original release: Daniel Struve, « Bungaku no jōtō to sono hensō », in Sumie Terada, Katsumi Fujiwara and Hirohiko Takada eds, Genji monogatari no tōmeisa to futōmeisa - Bamen, waka, katari, jikan no bunseki o tōshite, Seikansha, Tōkyō, 2009.

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  • 1 Kokin waka shū, Shin Nihon koten bungaku taikei (hereafter SNKBT) 5, (Tōkyō: Iwanami shoten, 1989) (...)

Utsusemi no/Yo ni mo nitaru ka/hanazakura
Saku to mishi mani/katsu chirinikeri
    Ah, how like they are
To the cicada-husk world!
    While we watch them bloom,
Blossoms of flowering cherry
Already have scattered away.1
Kokin waka shū 73

The Kaimami Scene

  • 2 Chikamatsu jōruri shū, Nihon koten bungaku taikei (hereafter NKBT) 50, (Tōkyō: Iwanami shoten, 1959 (...)
  • 3 Marie-Thérèse Mathet, “Avant-propos,” in la Scène, Littérature et Arts Visuels, ed. Marie-Thérèse (...)
  • 4 Arnaud Rykner, “La scène sans la scène”, ibid, p. 197.
  • 5 Shimizu Yoshiko, Genji monogatari no buntai to hōhō, (Tōkyō: Tōkyō daigaku shuppankai, 1980), p. 60

1In an interview by Hozumi Ikan 穂積以貫 published in 1737 in Naniwa miyage 難波土産, the dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon 近松門左衛門 remarks that he grasped the essence of puppet theater while reading a passage from The Tale of Genji. In the passage, Genji is about to leave Suetsumuhana’s ramshackle house one snowy morning after having spent the night with her. He is having his men brush the snow from an orange tree when, to his surprise, the branch of a nearby pine tree springs up and, as if seized by jealousy, shakes off its own burden of snow. According to Chikamatsu, this was to be his model for breathing life into puppets so that they could compete with living actors.2 Chikamatsu’s remarks, taken from an eighteenth-century work on the popular art of ningyō-jōruri, demonstrate the influence wielded by The Tale of Genji on literature and other forms of artistic expression in Japan over the centuries. But it also draws our attention to the theatrical nature of The Tale of Genji. The seemingly insignificant episode which so affected Chikamatsu has all the constituent elements of a scene, defined as “the interaction of two agents watched by a third.” 3 The gaze of the hero, Hikaru Genji, shapes the reality before him into a spectacle separated from him by an invisible boundary, here accentuated by the fictional nature of what is being observed. “A scene alternates between two components: its assumed remote gaze and its isolation in a place circumscribed by that gaze.”4 As Shimizu Yoshiko writes, “There, where the gaze of a character rests, unfolds a world with a visual structure, that is, a scene.” 5

  • 6 Ibid.
  • 7 Mitamura Masako, “’Wakamurasaki’ kaimami saidoku: dareka ni nita hito,” Genji kenkyū 8 (April 2003) (...)
  • 8 Kawakami Noriko, “Genji monogatari ni okeru kaimami no kenkyū,” Nihon bungaku 46 (September 1976), (...)
  • 9 Imai Gen’e, “Kodai shōsetsu sōsaku jō no ichi shuhō kaimami ni tsuite,” Kokugo to kokubungaku 25:3 (...)

2“One speaks of a scene,” Shimizu also notes, “when a passage is structured along the lines of the visual world. This is a basic procedure in The Tale of Genji whenever there is specific linguistic portrayal.” Or again, “It is in the scenes, there where a character’s point of view is introduced, that depictions of human beings take on the greatest sense of reality.” 6 Shimizu emphasizes the importance of visual factors in The Tale of Genji, as structured into a sequence of scenes. Those which particularly stand out for their intensity are the kaimami 垣間見 scenes (lit., looking or gazing through a fence), in which one character watches others through a gap in a partition intended to conceal them from his eyes. The kaimami motif appears in The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter as well as in the first episode of Tales of Ise, but genuine scenes emerge only with novels written in the latter half of the tenth century. There are many kaimami scenes in The Tale of the Cavern (Utsuho monogatari うつほ物語)—over fifty, according to Mitamura Masako.7 Of the thirty-three kaimami scenes in The Tale of Genji, a man watches a woman in twenty-four.8 Although the high incidence is characteristic of the world of fiction,9 the kaimami motif appears to have originated in the realities of daily life: the large interior spaces of an aristocratic Heian house, separated only by partitions, folding screens, or portable curtain-screens, did not lend themselves to privacy. Contemporary custom, moreover, forbade a high-ranking woman from being seen by anyone but her spouse and a small circle of close relatives. Thus Genji vigilantly keeps his son Yūgiri from glimpsing his wives’ faces, especially that of his favorite, Murasaki. When a man looks at a woman in a kaimami scene, he tends to experience a strong sense of transgression, escalating to terror when a difference in rank or position lends special weight to the general prohibition. The act of kaimami, then, is at the center of conflict between propriety and the practice of amorousness. An amorous man (irogonomi naru otoko) was as skilled in the ways of the world and the art of seduction as he was in poetry and music. Despite the risk of scandal or disgrace which it entailed, kaimami formed part of his apprenticeship.

  • 10 “The Operation of the Lyrical Mode in the Genji monogatari,” in Andrew Pekarik, ed., Ukifune: Love (...)

3Kaimami scenes, in which a man’s fascinated or scrutinizing gaze is fixed on a woman, are emblematic of the romantic Heian novel. They are both a strength and a dynamic principle, as Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen observes in an essay on the Uji 宇治 Chapters: “… a momentary pleasure generates its own desire for repetition, a fugitive glimpse ever strives toward a completed vision, and absence strains toward presence.” “Such moments recur in Japanese romantic tales and in poetry,” Ramirez-Christensen continues, “hence I think we are justified in seeing them as a kind of archetypal motif signifying the inception of love.” 10 In a kaimami scene the reader is invited to identify with the character. He or she sees the scene unfolding, has access to the same sight, and shares the character’s fascination. At the same time, the reader sees the character in the act of looking. A kaimami scene is in fact double, a combination of two scenes: the one seen by the character, and another in which the character is seen as he watches. This particularly intense moment also gives the reader an opportunity to reflect critically on the episode. Kaimami scenes may thus be seen as highly representative of novelistic illusion and the way in which it functions.

  • 11 Jean Rousset, « Leurs yeux se rencontrèrent » : la scène de première vue dans le roman, (Paris : J (...)
  • 12 Ibid., p. 7.

4The kaimami scene may be the Japanese equivalent of the scene of “love at first sight” analyzed by Jean Rousset in his celebrated study; in a note, he wonders whether the scene might be universal.11 Certainly the Heian fictional version of an amorous meeting differs considerably from the prototype of “two people meeting for the first time” encountered in European literature.12Kaimami scenes are essentially asymmetrical, with a clear distinction between the one who is seen and the one who sees. On the other hand, not all kaimami scenes involve love at first sight, even though all assume an absence of intimacy between the characters. The recurrence, intensity, and narrative role of kaimami scenes, however, suggest that they occupy in Heian romantic literature a place analogous to scenes of love at first sight in the western novel, and as such merit closer examination.

Utsusemi and Nokiba no Ogi

  • 13 Op. cit., p. 34.

5Writing about the kaimami scene in the “Lavender” (“Wakamurasaki” 若紫) chapter of The Tale of Genji,13 Mitamura Masako challenges the traditional view that pre-Genji novels are primitive, clumsily written works. She asserts that the kaimami scenes in the final chapters of The Tale of the Cavern are well developed, and demonstrates that the famous scene in “Wakamurasaki” is based fairly closely on a scene in The Tale of the Cavern. In the “Wakamurasaki” scene, Genji is staying in the mountains outside the capital when he discovers the young Murasaki; in The Tale of the Cavern, Nakatada discovers and surreptitiously watches his father Kanemasa’s missing wife and her young son, Nakatada’s half-brother, who are staying in the temple of Ishizukuri-dera. Although the import of the two scenes differs substantially, the Genji author nevertheless took a scene familiar to her readers and transformed it into one in which Genji discovers a child who strikingly resembles the woman he loves.

6Something similar may be said about a kaimami scene in the third chapter of the Genji, “The Shell of the Locust” (“Utsusemi” 空蝉). In this scene the seventeen-year-old Hikaru Genji surreptitiously watches Utsusemi, the governor of Iyo’s wife (with whom he had earlier spent a night, as described in the previous chapter), while she is playing go with her stepdaughter Nokiba no Ogi. Guided into the governor’s house by Utsusemi’s younger brother, Genji slips through the blinds and gazes at the women through half-opened shutters. The woman facing east is in plain view, while the other seems to want to hide even from her companion’s eyes. The device employed here strongly resembles that used in the kaimami scene in The Tale of the Lower Room (Ochikubo monogatari 落窪物語), a late tenth-century work. The hero, Michiyori, has set his heart on a young lady of high birth whose mother is dead and whose stepmother persecutes her. In the scene, Michiyori has an opportunity to visit the young lady; but before going to her, he wants to be sure that he has indeed chosen a beauty. He enters her rooms and, peering through a lattice, sees two women. One, a servant, is in plain sight; the lady herself is glimpsed only from behind, and her face is not visible.

  • 14 The translation is mine.—Trans.

He saw a guttering lamp burning in the room. No curtain-stand or folding screen obstructed his view. The one who was seated facing him must be Akoki; she was pretty, with attractive hair, and wore a white singlet under a short robe [akome] of highly glossed silk. The person reclining near her must be the lady. She seemed to be wearing a soft white singlet, and was covered below the waist by a glossed silk padded robe which she had pulled around her. She was turned away from him and so he could not see her face. He was admiring the rich cascade of hair and the splendid way she held her head [kashiratsuki], when the lamp suddenly went out.14

  • 15 Ochikubo monogatari, Sumiyoshi monogatari, SNKBT 18 (Tōkyō: Iwanami Shoten 1984), p. 23.


In “Utsusemi,” the first young woman to be described is the one whose face is hidden; otherwise, the respective structures of the two scenes are strikingly similar:

The shutter through which the boy had gone was still raised. Genji could see through to the west. One panel of a screen just inside had been folded back, and the curtains, which should have shielded off the space beyond, had been thrown over their frames, perhaps because of the heat. The view was unobstructed.

  • 16 Edward Seidensticker, trans., The Tale of Genji (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), p. 50.

There was a lamp near the women. The one in silhouette with her back against a pillar—would she be the one on whom his heart was set? He looked first at her. She seemed to have on a purple singlet with a woven pattern, and over it a cloak of which the color and material were not easy to determine. She was a small, rather ordinary lady with delicate features. She evidently wanted to conceal her face even from the girl opposite, and she kept her thin little hands tucked in her sleeves. Her opponent was facing east, and Genji had a full view of her face. Over a singlet of white gossamer she had thrown a purplish cloak, and both garments were somewhat carelessly open all the way to the band of the red trousers. She was very handsome, tall and plump and of a fair complexion, and the lines of her head and forehead were strong and pleasing. It was a sunny face, with a beguiling cheerfulness about the eyes and mouth. Though not particularly long, the hair was rich and thick, and very beautiful where it fell about the shoulders. He could detect no marked flaws…16

  • 17 Genji monogatari 1, Shinchō Nihon koten shūsei (hereafter SNKS), Shinchōsha, vol. 1, 1976, pp. 107- (...)


7In both passages a lamp illuminates the figures of two women, although the lamp in The Tale of the Lower Room is guttering and finally goes out, putting an end to Michiyori’s view. The techniques utilized in the portraits are also similar and may conform to preexisting models. The same components are mentioned in both scenes: items of clothing, the way the head is held, hair, facial features. The principal variant introduced by the Genji author is to make the two women of equal rank rather than mistress and servant. The social difference in Ochikubo monogatari becomes, in The Tale of Genji, a difference of character and sensitivity (kokoro). The low-ranking servant Akoki need not conceal herself from an eminent person such as Michiyori, while Nokiba no Ogi does not think to conceal herself because she lacks self-awareness and sensitivity. Murasaki Shikibu presents the portraits of Utsusemi and her stepdaughter Nokiba no Ogi in sequence:

  • 18 Seidensticker, trans., p. 51.

Gazing at her, Genji was able to make out the details of the profile. The eyelids seemed a trifle swollen, the lines of the nose were somewhat erratic, and there was a weariness, a want of luster, about the face. It was, one had to admit, a little on the plain side. Yet she clearly paid attention to her appearance, and there were details likely to draw the eye to a subtler sensibility than was evident in her lively companion. The latter, very engaging indeed, laughed ever more happily. There was no denying the bright gaiety, and in her way she was interesting enough. A shallow, superficial thing, no doubt, but to his less than pure heart she seemed a prize not to be flung away.18

目をしつとつけたまへれば、おのづからそば目に見ゆ。目すこし腫れたるここちして、鼻などもあざやかなるところなうねびれて、にほはしきところも見えず、言ひ立つれば、わろきによれる容貌を、いといたうもてつけて、このまされる人よりは心あらむと、目とどめつべきさましたり。にぎははしう愛敬づきをかしげなるを、いよいよほこりかにうちとけて、笑ひなどそぼるれば、にほひ多く見えて、さるかたにいとをかしき人ざまなり。あはつけしとはおぼしながら、まめならぬ御心は、これもえおぼし放つまじかりけり. (1:109)

  • 19 For a discussion of nihohi (radiance; nioi in modern transcription), see Fujiwara Katsumi, “Nioi: (...)

8Unlike Nokiba no Ogi, who appears “very engaging indeed” (nihohi ooku miete, literally, “in all her radiance”19), Utsusemi has no radiance (nihohi) whatsoever. Her manner, even the movements of her hands, expresses complete reserve and a desire not to expose herself; her features appear blurred and indistinct. Although there is nothing about her to arrest the gaze, everything suggests a sensitivity and distinction not promised by her stepdaughter’s striking beauty. This is what “draw[s] the eye” of Genji. The young hero’s emotions are divided between two diametrically opposed objects.

9As in The Tale of the Lower Room, the kaimami is intensified in the scene that follows, where the hero goes to be with the woman he has just been watching. Michiyori passes his first night with the lady of the lower room and remains faithful to her throughout the story. The young Genji’s adventure is less clear-cut. Hearing him approach, Utsusemi escapes, leaving behind an overrobe in addition to her stepdaughter. Genji spends the night with Nokiba no Ogi, whose lack of subtlety so disappoints him that he does not even bother to send her a morning-after note. By hiding nothing, Nokiba no Ogi heralds nothing and promises nothing. Her striking beauty (nihohi ohoshi) is self-sufficient and non-referential, unlike that of Murasaki, who reminds Genji from the start of her whom he loves best of all. Nokiba no Ogi attracts Genji, but she cannot keep him. Left behind, along with an overrobe, by Utsusemi in her flight, Nokiba no Ogi lies as inert and lifeless in Genji’s hands as a cicada’s shell. Only later, when she has become a memory, does Nokiba no Ogi inspire Genji with fresh feelings of desire and regret.

Ōigimi and Nakanokimi

10The kaimami scene inaugurating Genji’s adventures may be emblematic of central issues in the novel. These are echoed in another set of kaimami scenes involving two women which appear in the Uji Chapters at the end of the novel. Kaoru, one of two heroes in these final chapters, twice glimpses the Eighth Prince’s young daughters, who have gone to live with their father in this isolated riverside setting. The first scene, a nocturnal one, occurs in “The Lady at the Bridge” (“Hashi-hime” 橋姫). Kaoru wants to hear the young women playing their musical instruments, a lute and a koto. He watches them through the mist, in intermittent moonlight. The moon takes the place of the earlier lamplight, imparting an almost cosmic dimension to the scene. The two women are not named and are barely distinguishable one from the other. Kaoru is unable to recognize women whom he does not yet know, unlike Genji, who immediately recognizes Utsusemi; nevertheless, the scene presents an attenuated version of the Utsusemi-Nokiba no Ogi polarity. Ōigimi seems the more composed and sensitive, and her sister Nakanokimi more giddy and effusive. Again, the latter has a striking beauty, described here with the adjective nihohiyaka, a derivative of nihohi:

The princesses were farther inside. Half hidden by a pillar, one had a lute before her and sat toying with the plectrum. Just then the moon burst forth in all its brilliance.

“Well, now,” she said. “This does quite as well as a fan for bringing out the moon.” The upraised face was bright and lively [rahutageni nihohiyaka narubeshi].

  • 20 Seidensticker, trans., p. 785.

The other, leaning against an armrest, had a koto before her. “I have heard that you summon the sun with one of those objects, but you seem to have ideas of your own on how to use it.” She was smiling, a melancholy, contemplative sort of smile [omorikani yoshidzukitari].20


11Having been alerted to the presence of a visitor, the two women and their servants withdraw with great dignity, putting an end to the scene while making a deep impression on Kaoru.

12The contrast between the two sisters is revisited and reinforced in the second kaimami scene, which appears in “Beneath the Oak” (“Shii ga moto” 椎本). This time the scene occurs in the daytime, in the heat of summer. Having come to Uji to cool off, Kaoru settles himself into a room adjoining the chapel. The young women, who are occupying the chapel, move away; but they are glimpsed by Kaoru, who has stationed himself behind the partition and observes their withdrawal through a hole near the latch.

The first to enter his range of vision went to the veranda and looked out at his men, who were walking up and down in front of the house, taking the cool of the river breezes. She was wearing a dark-gray singlet and orange trousers. Unusual and surprisingly gay, the combination suggested subtle, careful taste. A scarf was flung loosely over her shoulders and the ends of a rosary hung from a sleeve. She was slender and graceful, and her hair, which would perhaps have fallen just short of the hem of a formal robe, was thick and lustrous, with no trace of disorder the whole of its length. Her profile was flawless [rahutage], her skin fresh and unblemished [nihohiyakani], and there was pride and at the same time serenity in her manner. He thought of Niou’s oldest sister. He had once had a glimpse of her, and the longing it had inspired came back afresh.

The other princess moved cautiously into view.

“That door is absolutely naked.” She looked towards him, everything about her suggesting wariness and reserve [yoshi aramu to oboyu]. Something in the flow of her hair gave her even more dignity than he had seen in the other lady.

“There’s a screen behind it,” said a young serving woman unconcernedly. “And we won’t give him time for a peek.”

  • 21 Seidensticker, trans., pp. 819-20.

“But how awful if he should see us.” She looked guardedly back as she made her way to the far door, carrying herself with a pensive grace that few could have imitated. She wore a singlet and a lined robe of the same dark stuff as her sister’s, set off in the same combination. Hers was a sadder, quieter beauty which he found even more compelling. Her hair was less luxuriant, perhaps from grief and neglect, and the ends were somewhat uneven. Yet it was very lovely, like a cluster of silken threads, and it had the iridescence of “rainbow tresses,” or the wing of a halcyon. The hand in which she held a purple scroll was smaller and more delicate than her sister’s. The younger princess knelt at the far door and looked back smiling. He thought her completely charming.21



  • 22 “’Shii ga moto’ no kanmatsu no kaimami bamen o megutte: Onna ichi no miya to no kakawari o jiku ni (...)

13The animated quality of this kaimami scene singles it out from the rest. The contrast between the two sisters is fully developed here. One is standing, carelessly looking out, while the other, who either remains seated or moves by sliding on her knees, is always concerned about places from which they might be visible. In mourning for their father, they are dressed almost identically, but the same clothes give different impressions: vivacity in the younger sister and somber elegance in the older. Again, the former’s beauty is described by the same adjectives used in the earlier scene, rahutage (lively, flawless) and nihohiyaka (fresh, striking). Similarly, the expression yoshidzukitaru (delicate, distinguished) used to characterize the older sister in the first scene is echoed here by yoshi aramu (distinguished, reserved). Finally, while the older sister quickly vanishes behind the far door, the younger one lingers, smiling and turning toward Kaoru’s hiding place. With this smile the story breaks off, climactically and elliptically: the end of the scene is not recounted. Like the young Genji in “Utsusemi,” Kaoru experiences two emotions simultaneously. He is charmed by the beauty of the younger sister, who reminds him of yet another woman, the First Princess. Kaoru has seen the princess once before, and admires her perfect, remote beauty at length in a kaimami scene in a later chapter, “The Drake Fly” (“Kagerō” 蜻蛉). At the same time, however, he finds the older sister’s reserve and elegance “even more compelling” (aharege ni kokorogurushū oboyu). As the scene takes place at the very end of the chapter, its only effect is to inspire these emotions in Kaoru. Yet, in what Sukegawa Kōichirō sees as visual transposition,22 the reader is given insight into Kaoru’s relationship with the two sisters.

“Bamboo River”

14The motif of two sisters glimpsed in a kaimami scene is also present in “Bamboo River” (“Takekawa” 竹河), one of three intermediary chapters that divide the principal part of the novel, ending with Genji’s death, from the ten final chapters, known as the Uji Chapters. The three intermediary chapters relate events in the capital following Genji’s death. “Takekawa” tells the story of Genji’s adopted daughter Tamakazura, the widow of the regent Higekuro. With her husband dead, she is no longer in a strong political position, but she nevertheless feels compelled to carry out his plans for their daughters. Tamakazura is confronted by difficult choices: whether to accede to requests from the palace, or to the retired emperor Reizei’s pleas, or indeed to other suitors attracted by the girls’ reputation for beauty. The last group includes the irresolute Kaoru as well as Yūgiri’s son (Genji’s grandson) the lieutenant, a comically lovesick figure who is infatuated with the older sister. Truly a miniature novel,“Takekawa” recounts the progress of marriage plans for Tamakazura’s daughters, Kaoru’s early appearances in society as a young adult, and the lieutenant’s persistent courtship. One of the highlights of the chapter is a kaimami scene that takes place while the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. The lieutenant, who has come to visit one of Tamakazura’s sons, finds the house empty. He opens the door to the veranda and sees, across an interior garden, the two sisters engaged in a game of go.

Yūgiri’s son the lieutenant had come again to visit the youngest son of the house. The latter was off with his brothers, however, and his rooms were quiet. Finding an open gallery door, the lieutenant peered cautiously inside [yawora yorite nozokikeri]. An enchanting sight greeted him, like a revelation of the Blessed One himself (and it was rather sad that he should be so dazzled). An evening mist somewhat obscured the scene, but he thought that she in the red-lined robe of white, the “cherry” as it is called, must be the one who so interested him. Lovely, vivacious—she would be “a memento [katami] when they have fallen.” He must not let another man have her. The young attendants were also very beautiful in the evening light.

The lady on the right was the victor. “Give a loud Korean cheer,” said one of her supporters, and indeed they were rather noisy in their rejoicing. “It leaned to the west to show that it was ours all along, and you people refused to accept the facts.”

  • 23 Seidensticker, trans., pp. 760-761.

Though not entirely sure what was happening, the lieutenant would have liked to join them. Instead he withdrew, for it would not do to let them know that they had been observed in this happy abandon. Thereafter he was often to be seen lurking about the premises, hoping for another such opportunity.23


15The motif of two sisters playing go directly relates this scene to that in “Utsusemi,” yet they are quite different in nature. The lieutenant’s gaze is far less keen than Genji’s. Overcome by emotion, he seems oblivious to the younger sister: instead, his gaze is immediately arrested by the older sister, possibly recognizable by her seat on the left or senior side of the go board. Poor visibility keeps him from seeing anything of her but the color of her clothing. The Buddhist vocabulary, which confers an almost religious sense of reverence on the scene, appears deeply ironic. The spring season and the cherry blossom motif are reminiscent of another series of kaimami scenes: in “Wakamurasaki,” when Genji discovers the young Murasaki; in “New Herbs: Part One” (“Wakana jō” 若菜上), when the ill-starred Kashiwagi glimpses Genji’s wife, the Third Princess, and falls in love with her, an episode which leads to their adultery and his premature death; and in “The Typhoon” (“Nowaki” 野分), when a storm reveals Yūgiri’s stepmother Murasaki to him for the first and last time, and he compares her beauty to cherry blossoms. Cherry blossoms symbolize both great beauty and evanescence or unwonted brevity. In “Takekawa” the latter aspect is emphasized: the older sister’s comparison to cherry blossoms is ironically linked to her forthcoming marriage and permanent separation from her suitor. The word katami 形見, a keepsake left behind by one who is absent, is deeply evocative of separation. Despite the misty half-light, the lieutenant’s eyes are filled with the young woman’s striking beauty (nihohi ohoku); yet this only increases his frustration and sense of loss, expressed by a poetic allusion which, in the original text, may be either the character’s thought or a narratorial comment. In the end, the lieutenant comes upon a scene he can barely make out—apart from an image of inevitable separation.

16As if to emphasize his impaired gaze, the kaimami scene proper is preceded by a scene in which we see the two young women as they appear to their mother, their female attendants, and the brothers who have come to watch their go game before leaving for the palace. The scene contains a precise description of the young women which contrasts their respective good looks according to a now-familiar principle, using terms approximating those encountered earlier.

  • 24 Seidensticker, trans., pp. 758-759.

She was wearing a white cloak lined with red and a robe of russet with a yellow lining. It was a charming combination that went beautifully with the season, and there was a flair even in her way of quietly tucking her skirts about her that made other girls feel rather dowdy [rauraujiku kokoro hazukashiki]. The younger sister had chosen a light robe of pink, and the soft flow of her hair put one in mind of a willow tree. She was a tall, proud beauty with a face that suggested a meditative turn [omorikani kokorobukaki kehahi]. Yet there were those who said that if an ability to catch and hold the eye [nihohiyaka naru kehahi] was the important thing, then the older sister was the great beauty of the day.24


17Unable to appropriate this detailed view, the lieutenant is soon relegated by the reader to an inferior position. In addition, he displays questionable judgment in disregarding the younger sister’s deeper, less showy beauty: although he could have had her for his wife, he is interested only in the older sister, the one beyond his reach. His choice places him clearly outside the tradition represented by Genji and Kaoru. Although the novel does not comment on the matter, it is surely not coincidental that the younger sister succeeds at court, where she serves as an official, while the older sister, married to the retired emperor, has difficult relations with his principal wife.

18The go game motif is also treated differently. In “Utsusemi” the game continues after Genji withdraws. He does not see its end, but when he hears the tumult signalling that it is over, he decides to go into Utsusemi’s room. The go game thus connects the kaimami scene to what happens next in the story. By contrast, in “Takekawa” the game begins before the lieutenant’s arrival and ends during the kaimami scene, distracting the hero from the sight of his beloved. With no connection to subsequent events, the kaimami scene is left unresolved, while the lieutenant waits in vain for a recurrence.


19The kaimami scene condenses several aspects that are characteristic of Heian period novels. Although late tenth-century works already contain elaborate examples of kaimami, The Tale of Genji fully explores its potential by employing variations. The regular reappearance of kaimami scenes is indicative of their obsessive character, and the variations facilitate a complex play of opposition and connection. As the initial motif of the locust shell (utsusemi) illustrates, the scene being viewed is always referred to what is beyond the spectacle, the visible to that which is hidden, the present to the absent. In this respect, the scenes under discussion achieve their full significance when placed in relation to a scene not easily included in the kaimami group: the scene in “The Rites” (Minori 御法) in which Genji’s son draws back a curtain and views Murasaki’s lifeless body (munashiki kara むなしき骸).

He lifted the curtains as he spoke, making it seem that Genji had summoned him. In the dim morning twilight Genji had brought a lamp near Murasaki’s dead face. He knew that Yūgiri was beside him, but somehow felt that to screen this beauty from his son’s gaze would only add to the anguish.

“Exactly as she was,” he whispered. “But as you see, it is all over.”

  • 25 Seidensticker, trans., pp. 718-719.

He covered his face. Yūgiri too was weeping. He brushed the tears away and struggled to see through them as the sight of the dead face brought them flooding back again. Though her hair had been left untended through her illness, it was smooth and lustrous and not a strand was out of place. In the bright lamplight the skin was a purer, more radiant white than the living lady, seated at her mirror, could have made it. Her beauty, as if in untroubled sleep, emptied words like “peerless” of all content. He almost wished that the spirit which seemed about to desert him might be given custody of the unique loveliness before him.25


  • 26 This is one interpretation of the passage, suggested notably by Shimizu Yoshiko in her edition of (...)

20Wrapped in perfect, luminous beauty, Murasaki is completely exposed to Yūgiri’s gaze in the very presence of Prince Genji; but Genji is no longer interested in keeping him from seeing her. Even Yūgiri’s blinding tears do not obscure his vision. The boundary-screen through which forbidden sights are glimpsed in kaimami scenes fades, giving place to the boundary that separates the worlds of the living and the dead—a border Yūgiri wants to cross when, griefstricken, he wishes his soul would bind itself to Murasaki’s body.26 Poem 73 of the Kokinshū, quoted at the beginning of this essay, states clearly that the striking beauty (nihohu) of cherry blossoms is the image of the ephemeral world of phenomena (utsusemi no yo). The mortal remains of Murasaki, a character whose striking beauty (nihohu) is frequently associated with blossoming cherries, may thus be both a reprise and the key to the motif of the locust’s shell (utsusemi) introduced at the beginning of the novel in the eponymous chapter.

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1 Kokin waka shū, Shin Nihon koten bungaku taikei (hereafter SNKBT) 5, (Tōkyō: Iwanami shoten, 1989), p. 39. Edwin A. Cranston, trans., A Waka Anthology, Volume Two: Grasses of Remembrance (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), p. 140.

2 Chikamatsu jōruri shū, Nihon koten bungaku taikei (hereafter NKBT) 50, (Tōkyō: Iwanami shoten, 1959), p. 356.

3 Marie-Thérèse Mathet, “Avant-propos,” in la Scène, Littérature et Arts Visuels, ed. Marie-Thérèse Mathet (Paris : L’Harmattan, 2001), p. 7.

4 Arnaud Rykner, “La scène sans la scène”, ibid, p. 197.

5 Shimizu Yoshiko, Genji monogatari no buntai to hōhō, (Tōkyō: Tōkyō daigaku shuppankai, 1980), p. 60.

6 Ibid.

7 Mitamura Masako, “’Wakamurasaki’ kaimami saidoku: dareka ni nita hito,” Genji kenkyū 8 (April 2003), p. 54.

8 Kawakami Noriko, “Genji monogatari ni okeru kaimami no kenkyū,” Nihon bungaku 46 (September 1976), p. 12.

9 Imai Gen’e, “Kodai shōsetsu sōsaku jō no ichi shuhō kaimami ni tsuite,” Kokugo to kokubungaku 25:3 (March 1948), p. 28.

10 “The Operation of the Lyrical Mode in the Genji monogatari,” in Andrew Pekarik, ed., Ukifune: Love in The Tale of Genji (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 33.

11 Jean Rousset, « Leurs yeux se rencontrèrent » : la scène de première vue dans le roman, (Paris : José Corti, 1984), p. 12n.

12 Ibid., p. 7.

13 Op. cit., p. 34.

14 The translation is mine.—Trans.

15 Ochikubo monogatari, Sumiyoshi monogatari, SNKBT 18 (Tōkyō: Iwanami Shoten 1984), p. 23.

16 Edward Seidensticker, trans., The Tale of Genji (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), p. 50.

17 Genji monogatari 1, Shinchō Nihon koten shūsei (hereafter SNKS), Shinchōsha, vol. 1, 1976, pp. 107-108.

18 Seidensticker, trans., p. 51.

19 For a discussion of nihohi (radiance; nioi in modern transcription), see Fujiwara Katsumi, “Nioi: ikiru koto no fukasa,” in Fujiwara Katsumi et al., eds., Genji monogatari: niou, yosoou, inoru (Wedge sensho 37 [Tōkyō: Wedge, 2008], pp. 32-57). Fujiwara conducts an in-depth analysis of the significance of nihohu and kaworu: these terms, which have become synonyms signifying “to perfume,” originally represented distinct semantic spheres. As no Chinese character approximated the meaning of nihohu, an ad hoc character (a kokuji or “Japanese character”), 匂, was devised in order to write the word. Nihohu was first used to describe both visual and olfactory sensations, and could also mean “to dye,” “to permeate,” and “to reach.” Whether the impression evoked was olfactory or visual, the term primarily signified the sense of something flowing or enveloping (perhaps originally accompanied by a connection to animistic beliefs). The term nihohu is opposed to kaworu, which signifies a deeper but less intense scent or appearance.

20 Seidensticker, trans., p. 785.

21 Seidensticker, trans., pp. 819-20.

22 “’Shii ga moto’ no kanmatsu no kaimami bamen o megutte: Onna ichi no miya to no kakawari o jiku ni,” Chūko bungaku ronkō 17 (Dec. 1996), p. 81.

23 Seidensticker, trans., pp. 760-761.

24 Seidensticker, trans., pp. 758-759.

25 Seidensticker, trans., pp. 718-719.

26 This is one interpretation of the passage, suggested notably by Shimizu Yoshiko in her edition of Genji monogatari (SNKS, vol. 6, p. 117). Other Genji scholars, including Abe Akio, one of the editors of Genji monogatari in the Nihon koten bungaku zenshū series (Shōgakukan, 1970-76), believe it refers to the dead woman’s soul lingering in her body (4:496). My reading is based on the former interpretation.
The connection between ideal beauty and death also appears in the kaimami scene in “Kagerō” in which Kaoru watches the First Princess surreptitiously. The episode takes place on the fifth day of a recitation of the Lotus Sûtra held at the Rokujō house in memory of Genji and Murasaki. After the ceremony concludes, Kaoru happens upon this princess, whom he saw when she was a child and who left an indelible impression on him. As the scene takes place in summer, the princess is wearing a gauzy white robe and is cooling herself with a piece of ice. When Kaoru returns home he has his wife recreate the scene, but this fails to satisfy him. He remembers all the women he has known and who have eluded him, and is reminded once again of the mutability of worldly things. His feelings crystallize in a poem centering on the image of the drake fly (kagerō):
ari to mite/   There—you can see them,
te ni ha torarezu/But not catch them in your hand,
mireba mata/   And when you look again
yukuhe mo shirazu/They have vanished, who knows where,
kieshi kagerohu/These ephemerids of dusk.
(SNKS, vol. 8, 1985, p. 170; Cranston, trans., p. 965.)

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Electronic reference

Daniel Struve, “Stolen Glimpses: Convention and Variations”Cipango - French Journal of Japanese Studies [Online], 3 | 2014, Online since 12 October 2015, connection on 20 January 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Daniel Struve

CRCAO/University of Paris Diderot

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