December 26, 1998


One thing's for certain. Whether you sit on the side of the millennium aisle that believes it starts at the beginning of the year 2000, or the side that believes it starts at 2001, if you use the Julian calendar, when that leading one becomes a two, it's going to be a once in-a-lifetime event.

Comparatively few people saw it become a one in the first place. It's that time of year again to take a look at someone who, like most of us, will connect, or span, two millennia. This time it's a woman. With very few exceptions, there weren't many women around the year 1000 whose names have come down to us, unless they were royalty. One of these Royals was Japan's Empress Akiko. She was actually little more than a figurehead. Some 194 years before, in the year 806, when the Emperor Kammu died, the noble families of Japan, usually Fujiwaras, seized the real power, and it wouldn't be until the death of Fujiwara Yorimichi in 1067, that royal families once again ruled.

Nevertheless, figureheads are usually equipped with all of the symbolic trappings of royalty, and the Empress Akiko was no exception. A royal court was an indispensable symbol. And it's a member of this court we are concerned with today, not the empress. A high-ranking noblewoman of her majesty's entourage was the lady in waiting Baroness Shikibu Murasaki. Born around 978 and widowed by the plague about the year 1001, Shikibu, an intellectual, in society where it was improper for a woman to know much, joined Akiko's court and soon became a favorite, teaching the empress Chinese, an improper language. Like a child of today, the empress was tired of the same old fairy tales and insisted, "Tell me something new." Shikibu had been keeping a detailed diary of every aspect of court life and soon began weaving those details into a story about the adventures of the young prince Genji, with which she then entertained her royal patron, like a far eastern Sheherazade.

Genji, like his creator, is of the nobility, but with no real power, and therefore no threat to anyone. He is thus free to wander the land, conquering hearts, especially feminine ones. By the time of his death, he's gone through three wives and mistresses too many to count, some of them members of the court, others women he met on his travels. The story continues into the next generation. Shikibu juggled over 400 characters, carrying them down through a seventy-year period, in work that has been compared to Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. So detailed is the work that it provides just about all of the known details of the Heian Period of Japan. The baroness disappears from court records sometime between 1025 and 1031. Tale of the Genji is considered by many to be the world's first modern novel.


For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor


© 1998 David Minor Eagles Byte