Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji tells the story of the Emperor’s son Genji. The novel, set during the Heian period, highlighted the romantic exploits of Genji and highlighted the adoration of people around him. It also reflected Genji’s dealings with the aristocracy and presented notable characteristics unique to the era. Alongside the prominence of Genji’s noble features throughout the novel comes the colorful selection of characters, all of which played significant roles that connected well to the events in which he featured.
Chapter Four of the novel, entitled “Yugao” or “The Twilight Beauty”, is among the many exhibitions of Genji’s romantic deeds. His ephemeral relationship with a woman named Yugao exposed the vulnerable side of his youthful self, triggered by the feeling of loss and grief. At the same time, it featured the involvement of Yugao’s lady-in-waiting named Ukon, a person later convinced by Genji to serve under him.
When Yugao was still alive, Ukon- as her lady-in-waiting showed her an unwavering sense of loyalty. Towards Yugao’s last moments, Ukon was greatly anxious towards her condition and feared the worst from the people close to her master when given the idea not to tell them about her fate. Even after Yugao died, Ukon stayed by her side and even wished to perish to follow her in the afterlife. The foregoing facets involving Ukon shows that ladies-in-waiting during the Heian period have limitations imposed unto them. Such leads to the thesis of this study that Ukon’s loyalty to Yugao and her fear of retribution from people close to her deceased master represent the social limitations of ladies-in-waiting conforming to the norms of the era. Particular portions of the chapter duly demonstrate the preceding thesis, which will build the succeeding discussions.
Ukon’s Loyalty to Yugao
Upon Yugao’s introduction, Ukon immediately entered the scene. That moment alone represented that Ukon is a significant part of Yugao’s life. She never left her master by her side, as shown during the time they moved from their house to the empty mansion in which her master died. Indeed, it is clear from the onset that Yugao treated Ukon as her most trusted aide and Ukon, for her part, showed no reservations in carrying out her duty (Shikibu, 2002).
One could trace Ukon’s loyalty to Yugao to their childhood days. Ukon’s clear account of Yugao’s childhood story is, in itself, a strong showing of her loyalty. Yugao, according to Ukon, grew up an orphan after both of her parents died early into her life. Ukon, herself an orphan, grew together with Yugao, as Yugao’s foster parents raised both of them. Ukon grew up close to Yugao and served her as her lady-in-waiting starting from the time both of them gained consciousness in life. Ukon’s experience with Yugao’s foster parents is something that she is greatly grateful for; such became an integral part of her genuine sense of duty to protect Yugao, even during her marriage to Secretary Captain To no Chujo, who happened to be Genji’s best friend.
Yugao’s death did not see the end of Ukon’s loyalty. Ukon’s decision to join Genji as his new lady-in-waiting serves as her desire to honor Yugao – who Genji loved dearly, albeit briefly. The fact that Ukon showed great anxiety when Yugao grew unconscious and that she refused to leave her side despite requests from Genji to help him – to which she wanted to submit at the same time, seek help is reminiscent of an ideal trait of a lady-in-waiting during the Heian period. Loyalty is a highly valued virtue during the time. Ukon, who is socially limited to her role to be loyal to Yugao, duly satisfied said virtue (Shikibu, 2002).
Ukon’s Fear of Retribution
Alongside Ukon’s deep sense of loyalty to Yugao comes her strong sense of responsibility for any matters of her concern. Yugao’s death gave Ukon a heavy responsibility to inform the people most closely associated to her master. Yet, she has a problem in having to handle heavy emotions connected to Yugao’s demise, as it is natural for those people to feel shocked for her death. She feared that people closely associated with Yugao would blame her for her loss, much more for not informing them of her loss (Shikibu, 2002).
Whereas Ukon had several doubts in her mind concerning her duty to carry out the responsibility of telling people about the death of Yugao, she is nevertheless aware that she ought to fulfill said responsibility, as she is accountable for such given her status as the deceased’s lady-in-waiting. Yet, as she did not tell anyone of her death immediately, she is thus already late in informing people of Yugao’s demise. Thus, she felt a strong fear of retribution that might come from the people close to her master. At the same time, her ardent consultation with Genji – the one who loved Yugao dearly up to her death, provided implications of her deep concerns about her master (Shikibu, 2002).
Ukon’s fear of retribution from Yugao’s closest people signifies her strong sense of responsibility towards her duty as lady-in-waiting. Such shows that all her life, she has greatly accustomed herself to serve Yugao. Her loyalty is apparent in the way she is holding herself accountable to the people closest to Yugao – one that serves as an ideal trait of a lady-in-waiting during the Heian period. Such proves that her service to Yugao is genuine and heartfelt (Shikibu, 2002).
The foregoing has sufficiently shown that Ukon has been deeply loyal to Yugao as her lady-in-waiting. Her manifestations resemble that of the social limitations of ladies-in-waiting during the Heian period – a time when people, particularly the aristocracy, hold loyalty as a highly valued virtue. Ukon stayed by Yugao’s side all throughout her life. Ukon knew Yugao very well – from the time when her master’s foster parents raised the both of them, she formed an indestructible sense of loyalty formed by her genuine closeness to her. She did not take her position as lady-in-waiting for granted. In fact, she showed great gratitude for her position and she expressed an unpretentious sense of care for her. At the same time, she feared that Yugao’s death would cause a wave of backlash against her accountability. She knew that she is the one to be held accountable for her master’s death, being the only person that stayed by her side all the time. Her troubled stand on the matter led her to have thoughts of not telling Yugao’s closest people of her fate, hence the delay in carrying her responsibility. Indeed, her role as a lady-in-waiting fulfilled the social limitations associated to ladies-in-waiting during the Heian period, and she carried her role enthusiastically and without any reservations.
Shikibu, M. (2002). The tale of Genji. United Kingdom: Penguin Classics.