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Column "My Cool Japan"

Attorney at Law / Director, Cool Japan Fund

The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki is Cool.

Attorney at Law / Director, Cool Japan FundIzumi Hayashi

My name is Izumi Hayashi.

 In the photograph, I’m wearing a kimono for the Reopening Ceremony of the Kabuki-za, but normally I’m a completely different person. I’m a lawyer who specializes primarily in intellectual property and international trade.

 The Cool Japan Fund supports and promotes overseas development of Japanese products and services that truly embody the characteristic food, clothing, and housing found in the Japanese lifestyle. Since its founding in November of last year, the Fund has brought together members with various experiences, passionate hearts, and cool intellects. (If it had been cold hearts and hot intellect, we wouldn’t get very far). We are working hard, day and night.

 Now, the “cool” in “Cool Japan” obviously doesn’t mean cool as in “temperature” but cool as in “look.” But, saying that, some people are quite cool to the idea of there being a “Cool Japan.” It’s a bit embarrassing to admit it, but I felt the same way.
 So, what I did was I started thinking of “cool” as applying to the people who understand the appeal of Japanese culture. Once there was the famous commercial phrase “(a person) understanding a difference” in Japan. To support a creation of ties with those people around the world who love Japanese culture and understand what makes it good. This is how I think about our mission at the Cool Japan Fund. (Though this is a personal opinion).

 Across the entire world, there are many cool people who understand the appeal of traditional Japanese culture. There are probably too many to mention, but one of them is certainly Arthur David Waley (1899-1966), an English who translated The Tale of Genji, a chronicle written at the beginning of the 11th century by a court lady known as Murasaki Shikibu.

 Most young Japanese women probably got their first taste of the Tale of Genji from the manga series Asaki Yumemishi (created by Waki Yamato and published by Kodansha). But what earned the Tale of Genji the praise of the English-speaking world for its charm and universal themes was Waley’s outstanding translation titled, “Lady Murasaki, The Tale of Genji” (Published 1925-1933.) (It can also currently be read in a paperback published by Dover Publications.)

 According to Sukehiro Hirakawa, the author of “Arthur Waley –The Tale of Genji Translator” (Hakusuisha), Waley highly admired Lady Murasaki’s talent as a storyteller by writing “she wrote the most appropriate things in the most effective way.” In the opening to his book, Professor Hirakawa writes that Waley’s translation was “a historical achievement in which classic Japanese literature made an appearance at the center of the world in beautiful English” and also mentions “Waley’s incredible depiction of the magical realm of Hikaru Genji.” (Professor Hirakawa was born in 1931, and is also a very cool professor, by the way.)

 The capital of Japan moved to Kyoto in 794, back when it was known as Heian-kyo, and the Japanese envoy missions to Tang China were ended in 894. For almost 400 years, until the Heike were defeated at Dan-no-ura in 1185, it was a time of relative peace. It saw the development of refined culture born from Japanese sensibility, from the emergence of “women’s writing”– what we now call kana – to the flourishing of poetry, diaries and chronicles and construction of buildings in the Heian architectural style. The Tale of Genji was written by Murasaki Shikibu during that era of peace, and is said to have been completed in around 1008 AD.

 Professor Hirakawa suggests that the characters of the Tale of Genji live on in the modern day in the way we live, speak, and think. I truly believe this is true. This Japanese woman of the early 11th century portrays emotional subtleties in a way that calls out to people around the world in the 21st century. It is incredible that this universality can transcend time and space, and be so well-loved world-wide.

 In the Tale of Genji, we can also see the pillars of the Japanese lifestyle, in clothing, cuisine, and housing.

 One example can be seen in Murasaki Shikibu’s description of scents. The various scents that are described in the Tale of Genji reflect the seasons and the emotions of the characters who appear, tailored to the scenes in which they appeared. During the Heian Period, the custom of infusing rooms and kimonos with scents was popular, particularly in the imperial court, and basic formulations were set for each season. Apparently people would also subtly adjust the proportions to create scents all their own.

 Professor Hirakawa wrotes that the concept of being moved by “the fragrance (scents) of clothes which a lover threw off” was a traditional form of thought in Japan (p.207 in his book). He also mentions that the Tale of Genji is full of expressions that suddenly evoke the non-verbal senses – of smell, hearing, and taste – and bring to mind powerful images of the past. Here too we see just how excellent Lady Murasaki’s psychological portrayals truly were.

 In another example, Murasaki Shikibu describes a scene handing out clothing for New Year’s in the chapter titled “Tamakazura”. Genji has chosen clothing for all of his women, including his wife Murasaki, with color, color combination, and texture tailored to each. While the story takes place 1000 years ago, it’s hard to imagine Japanese men having such a smart gene, so I think it’s possible that the scene was a reflection of Murasaki Shikibu’s own fashion desires. The description of how the clothing was arranged, along with the descriptions of the characters themselves, even today gets across a sense of their beauty. The form of Japanese culture may have changed, but I think the Tale of Genji shows us that the various traditional colors and patterns have been continued to be passed down.

 One more example can be seen in the opening lines of the chapter titled “A Bed of Carnations.” The scene features Genji taking a meal with Yugiri and his cohorts at the fishing pavilion at the Rokujo mansion. Fishing pavilions, or tsuridono, were set up facing ponds in the gardens of aristocrats as a cool place to sit. In the story, the characters sit by the water’s edge in the tsuridono under the oppressive heat of a summer day, enjoying cold rice made with ice and ayu, or sweetfish. Even today, ayu is a part of the Japanese summer menu.

 So. What does Cool Japan mean to you?


Izumi Hayashi

Attorney at Law/ Director, Cool Japan Fund
After time working as a public prosecutor, in an international law firm, and at a San Francisco law firm, has been a partner at Eitai General Law Offices since 1993. Mainly works in intellectual property rights, international trade, overseas export, trade secret management and competition law. Previously served as president of the Japan Intellectual Property Arbitration Center, and chairperson of the Intellectual Property Center at the Japan Federation of Bar Associations. Currently serving as a member of the Council for Regulatory Reform for the second Abe cabinet.