Centuries before Shakespeare, Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji was already acknowledged as a classic of Japanese literature. Over the past century, this book has gained worldwide acceptance as not only the world's first novel but as one of the greatest works of literature of all time.
The hero of the tale, Prince Genji, is a shining example of the Heian-era ideal man—accomplished in poetry, dance, music, painting, and, not least of all to the novel's many plots, romance. The Tale of Genji and the characters and world it depicts have influenced Japanese culture to its very core. This celebrated translation by Arthur Waley gives Western readers a very genuine feel for the tone of this beloved classic.
This edition contains the complete Waley translation of all six books of The Tale of Genji and also contains a new foreword by Dennis Washburn with key insights into both the book and the importance of this translation for modern readers.
About the Author
Arthur Waley (1889-1966) taught himself Chinese and Japanese after being appointed Assistant Keeper of Oriental Prints and Manuscripts at the British Museum. He went on to become renowned as one of the most respected translators of Asian classics into English of his time. His translated works include The Noh Plays of Japan and Monkey.
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The Tale of Genji
By Murasaki Shikibu
Vintage Books USACopyright © 1990 Murasaki Shikibu
All right reserved.
The Paulownia Pavilion
* * *
Kiri means "paulownia tree" and tsubo "a small garden between palace buildings." Kiritsubo is therefore the name for the palace pavilion that has a paulownia in its garden. The Emperor installs Genji's mother there, so that readers have always called her Kiritsubo no Koi (the Kiritsubo Intimate), although the text does not.
In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all His Majesty's Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favor. Those others who had always assumed that pride of place was properly theirs despised her as a dreadful woman, while the lesser Intimates were unhappier still. The way she waited on him day after day only stirred up feeling against her, and perhaps this growing burden of resentment was what affected her health and obliged her often to withdraw in misery to her home; but His Majesty, who could less and less do without her, ignored his critics until his behavior seemed bound to be the talk of all.
From this sad spectacle the senior nobles and privy gentlemen could only avert their eyes. Such things had led to disorder and ruin even in China, they said, and as discontent spread through the realm, the example of Yokihi came more and more to mind, with many a painful consequence for the lady herself; yet she trusted in his gracious and unexampled affection and remained at court.
The Grand Counselor, her father, was gone, and it was her mother, a lady from an old family, who saw to it that she should give no less to court events than others whose parents were both alive and who enjoyed general esteem; but lacking anyone influential to support her, she often had reason when the time came to lament the weakness of her position.
His Majesty must have had a deep bond with her in past lives as well, for she gave him a wonderfully handsome son. He had the child brought in straightaway, for he was desperate to see him, and he was astonished by his beauty. His elder son, born to his Consort the daughter of the Minister of the Right, enjoyed powerful backing and was feted by all as the undoubted future Heir Apparent, but he could not rival his brother in looks, and His Majesty, who still accorded him all due respect, therefore lavished his private affection on the new arrival.
Her rank had never permitted her to enter His Majesty's common service. His insistence on keeping her with him despite her fine reputation and her noble bearing meant that whenever there was to be music or any other sort of occasion, his first thought was to send for her. Sometimes, after oversleeping a little, he would command her to stay on with him, and this refusal to let her go made her seem to deserve contempt; but after the birth he was so attentive that the mother of his firstborn feared that he might appoint his new son Heir Apparent over her own. This Consort, for whom he had high regard, had been the first to come to him, and it was she whose reproaches most troubled him and whom he could least bear to hurt, for she had given him other children as well.
Despite her faith in His Majesty's sovereign protection, so many belittled her and sought to find fault with her that, far from flourishing, she began in her distress to waste away. She lived in the Kiritsubo. His Majesty had to pass many others on his constant visits to her, and no wonder they took offense. On the far too frequent occasions when she went to him, there might be a nasty surprise awaiting her along the crossbridges and bridgeways, one that horribly fouled the skirts of the gentlewomen who accompanied her or who came forward to receive her; or, the victim of a conspiracy between those on either side, she might find herself locked in a passageway between two doors that she could not avoid, and be unable to go either forward or back. Seeing how she suffered from such humiliations, endlessly multiplied as circumstances favored her enemies' designs, His Majesty had the Intimate long resident in the Koroden move elsewhere and gave it to her instead, for when he wanted to have her nearby. The one evicted nursed a particularly implacable grudge.
In the child's third year his father gave him a donning of the trousers just as impressive as his firstborn's, marshaling for the purpose all the treasures in the Court Repository and the Imperial Stores. This only provoked more complaints, but as the boy grew, he revealed such marvels of beauty and character that no one could resent him. The discerning could hardly believe their eyes, and they wondered that such a child should have ever been born.
In the summer of that year His Majesty's Haven became unwell, but he refused her leave to withdraw. He felt no alarm, since her health had long been fragile, and he only urged her to be patient a little longer. However, she worsened daily, until just five or six days later she was so weak that her mother's tearful entreaties at last persuaded him to release her. In fear of suffering some cruel humiliation even now, she left the child behind and stole away.
His Majesty, who could no longer keep her by him, suffered acutely to think that he could not even see her off. There she lay, lovely and ever so dear, but terribly thin now and unable to tell him of her deep trouble and sorrow because she lingered in a state of semiconsciousness--a sight that drove from his mind all notion of time past or to come and reduced him simply to assuring her tearfully, in every way he knew, how much he loved her.
When she still failed to respond but only lay limp and apparently fainting, with the light dying from her eyes, he had no idea what to do. Even after issuing a decree to allow her the privilege of a hand carriage, he went in to her again and could not bring himself to let her go. "You promised never to leave me, not even at the end," he said, "and you cannot abandon me now! I will not let you!"
She was so touched that she managed to breathe:
"Now the end has come, and I am filled with sorrow that our ways must part:
the path I would rather take is the one that leads to life.
If only I had known ..."
She seemed to have more to say but to be too exhausted to go on, which only decided him, despite her condition, to see her through to whatever might follow. He consented only unwillingly to her departure when urgently reminded that excellent healers were to start prayers for her that evening at her own home.
With his heart too full for sleep, he anxiously awaited dawn. He expressed deep concern even before his messenger had time to come back from her house. Meanwhile, the messenger heard lamenting and learned that just past midnight she had breathed her last, and he therefore returned in sorrow. This news put His Majesty in such a state that he shut himself away, wholly lost to all around him.
He still longed to see his son, but the child was soon to withdraw, for no precedent authorized one in mourning to wait upon the Emperor. The boy did not understand what the matter was, and he gazed in wonder at the sobbing gentlewomen who had served his mother and at His Majesty's streaming tears. Such partings are sad at the best of times, and his very innocence made this one moving beyond words.
Now it was time to proceed with the customary funeral. Her mother longed with many tears to rise with her daughter's smoke into the sky, and she insisted on joining the gentlewomen in their carriage in the funeral cortege. What grief she must have known on reaching Otagi, where the most imposing rite was under way!
"With her body plain to see before me," she said, "I feel that she is still alive even though she is not, and I will therefore watch her turn to ash to learn that she is really gone."
She spoke composedly enough, but a moment later she was racked by such a paroxysm of grief that she nearly fell from the carriage. "Oh, I knew it!" the gentlewomen cried to each other, not knowing how to console her.
A messenger came from the palace, followed by an imperial envoy who read a proclamation granting the deceased the third rank. It was very sad. His Majesty had never even named her a Consort, but it pained him not to have done so, and he had wished at least to raise her a step in dignity. Even this made many resent her further, but the wiser ones at last understood that her loveliness in looks and bearing, and her sweet gentleness of temper, had made her impossible actually to dislike. It was His Majesty's unbecoming penchant for her, so his gentlewomen now understood, that had made some treat her with cold disdain, and they remembered her fondly for the warmth and kindness of her disposition. It was a perfect example of "Now she is gone."
As the dreary days slipped by, His Majesty saw carefully to each succeeding memorial service. The passage of time did so little to relieve his sorrow that he called none of his ladies to wait on him after dark but instead passed day and night in weeping, and even those who merely witnessed his state found the autumn very dewy indeed.
"She meant so much to him that even dead she is a blight on one's existence" summed up the sentiments of the Kokiden Consort, as merciless as ever, on the subject. The mere sight of his elder son would only remind His Majesty how much he preferred the younger, and he would then send a trusted gentlewoman or nurse to find out how he was getting on.
At dusk one blustery and suddenly chilly autumn day, His Majesty, assailed more than ever by memories, dispatched the gentlewoman dubbed Yugei no Myobu to his love's home; then, after she had left under a beautiful evening moon, he lapsed again into reverie. He felt her there beside him, just as she had always been on evenings like this when he had called for music, and when her touch on her instrument, or her least word to him, had been so much her own; except that he would have preferred even to this vivid dream her simple reality in the dark.
Myobu had no sooner arrived and gone in through the gate than desolation touched her. The mother had kept the place up, despite being a widow, and she had lived nicely enough out of fond concern for her only daughter, but alas, now that grief had laid her low, the weeds grew tall and looked cruelly blown about by the winds, until only moonlight slipped smoothly through their tangles.
She had Myobu alight on the south side of the house. At first she could not speak. "I keep wishing that I had not lived so long," she said at last, "and I am so ashamed now to see someone from His Majesty struggle all the way to me through these weeds!" She wept as though it were truly more than she could bear.
"The Dame of Staff told His Majesty how desperately sorry for you she felt after her visit here, and how heartbroken she was," Myobu replied; "and even I, who pretend to no delicacy of feeling, understand what she meant all too well." Then, after composing herself a little, she delivered His Majesty's message.
"'For a time I was sure that I must be dreaming, but now that the turmoil in my mind has subsided, what I still find acutely painful is to have no one with whom to talk over what needs to be done. Would you be kind enough to visit me privately? I am anxious about my son and disturbed that he should be surrounded every day by such grieving. Please come soon.'
"He kept breaking into tears and never really managed to finish, but he knew all too well, as I could see, that to another he might not be looking very brave, and I felt so much for him that I hurried off to you before I had actually heard all he had to say." Then Myobu gave her His Majesty's letter.
"Though tears darken my eyes," the lady said, "by the light of his most wise and gracious words ..." And she began to read.
"I had thought that time might bring consolations to begin lightening my sorrow, but as the passing days and months continue to disappoint me, I hardly know how to bear my grief. Again and again my thoughts go to the little boy, and it troubles me greatly that I cannot look after him with you. Do come and see me in memory of days now gone ..." He had written with deep feeling and had added the poem:
"Hearing the wind sigh, burdening with drops of dew all Miyagi Moor,
my heart helplessly goes out to the little hagi frond."
But she could not read it to the end.
"Now that I know how painful it is to live long," she said, "I am ashamed to imagine what that pine must think of me, and for that reason especially I would not dare to frequent His Majesty's Seat. It is very good indeed of him to favor me with these repeated invitations, but I am afraid that I could not possibly bring myself to go. His son, on the other hand, seems eager to do so, although I am not sure just how much he understands, and while it saddens me that he should feel that way, I cannot blame him. Please let His Majesty know these, my inmost thoughts. I fear that the child's dignity will suffer if he remains here, for I am a creature of misfortune, and it would be wrong for him to stay."
The little boy was asleep. "I had wanted to see him so that I could report on him to His Majesty," Myobu said as she prepared to hasten away, "but I am expected back. It must be very late by now."
"I would so like to talk to you longer, to lift a little of the unbearable darkness from my heart," she replied. "Please come to see me on your own, too, whenever you wish. You always used to visit at happy, festive times, and seeing you here now on so sad an errand reminds one how very painful life is. We had such hopes for her from the time she was born, and my husband, the late Grand Counselor, kept urging me almost until his last breath to achieve his ambition for her and have her serve His Majesty. 'Do not lose heart and give up,' he said, 'just because I am gone.' So I did send her, although I felt that if she had to enter palace service without anyone to support her properly, it might be wiser to refrain; because what mattered to me was to honor his last wishes. Unfortunately, His Majesty became far more fond than was right of someone who did not deserve that degree of favor, but she seems to have borne the disgraceful treatment she received and to have continued serving him until the growing burden of others' jealousy, and the increasing unpleasantness to which she was subjected, led her to break down as she did; and that is why I wish that His Majesty had not cared for her so much. I suppose I only say that, though, because her loss has plunged me into such terrible shadows ..." Her voice trailed off and she wept.
By now it was very late. "His Majesty feels as you do," Myobu assured her. "I now understand,' he says, 'how damaging my love for her really was, because the way I insisted despite my better judgment on favoring her to the point of scandal meant that it could not have gone on very long. I had no wish to offend anyone, and yet because of her I provoked resentment in those whom I should not have hurt, only to lose her in the end and to linger on inconsolable, a sorrier spectacle now than I ever made of myself before. I wish I knew what in my past lives could have brought all this upon me.' This is what he says again and again, and as he does so, he is never far from weeping."
Myobu talked on and at last said tearfully, "It is now very late, and I must not let the night go by without bringing His Majesty your answer." She hastily prepared to return to the palace.
The moon was setting in a beautifully clear sky, the wind had turned distinctly cold, and the crickets crying from among the grasses seemed to be calling her to weep with them, until she could hardly bear to leave this house of humble misery.
"Bell crickets may cry until they can cry no more, but not so for me,
for all through the endless night my tears will fall on and on,"
she said. She could not get into her carriage.
"Here where crickets cry more and more unhappily in thinning grasses
you who live above the clouds bring still heavier falls of dew.
I would soon have been blaming you," the answer came.
This was no time for pretty parting gifts, and she gave Myobu instead, in her daughter's memory, some things that she had saved for just such an occasion: a set of gowns and some accessories that her daughter had used to put up her hair.
The young gentlewomen who had served her daughter were of course saddened by the loss of their mistress, but they missed the palace now they were used to it, and memories of His Majesty moved them to urge that his son should move there as quickly as possible; but she felt sure that people would disapprove if one as ill-fated as herself were to accompany him, and since she also knew how much she worried whenever he was out of sight, she could not bring herself to let him go.
Myobu felt a pang of sympathy when she found that His Majesty had not yet retired for the night. The garden court was in its autumn glory, and on the pretext of admiring it he had quietly called into attendance four or five of his most engaging gentlewomen, with whom he was now conversing. Lately he had been spending all his time examining illustrations of "The Song of Unending Sorrow" commissioned by Emperor Uda, with poems by Ise and Tsurayuki; and other poems as well, in native speech or in Chinese, as long as they were on that theme, which was the constant topic of his conversation.
He questioned Myobu carefully about her visit, and she told him in private how sad it had been. Then he read the lady's reply. She had written, "Your Majesty's words inspire such awe that I am unworthy to receive them; confusion overwhelms me in the presence of sentiments so gracious.
"Ever since that tree whose boughs took the cruel winds withered and was lost
my heart is sorely troubled for the little hagi frond,"
and so on--a rather distracted letter, although His Majesty understood how upset she still was and no doubt forgave her. He struggled in vain to control himself, despite his resolve to betray no strong emotion. A rush of memories even brought back the days when he had first known his love, and he was shocked to realize how long he had already been without her, when once he had so disliked her briefest absence.
"I had wanted her mother to feel it was worthwhile to have her enter my service," he said, "as the late Grand Counselor at his death had urged her to do. What a shame!" He felt very sorry. "At any rate, I should be able to do something for my son, as long as he grows up properly. She must take care that she lives to see it."
Myobu showed him the gifts she had received. If only this were the hairpin that she sent back from beyond, he thought; but, alas, it was not. He murmured,
"O that I might find a wizard to seek her out, that I might then know
at least from distant report where her dear spirit has gone."
A superb artist had done the paintings of Yokihi, but the brush can convey only so much, and her picture lacked the breath of life. The face, so like the lotuses in the Taieki Lake or the willows by the Mio Palace, was no doubt strikingly beautiful in its Chinese way, but when he remembered how sweet and dear his love had been, he found himself unable to compare her to flowers or birdsong. Morning and evening he had assured her that they would share a wing in flight as birds or their branches as trees, but then she had died, and the resulting vanity of his promises filled him with unending sorrow.
The sound of the wind and the calling of crickets only deepened his melancholy, and meanwhile he heard the Kokiden Consort, who had not come for so long now to wait on him after dark, making the best of a beautiful moon by playing music far into the night. He did not like it and wished it would stop. Those gentlewomen and privy gentlemen who knew his mood found that it grated upon their ears. The offender, willful and abrasive, seemed determined to behave as though nothing had happened.
The moon set.
"When above the clouds tears in a veil of darkness hide the autumn moon,
bow could there be light below among the humble grasses?"
His Majesty murmured, his thoughts going to the lady whom Myobu had recently left, and he stayed up until the lamp wicks had burned out.
It must have been the hour of the Ox, because he heard the Right Gate Watch reporting for duty. He then retired to his curtained bed, for he did not wish to make himself conspicuous, but still he could not sleep. He remembered when morning came, and it was time to rise, how once he had not even known that daybreak was upon him, and again he seemed likely to miss his morning session in council.
He only went through the motions of breaking his fast and took no greater interest in his midday meal, until all who served him grieved to see his state. Those in close attendance upon him, ladies and gentlemen alike, murmured anxiously about how disturbing it all was. Perhaps he had been fated to love her, but for him to have ignored the reproofs and the anger of so many, to have flouted for her sake the standards of proper conduct, and even now to ignore public affairs as he was doing--this, they all whispered, was most unfortunate, and they cited in this connection events in the land beyond the sea.
In time the little boy went to join his father in the palace. He was turning out to be so handsome that he hardly seemed of this world at all, and for His Majesty this aroused a certain dread. The next spring, when His Majesty was to designate the Heir Apparent, he longed to pass over his elder son in favor of his younger, but since the younger lacked support, and since in any case the world at large would never accept such a choice, he desisted for the boy's sake and kept his desire to himself. "He could hardly go that far," people assured one another, "no matter how devoted to him he may be." The Kokiden Consort was relieved.
As for the grandmother, she remained inconsolable and wished only to join her daughter, which no doubt is why she, too, to His Majesty's boundless sorrow, at last passed away. The boy was then entering his sixth year. This time he understood what had happened, and he cried. Toward the end, she who had been close to him for so long spoke again and again of how sad she was to leave him.
Now the boy was permanently in attendance at the palace. When he reached his seventh year, His Majesty had him perform his first reading, which he carried off with such unheard-of brilliance that his father was frankly alarmed. "Surely none of you can dislike him now," he said; "after all, he no longer has a mother. Please be nice to him." When he took him to the Kokiden, the Consort there let him straight through her blinds and would not release him, for the sight of him would have brought smiles to the fiercest warrior, even an enemy one. She had given His Majesty two daughters, but by no stretch of the imagination could either be compared with him. Nor did any other imperial lady hide from him, because he was already so charmingly distinguished in manner that they found him a delightful and challenging playmate. Naturally he applied himself to formal scholarship, but he also set the heavens ringing with the music of strings and flute. In fact, if I were to list all the things at which he excelled, I would only succeed in making him sound absurd.
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Reading Group Guide
The Tale of Genji, written a thousand years ago in Japan, is a great masterpiece of world literature. Although not the oldest surviving example of prose fiction, it may well be the first novel ever written. In The Progress of Fiction, the British novelist Clara Reeve (1729-1807) distinguished the novel from the romance and wrote, "The Novel is a picture of real life and manners, and ... gives a familiar relation of such things as pass every day before our eyes.... [It] represent[s] every scene in so easy and natural a manner ... as to deceive us into a persuasion (at least while we are reading) that all is real, until we are affected by the joys or distresses of the persons in the story as if they were our own." Her words describe The Tale of Genji. Remarkably, Murasaki Shikibu, the tale's author, was also a woman.
Murasaki Shikibu (973?-1014?) was born into the middle level of the Japanese aristocracy. In about 1006 she was called to serve the Empress of the time, perhaps because she wrote such good stories. Nobody knows just when she began her Tale or when she finished it, but what remains of her diary alludes to the work as it existed in 1007 or 1008, and she has been recognized ever since as the author of all fifty-four chapters. Unfortunately, no manuscript survives from her time. The earliest known text dates from about 1200.
Murasaki Shikibu wrote above all for the Empress, her patron, and through her for other members of the highest aristocracy. A great lady did not normally read a story silently by herself. Instead, she listened while one of her women read it aloud and she herself looked at the pictures. Murasaki Shikibu may well have read some chapters in person to the Empress, and she certainly wrote her tale in that spirit. The Tale of Genji is ostensibly told by a female narrator (perhaps more than one) whose language often suggests that she is addressing a superior.
The tale features several unforgettable major heroines, such as Fujitsubo, Murasaki (apparently the source of her creator's name), Akashi, Rokujo, and Ukifune, as well as many striking minor ones. However, the thread that holds things together is the life of Genji, the hero. Genji is an Emperor's son by a relatively low-ranking lady who dies not long after his birth. Even as a boy, Genji is extraordinarily beautiful and gifted, but his father, who longs to appoint him Heir Apparent, understands that the court would never accept his doing so. He therefore decides to make Genji a commoner, so that Genji can at least serve the realm in due course as a senior official.
The tale often highlights the social boundary that separates a commoner from someone imperial, but for the rest of his life Genji will hover between the two worlds, and this will give him, as a fictional hero, a particularly wide scope. To free him further from the constraints of the commonplace, the author also gives him practically unlimited material means. In the first dozen or so chapters, the young Genji becomes entangled in a dazzling assortment of love affairs that range from broad comedy to disaster. The most agonizing of them is his relationship with his father's Empress—the princess whom his father married explicitly in order to seek solace after the death of Genji's mother. Genji was told as a child that this lady closely resembled his mother, and he fell deeply in love with her. In time she bears a son who is really Genji's, not Genji's father's, and this boy eventually accedes to the throne. When, years later, he learns the secret of his birth, he decides to honor his real father by appointing Genji Honorary Retired Emperor, even though Genji has never reigned. This step, which in the author's time could be taken only in fiction, brings Genji to an unheard-of pinnacle of glory. Meanwhile, he finds his lifelong love and companion (Murasaki) in a beautiful niece of his father's empress, someone who closely resembles that empress and therefore Genji's late mother herself. This theme—the hero's nostalgia for his lost mother—has fascinated many readers.
Genji's rise to ultimate glory marks a turning point, and soon his world begins slowly to crumble around him. Murasaki comes to feel estranged from him, though he will not let her go. Then her death destroys him. In the last chapter in which he appears, he is only a shell of what he once was, and past the end of that chapter he dies, too. The remaining third of the book picks up the story some eight years later. It now centers on a young man, Kaoru, whom the world accepts as Genji's son, although in reality he is not. Kaoru has nothing like Genji's stature. The mood of this last third of the tale is dark with intimations of betrayal and failure, so much so that Kaoru has seemed to many readers a remarkably modern hero. The tale ends at last on an inconclusive note, one that leaves many wondering "what happened next." Only the reader's imagination can provide an answer. The genius of The Tale of Genji is all the more impressive because the author had few models to work from. Many things about the lives of the characters—the clothes they wore, the kinds of houses they lived in, their pastimes, their rules of deportment, and so on—are of course unfamiliar now, but their feelings, motives, and experiences are recognizable to anyone. Love, ambition, pride, anguish, bitterness, and disappointment affect us all, and The Tale of Genji presents them with a freshness of insight that has made it famous for its psychological immediacy. It is a rich and astonishing work.
ABOUT MURASAKI SHIKIBU
Murasaki Shikibu, born in 978, was a member of Japan's Fujiwara clan, which ruled behind the scenes during the Heian Period by providing the brides and courtesans of all the emperors. Lady Murasaki's rare literary talent, particularly her skill as a poet, secured her a place in the court of Empress Akiko. After the death of her husband, she cloistered herself to study Buddhism, raise her daughter, and write the world's first novel Genji Monogatari, the tale of the shining Prince Genji.
ABOUT ROYALL TYLER
Royall Tyler was born in London, England, and grew up in Massachusetts, England, Washington D.C., and Paris. He has a B.A. in Far Eastern Languages from Harvard, and an M.A. in Japanese History and Ph. D. in Japanese literature from Columbia University. He has taught Japanese language and culture at, among other places, Ohio State University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Oslo, in Norway. Beginning in 1990, he taught at the Australian National University, in Canberra, from which he retired at the end of 2000. He will spend the American academic year 2001-02 as a Visiting Professor at Harvard.
Royall Tyler and his wife Susan live in a rammed earth house on 100 acres in the bush about seventy miles from Canberra, where they breed alpacas as a hobby.
Royall Tyler's previous works include Japanese Noh Dramas, a selection and translation of Noh plays published by Penguin;Japanese Tales and French Folktales, anthologies published by Pantheon; and The Miracles of the Kasuga Deity, a study of a medieval Japanese cult published by Columbia University Press.