The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari)


The 'Genji Monogatari' ("Story of Genji") is the great novel of classical Japanese literature, widely regarded as one of the greatest works of Japanese literature. Within a few decades of its completion, it was already deemed a classic. More recently, Yasunari Kawabata, the Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, said in his acceptance speech that:
"Genji in particular is the highest pinnacle of Japanese literature. Even down to our day there has not been a piece of fiction to compare with it."
Its popularity has made motifs from it perennially prominent throughout Japanese arts.

It details the lengthy and complex love adventures of Hikaru Genji ("Shining Genji"), an 'illegitimate' (not exactly, but this term gives a roughly correct idea of his status) son of the Emperor. In doing so, it covers the lives of those characters around him (principally in the court) with whom he interacts. Genji manages to maintain an unfailing dignity while passing through this landscape of life, death, and love. It continues on, after Genji's disappearance from the scene (and presumed death) to cover some of the lives of several of his descendants.

It does not have a clear unifying narrative arc; rather, it is composed of a series of episodes which overlap each other, and whose entangling residues complicate each other as the story progresses. A major theme of the 'Tale of Genji' concerns love, lust, and the interaction of members of the opposing sexes; it also explores the different themes of affection, friendship, filial loyalty, and family bonds.

The experience of reading has been likened to looking through a small but very clear window into a complete and brilliant world. Due to its richness and complexity, the 'Tale of Genji' rewards re-reading, as passage and events seen in one light by someone unfamiliar with the complete history reveal entirely new aspects to a reader who knows what will transpire. Eventually, most of the story can be seen as the operation of familiar human emotions, but at the same time the influence of the hidden undercurrents that can deeply affect the form of lives becomes obvious also.

It was written by a lady of the Heian court, whose name has come down to us as the Lady Murasaki Shikibu. She wrote it in the late Heian period, shortly after the year 1000, when Japan's capital was at Kyoto (then called Heian-kyo).

Despite the inclusion of several actual historical incidents, it is fictional. It is set several decades before the time when it seems to have actually been written, so it was historical fiction in its own time. Although its plot borrowed elements from several other well-known works of the time, it is distinct and unique. Other aspects of Genji may also recall indigenous folktales or legend.

The Author

We know the identity of the author of the 'Tale of Genji', and a fair amount about her, but not her real name. This lack of detailed information is characteristic for court women of the Heian Period, though. The name by which she is now known, Murasaki Shikibu, is probably taken from one of the major female characters in the 'Tale of Genji'; the "Shikibu" comes from her father's position at court.

Her nickname, which we know from her journals (which have also survived), was "the Library of Japanese History", which came from her knowledge of Chinese literature (which was required for all aristocrats at that point in time); no doubt her familiarity with literature was part of what allowed her to produce the 'Tale of Genji'.

We do know that she was born around 973, the daughter of Fujiwara no Tametoki, a member of the vast (and in some branches, supremely powerful) Fujiwara family. He was a mid-rank nobleman who rose to be a provincial governor; he was known as a scholar, who seems to have taken trouble to ensure that his daughter was well educated. He let her study with her brother, and even allowed her to learn Chinese characters, something which was not considered proper for girls at that time. Her mother died while she was young, as did her older sister, on whom she depended.

She married late (for that age), in 998, to a kinsman, Fujiwara no Nobutaka; they had one daughter. Her husband died three years later.

In or around 1005 yet another kinsman, Fujiwara no Michinaga (who was 'Prime Minister') enabled her to enter service with the Empress Akiko, the wife of Emperor Ichijo (and also a relation of hers, as she was the daughter of Fujiwara no Michinaga). During this period she kept a series of journals, which reveal a great deal about the daily life of the court. She is thought to have died around 1025.

Completeness and Authorship

Academic debate continues over whether she was the sole author, and whether the 'Tale of Genji' is complete (as it ends very abruptly and inconclusively).

It is known that a version with at least fifty chapters was in existence by 1021, so it was definitely completed fairly quickly. One common argument against the participation of multiple authors is that it is a work of such genius that the likelihood of two writers of equal genius being available to take over from Murasaki is implausible.

However, there are subtle stylistic differences in the sections of the last fifth of the work, and in scattered spots elsewhere, which may indicate the work of others, of whom her daughter, who was a distinguished poet, is the most common suggestion. Also, internal evidence suggests that the chapters were not all written in the order in which we now have them.

Some scholars believe that she did not have a planned overall structure for the 'Tale of Genji', with a fixed "ending", and that she simply went on adding new material for as long as she could, until death or some other obligation forced her to leave the tale unfinished.

However, the ambiguity of the abrupt ending may also be intentional, like the celebrated ending to the 'Sopranos' television series; that would be of a part with the "slice of life" theme of the rest of the work.

The First Novel?

The 'Tale of Genji' is often describe as the "world's first novel", a claim which is controversial for a variety of reasons: whether it is truly a novel; whether it is the first, if so; etc.

Aspects of the novel which is does have include: a central character and a number of other major and minor characters; a clear sequence of events happening over a period of time; and well-developed characterization of the major figures. In common with many other lengthy novels, it also contains digressions, parallel plots, stories within stories, and changes in point of view.

Arguments cited against it being a novel include: it is extremely episodic; without a clear narrative arc, being more a series of more or less independent stories; in its original form, verse is a prominent, and integral part of the whole, and it was first read for its verse; the protagonist (Prince Genji) dies in the middle of the book; it was intended for a limited audience of aristocrats, not the popular audience of the Western novel.

If it does not have a coherent plot, it does seem to have a coherent theme, though, which is to examine the lives of Genji and his descendants. Extended novels also often treat the history of a family from differing viewpoints; a common device is also to reveal secrets to the reader while they remain unknown to some of the characters.

The 'Tale of Genji' is not the earliest monogatari; rather, much as the three great Athenian tragedians outshine the other playwrights of their era, it is so much better than the others that it has relegated its contemporaries to vastly diminished visibility.

Characteristics of the 'Tale of Genji' as Literature

One unusual aspect of the "Tale of Genji' comes from from the manners of the Heian-era court environment in which it was produced. Those made it unacceptably familiar and blunt to freely mention someone's name; instead, people were referred to by their post or function, an honorific, or their relationship to others.

This convention is followed in the 'Tale of Genji', which produces difficulties for readers and translators, since almost none of the characters have an explicit name in the original text. In addition to the circumlocutions referred to above, women are sometimes identified by the colour of their clothing, or by a phrase used in a conversation. A further complication is that the various formulas described above may all change through the course of the work. As a result, modern translators have used nicknames to refer to the many characters.

It is told in the voice of a court lady, who is also a character in the novel. One theory about why it is narrated in this manner is that it was a custom at that time for ladies-in-waiting to recite tales. Of course, the 'Tale of Genji' was probably not only read aloud, but was also enjoyed by solitary reading, etc.

As mentioned above, it contains a great deal of verse: almost 800 poems, often using the hikiuta technique, a common aristocratic pastime of the period, which consisted of quoting one line from an older poem, and then extemporaneously creating a new poem suited to the current circumstances from that base.

As also mentioned above, it does not have a conventional plot; instead, events simply transpire, much as in real life, and characters similarly evolve simply through growing older.

One remarkable aspect of the 'Tale of Genji' (and an indication of the skill of the writer) is its internal consistency: despite a cast of several hundred characters, they all age in synchrony, and all the family and feudal relationships are consistent across all the chapters.

Themes and Background

Genji spends much of his time writing poems to women he is attracted to, but who have little interest in him; most of them know that nothing positive would come of an affair with him, and so resist the impulse as much as possible, although they often had similar feelings toward Genji. His numerous affairs often involved women from outside the court, behavior which was scandalous for a person of his position, so his affairs are usually conducted in complete secrecy, which he took considerable trouble to maintain.

Each affair is significantly different in character from the others, though; a factor which keeps this pattern from becoming repetitive and boring. For instance, at one point he lusts after a princess after hearing her play beautiful music on the zither; he quickly declares his love for her in a flurry of letters, which she never answers. However, the more he finds out about her, the less he likes her, but he cannot help feeling guilty after his ardent pursuit, and he maintains the relationship long after his feelings have waned. In one of his last affairs, he is on the receiving side of the attentions of an elderly lady; he has to think of creative ways of dodging the situation, without a loss of face for either party.

The last section, after Genji's death starts out like an uncertain epilogue, but it soon takes on a life of its own, and the failings of the environment portrayed there only heighten the allure of that of Genji himself. The problems that seemed so double-edged when they were Genji's pale beside the blunders and the folly of his descendants, and only make him look better in retrospect. This can lead to nostalgia for his sphere, and against it the troubles of the inhabitants of the later chapters seem both fated and pitiable.

Some contemporary readers feel that the author may have used his series of affairs simply as a device, to allow her to present a range of youthful love's folly, in a series of devastating portraits, ranging from tragic obsession to utter, hilarious disaster. Some feel that the 'Tale of Genji' is not so much about Genji as it is about the women he interacts with in his life - their feelings, their experiences, their fates. Much as they have large roles, though, it is to Genji that the narrative returns time and again.

A major ambition of many members of the aristocracy in the world of Heian court was to present a daughter to the Emperor, or his Heir Apparent; the supreme goal of a non-imperial noble was to be the grandfather (via his daughter) of an Emperor. As a result, the Emperor usually had a range of recognized relationships with women, not so much as a result of sexual acquisitiveness, but because he was virtually required to make his prestige relatively widely accessible. These ladies did not all have equal rank; those on the lowest rungs had a birth rank which was too low, and they also lacked the necessary political support.

The Plot

The 'Tale of Genji' consists of fifty-four chapters (each of which has acquired its own special glyph, the Genji-mon, which notionally are in the form of connected bundles of incense sticks), and is conventionally divided into three parts:

Part One

Genji is born as the second son for the Emperor, the son of a beloved concubine of the Emperor, known as the Lady Kiritsubo, whose father is dead, and who depends on the Emperor for all her status. However, Genji's birth raises the ire of the mother of the first son, a lady of much higher rank. Genji's mother dies soon afterwards, and as the Emperor likes Genji, he is raised within the Court, becoming a very accomplished as well as good-looking young man.

The Emperor would like to do more for Genji, but he cannot because of the power of the first son's mother. His father worries about his son's future, since he has no powerful family behind him, so he makes him a commoner, and part of a non-royal family, giving him the last name "Minamoto". (This is the origin of Genji's 'name': 'gen' is an alternate reading of the character for his given last name, and 'ji' means 'name'; so "Genji" roughly means "bearer of the Minamoto name". It is not his actual name, though.) This allows him to serve as a government official; in writing terms, this device also allows him to belong to both realms, and thereby gives him an increased scope as a character.

As a young man, Genji is forced into a marriage of convenience with the daughter of a powerful court figure, but he is never really happy with her, although they do eventually have a son, Yugiri. Instead, he falls in love with one of the Emperor's concubines, Fujitsubo; she strongly resembles his own dead mother (which is why the Emperor, who adored Kiritsubo, brought her to court). He has his first illicit affair with her; she becomes pregnant as a result, and gives birth to a boy. The child's true parentage is kept secret, and he is by the Emperor as his own son, eventually ascending to the throne himself.

Although feeling guilt because of this affair, Genji goes on to have numerous other affairs with a large number of other court ladies. One of them is the Lady Murasaki, who is Fujitsubo's niece; she had been placed in his care when she was a girl, and he raised her to be his ideal lady. Genji's wife eventually dies, and he then marries Murasaki.

Finally, the exposure of Genji's adultery with a concubine of the new Emperor (who had succeeded Genji's father), a lady of another court faction (which includes the mother of the new Emperor, the old Emperor's first son) results in his being exiled for a period. Although the Emperor is not much put out, he is forced by propriety to send him away; since he is in disgrace, Genji must leave Murasaki behind. After a short period in exile in Suma and Akashi, Genji returns to the capital, where his son with Fujitsubo has now become Emperor.

As a result, since the new Emperor knows Genji is his real father, Genji rises high in status and position, being appointed to a high official rank. He uses his power and wealth to bring benefits to the women he has loved, including bringing them to live in a palace, a magnificent complex of four interconnected mansions, one for each of the four seasons, and each housing one of his ladies.

His focus becomes advancing the careers of his children and grand-children, and when he manages to get his daughter, the Akashi Princess (who was the outcome of an affair with a wealthy merchant's daughter in Akashi) presented at court, he has reached the zenith of his power and influence.

Part Two

The previous Emperor, now retired and planning on entering a monastery, had placed his daughter in Genji's care; Genji, moved by the fact that this girl, like Lady Murasaki, is also a niece of his first love, Fujitsubo, agrees to marry her too. However, the girl is very immature, casting him back on his love for Lady Murasaki. However, now that Genji has an 'official' wife, and one of high breeding, that forces Lady Murasaki into seclusion.

Genji cannot afford to slight his 'official' wife, the daughter of a retired Emperor, but when Murasaki becomes ill, he abandons the daughter for a lengthy period to look after Murasaki. While he is doing so, however, Genji's nephew, one of the suitors who had been vying for the young wife's hand before she married Genji, and has not given up his desire for her, eventually manages an affair with her; she becomes pregnant, and bears a son, Kaoru. Distraught at Genji's anger, the boy's mother retires to a nunnery, and Genji in turn is forced to accept another man's son as his heir; this causes him to repent for many of his own similar past actions.

Meanwhile, Lady Murasaki, Genji's real love and principal wife of more than twenty years (in reality, if not legally), who had long asked Genji's permission to become a nun, and who is still ill, dies before getting the chance. Utterly devastated by this sequence of events, Genji begins preparations to take the vows himself, leaving the capital to enter a small mountain temple.

Part Three

The Tale of Genji continues, although without Genji, who is assumed to have died in seclusion. In his place are Kaoru (his wife's son with her lover), and Genji's grandson Niou, the son of his daughter, the Akashi Princess (who is now Empress). These two carry on the Genji tradition of complex affairs of the heart.

Kaoru considers entering the monastic life because he is unable to come to terms with the world of his time. He begins visiting one of the princes, who likewise disappointed with court life, has gone into reclusion in Uji; Kaoru finds him a kindred spirit. While there, he finally hears the secret of his own birth, and he also meets the Prince's daughter, Oigimi, to whom he is strongly attracted.

After the death of the Prince, Kaoru proposes marriage to Oigimi, but she suppresses her own feelings for him, and instead encourages him to marry her younger sister, Nakanokimi. Kaoru, for his part, urges Niou to marry Naka-no-kimi, and Niou succeeds in seducing Naka-no-kimi. Kaoru tries to get Oigimi to agree to the marriage of Niou and Naka-no-kimi; however, the sisters come to feel that both men are trifling with them, and Oigimi decides to starve herself to death before she can reconsider her rejection of Kaoru.

After her death, Niou is forced by intense political and parental pressure to take as his main wife a daughter of Genji's son Yugiri. Kaoru now transfers his attentions to Naka-no-kimi, who reminds him of the dead Oigimi; she is tormented by his persistent wooing. She tries to interest him in Ukifune, her half-sister by a different mother, who also looks like Oigimi.

When Kaoru sees her, he falls in love with her - but so does Niou, when he comes to visit. Kaoru succeeds in having an affair with her, but so does Niou. Kaoru would be the more important catch, but she is much more strongly drawn to Niou. Ukifune sees no solution to this tangle other than to drown herself in the river.

On the verge of doing so, and suffering from amnesia from the stress, she is saved by a senior religious figure; she then goes to Ono in his company, and becomes a nun there when her memory partially returns. When Kaoru discovers where she is, she refuses to meet him; the story abruptly ends there.

List of Chapters

It is not known exactly when the chapters acquired their current titles; early references mention chapter numbers, or give alternate titles for some of them, which suggests that the current titles were later additions.

The titles are largely derived from the poems that are in the text, or refer to various prominent characters. (The English translations give here are taken from the translation by Royall Tyler.)

Chapter Title (Rōmaji) Title (English) Title (Kanji)
1 Kiritsubo Paulownia Pavilion 桐壷
2 Hahakigi Broom Tree 帚木
3 Utsusemi Cicada Shell 空蝉
4 Yūgao Twilight Beauty 夕顔
5 Waka-Murasaki Young Murasaki 若紫
6 Suetsumuhana Safflower 末摘花
7 Momiji no Ga Beneath the Autumn Leaves 紅葉 の 賀
8 Hana no En Under the Cherry Blossoms 花 の 宴
9 Aoi Heart-to-Heart
10 Sakaki Green Branch 賢木
11 Hana Chiru Sato Falling Flowers 花散里
12 Suma Suma (a place name) 須磨
13 Akashi Akashi (another place name) 明石
14 Miotsukushi Pilgrimage to Sumiyoshi 澪標
15 Yomogiu Waste of Weeds 蓬生
16 Sekiya At The Pass 関屋
17 E Awase Picture Contest 絵合
18 Matsukaze Wind in the Pines 松風
19 Usugumo Wisps of Cloud 薄雲
20 Asagao Bluebell 朝顔
21 Otome Maidens 乙女
22 Tamakazura Tendril Wreath 玉鬘
23 Hatsune Warbler's First Song 初音
24 Kochō Butterflies 胡蝶
25 Hotaru Fireflies
26 Tokonatsu Pink 常夏
27 Kagaribi Cressets 篝火
28 Nowaki Typhoon 野分
29 Miyuki Imperial Progress 行幸
30 Fujibakama Thoroughwort Flowers 藤袴
31 Makibashira Handsome Pillar 真木柱
32 Umegae Plum Tree Branch 梅枝
33 Fuji no Uraha New Wisteria Leaves 藤 の 裏葉
34 Wakana: Jō Spring Shoots I 若菜 上
35 Wakana: Ge Spring Shoots II 若菜 下
36 Kashiwagi Oak Tree 柏木
37 Yokobue Flute 横笛
38 Suzumushi Bell Cricket 鈴虫
39 Yūgiri Evening Mist 夕霧
40 Minori Law 御法
41 Maboroshi Seer
Kumogakure Vanished into the Clouds 雲隠
42 Nio no Miya The Perfumed Prince 匂 の 宮
43 Kōbai Red Plum Blossoms 紅梅
44 Takekawa Bamboo River 竹河
45 Hashihime TheMaiden of the Bridge 橋姫
46 Shigamoto Beneath the Oak 椎本
47 Agemaki Trefoil Knots 総角
48 Sawarabi Bracken Shoots 早蕨
49 Yadorigi Ivy 宿木
50 Azumaya The Eastern Cottage 東屋
51 Ukifune A Drifting Boat 浮舟
52 Kagerō Mayfly 蜻蛉
53 Te'narai Writing Practice 手習
54 Yume no Ukihashi Floating Bridge of Dreams 夢 の 浮橋

There is often a blank chapter between 41 and 42, named Kumogakure, or "Vanished into the Clouds"; it is probably intended to indicate Genji's death.

Additional Reading

Penguin Books had a very good web site on the 'Tale of Genji', with a large amount of in-depth material, which is currently available through the Wayback Machine here.

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© Copyright 2007-2013 by J. Noel Chiappa

Last updated: 8/January/2013