The Tale of Genji

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The Tale of Genji

by Murasaki Shikibu


A novel set in Japanese court society about 905–975; circulated in Japanese (as Genji Monogatari) in handwritten copies around 1010; first published in English in 1925–33.


The novel follows the life of a handsome and charming courtier from his youthful amorous adventures to exile and renewed success; the death of his dearest companion, Murasaki; and betrayal by his son’s close friend. Kashiwagi. In the full-length novel, after Genji’s death, the focus shifts to his descendants.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

The Tale of Genji, considered the world’s first great novel, describes the life of Japanese court society during the Heian period (794–1185) about 50 years before the lifetime of the author, Murasaki Shikibu (c. 973–1030). Murasaki Shikibu is a nickname (adopted from a character in the novel) of the court lady who composed the work while serving as companion to Shõshi, (988–1074), the daughter of the powerful regent Fujiwara no Michinaga (966–1027). During Murasaki Shikibu’s lifetime, chapters of The Tale of Genji circulated independently; it was unusual to have a copy of all the chapters for consecutive reading. The earliest existing fragments of a complete manuscript appear in an early mid-twelfth-century scroll, the Illustrated Genji Scroll, which was transcribed 150 years after the death of the author. The final ten chapters of the novel present a style and atmosphere that is so markedly different from the rest of the novel that some scholars have suggested that these chapters were in fact authored by another person, perhaps Shõshi, whom Murasaki tutored. Convincing arguments can be made either way, but for most scholars Murasaki is the accepted author. Murasaki Shikibu was the daughter of Fujiwara no Tametoki (d. 1029), a scholar of Chinese who also served as governor in the province of Harima, Echizen, Japan. Their family was a distant lateral branch of the ruling Fujiwara clan that came to dominate Japanese court life during the Heian period. Although not politically powerful, the family was respected for its scholarly learning and connections. The writer’s grandfather had known Ki no Tsurayuki (c. 872–945), a poet, diarist and critic, who was the creative force behind the compilation of the Kokinshè, the great tenth-century collection of Japanese waka poetry. Tutored by her scholarly father, Murasaki Shikibu acquired some Chinese learning, unusual for a woman at the time. She married Fujiwara no Nobutaka (950–1001) and gave birth to a daughter in 999. Nobutaka died in the epidemic of 1001, and his widow, Murasaki, began writing The Tale of Genji around 1002. Three years later Fujiwara no Michinaga, the most powerful man at court, hired Murasaki Shikibu as a companion and tutor for his daughter, Shõshi. From Murasaki Shikibu’s diary we learn that she had few specific duties and so had time to observe court activities of the kind described in The Tale of Genji. When a chapter of the text was spirited out of her quarters by the Emperor, she worried about the unedited work’s causing trouble among her friends at court. She writes:

I was merely amusing myself with fictions, finding solace for my idleness in foolish words. Aware of my own insignificance, I had at least managed for the time being to avoid anything that might have been considered shameful or unbecoming; yet here I was, tasting the bitterness of life to the very full.

(Murasaki Shikibu, The Diary of Lady
Murasaki, p. 34)

Murasaki Shikibu’s modest comments are a better indication of attitudes toward the art of fiction in her day than a realistic evaluation of her talent. Far more than a frivolity, her writing would prepare for posterity an enduring profile of Japanese court society that the world would not otherwise have.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Poetry in the palace

The culture of the tenth and early eleventh century was influenced by two major factors: first, cultural exchanges with China that had dominated preceding centuries abruptly came to an end in the ninth century due to political instability on the Chinese mainland, and secondly, the Fujiwara clan consolidated its power in Japan through “marriage politics.” The family continued to marry Fujiwara daughters into the Emperor’s line until, by the end of the tenth century, the family achieved complete political domination of the Heian court.

Beginning in the sixth century, the Japanese, having not developed a native writing system, quickly mastered the skills of Chinese writing and began to use this written language in government documents. In the ninth century Japan’s Emperor Saga promoted Chinese poetry to such an extent that it completely dominated the cultural life of the court for centuries to come. All official documents were written in Chinese and educated courtiers were expected to compose poetry in Chinese as well. Young boys of noble birth were trained in Chinese poetic and historical classics. This emphasis on Chinese learning devalued Japanese poetry and prose which had flourished before the ninth century. Still practiced in private life, though, particularly by women of the court, was a Japanese genre, the vernacular tradition of waka poetry. Waka poems are 31 syllables long and are divided into five lines of alternating length. The five-line poem follows a metrical pattern of 5–7-5–7-7 syllables per line.

During the ninth century the Japanese developed a syllabary, a set of written characters, each representing a syllable—based on Chinese characters so that the Japanese could transcribe their own vernacular verse. This syllabary, called kana writing, served other purposes too. Used to write casual social exchanges (invitations, notes of thanks or condolence) or to relate anecdotes, it provided women with a sorely needed means of written communication. Chinese learning was considered inappropriate for the education of young women, but syllabic kana writing was permissible. These realities led to the prominent position of waka poetry as the verse form used in the private lives of the women and their lovers. The great poet Ki no Tsurayuki elevates waka to the highest of arts, pointing out that though neglected, it survived in informal matters, in “the habitations of the amorous” (Ki no Tsurayuki in Konishi Jin’ichi, vol. 2, p. 217).

In the middle of the ninth century, waka poetry was experiencing a revival, partly due to a return to traditional values, but also because of the dynamics of marriage politics that allowed political power to be achieved through the female members of the family. The emperor’s consorts (additional wives) and their companions living in the “rear palace” developed a salon culture that became a powerful cultural force during the ninth and tenth centuries. Murasaki Shikibu was a member of such an elite group of literary women. During this period poetry contests (called utaawase) were held frequently and the native waka verse began to replace the Chinese verse forms at banquets. The richness of this vernacular poetic tradition is preserved in Kokinshũ (c. 905), a compilation of waka poetry ordered by Emperor Daigo and edited by Ki no Tsurayuki. The publication of this and other subsequent collections with imperial sponsorship elevated waka poetry as an important literary form. Murasaki Shikibu and her contemporaries used the Kokinshũ as a model of poetic expression. Poetic exchanges in The Tale of Genji often cite or implicitly refer to poems from this collection that would be quite familiar to Murasaki’s audience.

Economic and political conditions

The power of the Fujiwara clan reached its height during Murasaki Shikibu’s lifetime, in part through the economic strength they gained by owning estates that were tax-exempt, a privilege enjoyed by the upper nobility and by religious institutions. Destitute land-owning peasants could avoid paying heavy taxes by “donating” their plots to these tax-exempt estates, then for low rent, could work the land in perpetuity. The estates of the Fujiwara swelled to accommodate those who sought such tax shelters, the economic power of the clan growing in the process. Meanwhile, the clan gained political power through “marriage politics,” wedding their daughters to the emperor’s family line, which allowed them to dominate affairs at court. Each young emperor had a Fujiwara mother whose father or brother or uncle would influence the boy’s destiny. When the young emperor came to maturity he would marry a Fujiwara daughter. His Fujiwara father-in-law could continue to manipulate political appointments through his daughter. In the late ninth century the Fujiwara began a policy of putting a young boy on the throne and ruling Japan through the position of an older “Regent,” who governed in the boy’s stead.

In Murasaki Shikibu’s day the regent and his officers carried on the actual business of governing while the emperor had little direct involvement in its practical details. The emperor’s life was increasingly involved in a complex pattern of daily and seasonal rituals whose exact performance was believed to ensure the health and prosperity of the state. Care was taken not to commit a breach of decorum, since a serious breach was considered a threat to the health of the state. Such a breach might even be identified as an indirect cause of a natural disaster (for example, a flood, a famine, or some other pestilence). The more direct cause was often seen as the vengeful spirit of a high-ranking person whose reputation or political hopes the emperor had disappointed during the person’s lifetime.

Murasaki Shikibu sets most of The Tale of Genji, however, in an earlier period, the first half of the tenth century, when emperors were directly involved in governing and in shaping cultural trends. During the early tenth century the power of the Fujiwara family had not yet solidified. The emperor still held political power. More exactly, the novel takes place during the reigns of Emperors Uda (ruled 887–897), his son, Daigo (ruled 897–930) and Murakami (ruled 946–967). Scholars have equated figures in The Tale of Genji with these particular emperors: the novel’s Ichi no In with the historical Emperor Uda; the Kiritsubo Emperor (Genji’s father) with the next historical leader, Emperor Daigo; and Genji’s son by Fujitsubo, Emperor Reizei, with the historical Emperor Murakami.

Emperor Uda, who was not related to the Fujiwara family, was determined to control their growing influence over the court. After the death of the regent Mototsune, Emperor Uda refused to reappoint the position, and made a point of promoting men of other noble families, particularly those of learning and talent such as Sug-awara no Michizane, considered to be one of the finest scholars and poets of the day. In 901 Daigo, Emperor Uda’s son, ascended the throne and within a year he had instituted reforms. Daigo attempted to revive the Chinese legal and administrative system, strengthen central control, and limit the growth of tax-exempt private estates, which were starving the central government of important revenues. He took active interest in cultural matters too, compiling ritual manuals for festivals and ceremonies, and ordering compilations of history and poetic anthologies such as the Kokinshũ. His reign was viewed by later periods as the flourishing of the “golden age” of government and culture.

Following in his predecessor’s footsteps, Emperor Murakami, though closely related to the Fujiwara family, struck out on his own path too. His political decisions reveal an attempt to gain independence from his Fujiwara in-laws and further strengthen the power of the imperial house. Emperor Murakami did not appoint a successor after the death of the regent Tadahira (880–949) and there was no regent during the following 18 years of Murakami’s reign (949–967).

Although the office was left vacant, competition between members of the Fujiwara to serve as regent was fierce, between the Morosuke branch (northern) and the Motokata branch (southern). Eventually, the Morosuke branch won, and its descendents went on to dominate Fujiwara politics for the next century. The powerful Michinaga (966–1027), regent during Murasaki Shikibu’s lifetime, belonged to this branch of the family. Not trusting to the manipulation of marriage politics alone, the triumphant Morosuke branch attributed their success in part to their patronage of intellectually talented and powerful Buddhist priests whose rituals helped manipulate events in their favor.

Religious beliefs and practices in the Heian period

The belief that the emperor’s family descended from Amaterasu, the sun goddess, was fundamental. From this basic belief arose others about the connection between the emperor and the health of the state. In time, these native beliefs became known as Shinto, or the “Way of the Gods.” Shinto rituals included annual rites to promote the prosperity of the harvest and purification rituals to neutralize contact with polluting influences, such as death and blood. Some of these rituals became institutionalized in court ceremonies and were performed at imperial shrine centers such as Ise, which appears in The Tale of Genji. Shinto specialists performed other, similar rites at local shrines and at places thought to be sites of the sacred. An unusual rock, tree, or beautiful section of the coastline might be home to a powerful spirit and therefore a sacred site. According to local beliefs, such spirits, called kami, wielded great influence on the good and ill fortune of an area. Shinto specialists, male as well as female, conducted seasonal rituals, therefore, for the prosperity of the local harvest, or for the health of the community.

Buddhism, introduced from the Asian continent in the sixth century (552 c.e.), quickly harmonized with local beliefs in these sacred sites and spirits. Buddhism performed two important functions in Japanese religious life. First, it provided a philosophical framework within which Shinto beliefs about locally sacred sites could be accommodated. The local spirits were connected to Buddhist deities. A local kami residing in a mountain would, for example, promise to protect the Buddhist temple there as long as certain rites were performed at his sacred site. On occasion he would also serve as a local manifestation of a particular Buddhist deity. Second, Buddhism provided the Japanese with powerful means of dealing with contaminating and dangerous aspects of life, such as death and illness. Buddhism teaches that the world is impermanent and forever changing, but due to ignorance, human beings want to believe that they can achieve happiness by grasping at what they desire and avoiding what they dislike. Such grasping and avoiding causes suffering. Furthermore, the actions that one takes in life to acquire one’s desires, or to avoid hateful circumstances, results in an accumulation of habits of mind and body, called karma, that shape future existences. A human who is cruel or greedy in this life will be reborn into a life of suffering, perhaps as a poor or ugly person, or worse, as an animal or dissatisfied spirit called a hungry ghost. Recognizing the futility of grasping at one’s desires awakens one to the fundamental Buddhist truth of suffering and thereby cuts off or ends the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Ending the cycle is in fact the aim of Buddhist practice. To the medieval Japanese, however, the goal of desirelessness seemed beyond the capacity of ordinary people, so believers sought other means of achieving Buddhist spirituality. In the Heian period, one such alternative was belief in the saving power of Amida Buddha. Amida vowed that when he achieved enlightenment, he would create a Pure Land in which all beings would be at peace and could hear the Buddhist teachings, practice them, and easily attain awakening. All one needed to do to be reborn in Amida’s Pure Land was to rely on Amida’s saving grace and to recite the name of Amida, a practice employed in the novel.

Due to their understanding of the teachings of karma and rebirth, and their skills at chanting Buddhist scriptures, Buddhist priests in Heian culture gained a reputation as experts in dealing with the intermediate realms of the spirits of the dead. Because illness was believed to be caused by the vengeful anger of dissatisfied spirits, it could be alleviated through the intercession of Buddhist priests who chanted Buddhist scriptures and performed esoteric rituals. The words of these scriptures were believed to have great power in liberating such vengeful spirits from the angry emotions that bound them to living beings and caused them to inflict illness and harm on the living. In one part of the novel (the “Lavender” chapter), Genji, who is suffering from continual bouts of malaria, travels to a remote mountain hermitage. A Buddhist priest, who is believed to be an expert in rituals for dispelling illness, performs chanting services for Genji, insisting that he stay at the mountain hermitage for several days until the services are complete. On his return to the capital, Genji is questioned by the emperor, who plumbs him for details about the priest’s skill in performing the rituals.

Having skilled Buddhist priests at their disposal was important to the emperor and his court. Through Buddhist scriptures and rituals, aristocrats could gain and hold onto power. In fact, aristocrats considered Buddhist rituals to be as important to maintaining power as administrating land and assets. Modern concepts such as the separation of church and state do not apply to the realities of court life during the Heian period. In fact, Buddhist scriptures such as the Lotus Sutra functioned in the political as well as the religious realm. A well-trained and intelligent priest would be a prime candidate for patronage, sponsored by aristocrats because his knowledge and skills were believed to produce effective rituals. Such a talented priest could bring about success for one’s enemies, fulfill a patron’s desires, and even assure forgiveness of his sins and salvation after death.

The career of the Tendai priest, Ryõgen (912–985) illustrates how firmly entwined religious and secular power became in the Heian period. Ryõgen was born to a family of little political influence, but he was intellectually talented. Ordained in the Tendai sect of Buddhism, Ryõgen was trained to debate points of doctrine in the Lotus Sutra, the fundamental Buddhist scripture of the sect. By winning several important public doctrinal debates early in his career, he attracted the attention of the Fujiwara regent, Tadahira, who in 939 contracted for Ryõgen to perform complex and lengthy rituals at his funeral for his salvation. After the death of Tadahira, Ryõgen gained the patronage of Morosuke of the Fujiwara northern branch. In exchange for support, Ryogen performed rituals for the health and prosperity of the Morosuke Fujiwara family. Some of these rituals included guarding the health of pregnant Fujiwara women and changing the sexual identity of the fetus. In Ryogen’s time, men of talent could rise in the priestly hierarchy, just as they could in the political hierarchy. In the novel, Genji uses his talent and political tact to rise in the hierarchy, calling on priests as the occasion arises.

After Ryogen’s time rewards for intelligence, character, and seniority diminished, whether in the priestly or the political realm. Blood relationship began to take precedence: it was more important for a monk or priest to have a high-ranking family lineage than an intimate knowledge of the scriptures or a reputation for holiness or seniority. After Ryogen’s death the Fujiwara family appointed their own family members, usually second sons, as abbots of important temples. This parallels the increasing tendency in the eleventh and twelfth centuries to rely on birth rather than talent to fill positions of political authority.


Asutra is a Buddhist scripture purported to be the word of the Buddha. Born in the sixth century b.c.e. in India, Buddha [563–483 b.c.e.) had a long preaching career during which he gave many sermons. About 500 years after his death, followers of the Buddhist doctrine began to write up what had been passed down in memory by his followers. Around the same time (about 100 b.c.e.-100 c.e.), a new kind of scripture emerged, which professed to be the “word of the Buddha” too because his teachings are universal, not bound by time or place. The Lotus Sutra belongs to this second sei of scriptures, which are called Mahayana or “great vehicle” scriptures. Referred to several times in The Tate of Genji. the Lotus Sutra has had a great impact on East Asian Buddhist thought, art, and literature, including parables, stories and analogies that have influenced elite culture as well as popular literary and art traditions. The Lotus Sutra entered Japan from China in the early ninth century, becoming closely tied to nobles of the court, as shown in the novel. The sutra became especially revered in japan, whose people would recite and transcribe it to protect the land, attain worldly benefits, or cleanse themselves of sins. The belief was that reciting or copying the Lotus Sutra brought merit to the person who reciter or copyist. Heartening in the text is a promise that “all shall attain the Buddha way;” over the years, interpreters would come to regard this sutra as enabling one to achieve enlightenment in this lite-time rather than over successive lifetimes.

Marriage and love in the Heian court

People today know of the amorous adventures of the Heian Court primarily through the diaries of women writers who act as a window into the cultural and social life of the upper classes. The life they describe is both elegant and tedious, punctuated by sexual adventures, but also so severely restricted by social rules as to be boring.

Heian society was polygamous. A man could marry more than one woman, though practically speaking, it was too expensive to have more than three wives. The primary rule of such polygamous marriages was that the first wife took precedence over all subsequent wives. At the time of his first marriage a man might be barely an adolescent, perhaps as young as 12 years old. The young wife, chosen from a family of suitably high social rank, would be about three or four years older; it was considered advantageous for the young man to be under the influence of a somewhat more mature woman. The dignity and position of the first wife had to be carefully preserved at all costs by her husband. A man risked becoming a social outcast if he treated a secondary wife with honors due the first wife, even if he felt more affection toward the later wife.

A marriage was official after the prospective husband had spent three nights with a woman. The first night was arranged through a go-between and conducted in “secret,” though most of the household knew that the young woman was entertaining a man in her quarters. The man was expected to spend the whole night with her, parting from her at dawn with a show of great reluctance. As soon as he returned home, he had to send a letter containing a poem that referred to their evening together and expressed his longing to return to her side. A faithful servant delivered the letter and waited for a reply from the lady, an enviable errand, for he would be offered delicious treats and drinks while he waited. The young lady took great pains to compose a suitable reply; if she were young, the older women of the household would most likely compose the reply. Every aspect of the task—the choice of paper, the fragrance she gave it, and her calligraphy—indicated her breeding as much as the quality of the poem itself, reflecting on the refinement of the whole household.

The first and second night visits passed in much the same way, but on the third night, the young couple would be presented with a plate of “third night cakes,” prepared by the household especially for the occasion. Accepting these cakes sealed the marriage. In the morning, the man remained in the woman’s quarters, and the family welcomed him. A brief Shinto blessing and a feast would follow, making the marriage public and official. The new couple did not usually set up their own household; rather, the wife remained in her parents home until their death, practicing “matrilocal” marriage. If she became pregnant and delivered a child, the child stayed in her family’s home until the age of maturity. Male courtiers often did not establish independent households until later in life.

Secondary marriages were conducted according to the same rules, although less formally. The second wife would remain in her family’s home, or the man might install her in a wing of his own residence, though such an arrangement would expose her to the jealousy of other women of his household. He might wish to have his beloved near him, but open intimacy and favoritism would put her in a difficult position. In the polygamous society of Heian Japan, the worst behavior in a man was to abandon all sense of decorum by becoming too attached to the woman he loved. On the other hand, for women, the worst social sin was jealousy. The Heian Japanese ascribed great power to jealousy, believing it capable of destroying the happiness of others to the point of possessing the spirit of another woman and destroying her health. The twin themes of reckless male indulgence and female jealousy in male-female relations run throughout The Tale of Genji.

Society expected men to have affairs outside of marriage, and in these cases too the illicit lovers had to abide by certain rules. A man could have a number of nightly adventures, opportunities to prove his social and poetic skills as much as his virility. Married women were expected to be faithful to their husbands, but if discreet, an unmarried woman could enter into a number of simultaneous affairs without attracting criticism. Women lived a secluded life in semidarkness in their rooms. Two potential lovers would initially communicate with a barrier between them, a screen or curtain, with the man ogling to glimpse the woman’s hair and form behind the screen. Female beauty was judged by the luxuriance of the cascade of long hair that often reached the floor, and by the woman’s skill in choosing pleasing shades and color combinations of robes suitable to the season. Not considered beautiful, the naked human body was rarely seen. A sexual affair usually took place inside the woman’s gloomy apartments, amidst a voluminous sea of robes in which she appeared to float. Social decorum required that the two realms of public and private life be kept strictly apart in Heian society. Overly intimate, obsessive, or exclusive domestic relationships were not the norm. To be sure, tendencies in these directions existed, but as shown in The Tale of Genji, they could cause disorder in the smooth social relations of the court.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

Emperor Kiritsubo’s deep love for one of his consorts, a beautiful and refined court lady, results in the birth of a beautiful baby boy, the future Genji. As the lady is of lower birth and has no powerful patrons at court, she is literally hounded to death by the jealousy of the other consorts. Fearing that these same forces of jealousy would be released on his young son the emperor hesitates to name the baby as a prince, and instead makes him a commoner, bestowing the name Genji on him. This name indicates to others that, although of royal blood, the boy is not a contender for the throne. He is therefore not a target of the jealous Kokiden, the emperor’s primary consort, who hopes to place her own son on the throne. Although it is clear that the emperor favors the beautiful Genji, reducing him to commoner status means that he cannot be a prince. Thus at the outset of the novel, Genji is deprived of both his mother and his future as a prince.

The young child grows into a handsome youth, so accomplished in the refined arts of the court that everyone (except the jealous Kokiden) is charmed and delighted, awed by his other worldly perfection. The emperor has meanwhile discovered a lovely woman, Fujitsubo, who reminds him so powerfully of Genji’s mother that he installs her in the palace and encourages young Genji to spend time in her apartments. When Genji becomes an adult, however, these privileges are suspended, but in the course of the novel he violates this stricture and becomes Fu-jitsubo’s lover. Their union results in the birth of a son, Reizei, who will become emperor later in the novel. The current Emperor, unaware that the baby was fathered by Genji, accepts it as his own and raises the boy to be his successor.

While still a young man of 12, having just undergone the coming of age ceremony, Genji is married to the daughter of the powerful Minister of the Left. Lady Aoi, as she is called later in the novel, is beautiful, but her behavior to him is formal and cold. Genji feels frustrated and ill at ease in her presence. Satisfying himself elsewhere than at his wife’s home, he has a number of nightly adventures. He pursues these escapades in league with his brother-in-law Tõ no Chõjõ, a willing companion. The two even have amorous relations with the same woman.

One night, Genji seduces a woman—her name is “Evening Faces” (Yügao)—and brings her to a deserted mansion. Shy and retiring, the woman appears to be increasingly frightened by the mysterious mansion. Deep in the night, Genji perceives a figure by the bed. In the morning, the young woman is discovered to have died, perhaps haunted by the jealous spirit of one of Genji’s other lovers, an older woman named Rõkujo. Yügao leaves behind a daughter, not Genji’s, but his brother-in-law’s. The mother’s death is ominous—it prefigures the death of Genji’s wife, Aoi, who also dies possessed by the spirit of Rokujõ.

Beset by malarial fevers, Genji visits the hermitage of a priestly healer in the mountains. There he discovers a charming little girl, less than ten years old, at a bishop’s country temple. She lives with her grandmother, a nun who does not approve of Genji’s attentions to the young girl. Although the child appears immature and unsophisticated, she reminds Genji strongly of Fujitsubo, for good reason, since she is Fujitsubo’s niece. Unsuccessful at his first attempts to adopt the child, whom he dubs Murasaki (Lavender), Genji returns to court after his cure. He soon manages to abduct and adopt Murasaki, whose grandmother has died, leaving her with scant protection.

Genji secretly installs Murasaki near his own apartments, inviting other children to play with her, and filling her rooms with dolls and toys. He treats her tenderly, as if he were her own father, and she soon abandons her shyness, becoming open and affectionate with him. Meanwhile, news that Genji has brought a young woman to reside in his quarters reaches his wife, Lady Aoi. Not knowing of Genji’s fatherly treatment of the girl, his wife assumes that Genji has taken this young girl as a lover, perhaps as a second wife.

Soon after this, Lady Aoi, pregnant with Genji’s child, goes into labor and delivers a boy, Yogiri. The birth is very difficult, and priests are commissioned to chant scriptures for her baby’s health. They begin to suspect possession by a vengeful spirit because all their efforts to exorcise the spirit from Aoi fail. In a gripping deathbed scene, Genji, torn with grief at his wife’s bedside, has the shocking experience of hearing her speak in the refined voice of Lady Rokujõ, clearly a sign of being possessed. The priests redouble their efforts, but Aoi finally breathes her last in Genji’s arms. The distressed husband has finally discovered his wife’s love for him. Deeply perturbed, Genji turns to Murasaki for comfort. At this point, his affection for her grows more than fatherly; he turns to her as a lover. Murasaki, though shocked by his demands, submits to him.

Genji’s situation worsens when his father, the emperor, dies, and Kokiden’s son, Suzaku, becomes the new emperor. Political power shifts from the Minister of the Left, Genji’s father-in-law, to the Minister of the Right, Kokiden’s father. Genji’s fortunes become more tenuous, and Fujitsubo, the former emperor’s consort, is also in a more precarious position. Although Genji can provide some shelter for her politically, Fujitsubo perceives that it is too dangerous for her to rely upon him, and she decides to retire from the court and become a nun.

For several months Genji had been conducting a secret but dangerous love affair with Oborozukiyo, Kokiden’s sister and a consort of the new emperor as well. When this affair is exposed by her father, the Minister of the Right, Genji finds his situation politically and socially untenable and chooses a self-imposed exile from the capital to avoid Kokiden’s anger. He leaves Murasaki in charge of his estates and business affairs in the capital.

At the relatively primitive coastal town of Suma, Genji meditates and performs rituals to purify himself of the sins he has committed in the capital city. He is surrounded by servants but far removed from the brilliant life of the court. Wild storms beat against the shore, threatening their lives, and Genji has prophetic and eerie dreams of the god of the sea and of his dead father. Meanwhile, news of Genji’s presence spreads throughout the peninsula. A retired courtier, the resident priest at nearby Akashi, believes that Genji has been sent by the gods in answer to his prayers for a son-in-law. Hoping to entice Genji to visit his home, the priest arrives at Suma with his retinue just after Genji and his men have weathered a frightening and destructive storm. Genji takes the Akashi priest’s arrival as a divine sign, and accepts his hospitality. At Akashi, the old priest and Genji spend hours talking and playing music. The priest speaks often of his daughter’s prowess as a musician, hoping to incite Genji’s interest. He encourages exchanges of letters between Genji and his daughter and finally arranges an evening liaison between them. Before Genji leaves Akashi, he has a new wife who is pregnant with his first daughter. This daughter will be the key to Genji’s future political success; he will use her marriage to the crown prince to gain influence over future emperors.

During Genji’s absence at court, the reigning emperor, Suzaku, has suffered an eye ailment and is concerned that his illness is caused by the vengeful spirit of the old emperor, Genji’s father. He summons Genji back to the capital and soon abdicates the throne. Now Reizei, the son of Fu-jitsubo and, thinks everyone, of Genji’s father, becomes emperor. Genji, whom everyone believes to be his brother, is the natural person to look after Reizei’s affairs. Reizei’s true father (Genji) is still a secret that only the parents share. Genji’s political fortunes now seem more secure, a development that emerges when he wins a court competition in the art of picture making. Afterward he will take steps to protect those close to him, manipulations that testify to his having matured emotionally and politically.

What the abridged version leaves out: Genji’s decline

The abridged translation of The Tale of Genji ends at this triumphant moment for Genji. He has regained the respect and admiration of the court and has been promoted to the rank of minister. His political power is extensive. But the tale does not end here. The full version continues with a subsequent period of suffering and spiritual discovery connected to the sins of Genji’s past.

Now quite powerful at court, Genji builds a large mansion for his retinue and for his women and children on lands bequeathed to him by Lady Rokujõ. He installs a pleasure garden on the property and assembles all his ladies to live together in his mansion. Genji learns through a chance encounter that the daughter of a former lover, “Evening Faces,” is in the capital. The daughter, Tamakazura, has been raised in the rural island of Kyüshü, and is naive and untutored in the arts of decorum and intrigue. She does not know that her father is Genji’s one-time brother-in-law Tõ no Chüjõ, or that her mother died in Genji’s arms during a night of lovemak-ing with him in an abandoned mansion in the capital. Genji installs the young Tamakazura in his household, at first treating her as his own daughter, but gradually developing romantic feelings for her. When the girl reacts with fear to his approaches, Genji resumes his fatherly role, seeking to make the best marriage match for her. Such matchmaking is complicated by Tamaka-zura’s secret parentage, which blights her affection for To no Chojo’s son, Kashiwagi.

Even as Genji’s power nears its climax, there are signs that his world is beginning to crumble. Fujitsubo dies, and a priest who cared for her in illness reveals to Emperor Reizei the secret that Genji is his father, not his brother. An autumn storm destroys the carefully planned garden at Genji’s mansion and in the chaos of it, Genji’s acknowledged son, Yũgiri, catches a glimpse of Murasaki, and of Genji and Tamakazura in an intimate setting. Seeing his father’s women opens Yũgiri’s eyes, and suggests that Genji, unable to keep his women from being seen by his son, has lost a measure of control. Power is passing to the next generation.

Yũgiri marries Tõ no Chũjõs daughter, bringing about an alliance between Genji’s and Tõ no Chũjõs families. Genji’s daughter by the Akashi lady (during his time of exile) is presented at court. Now 40 years old, Genji has approached the height of his worldly power. He is honored by Reizei, the present emperor and Suzaku, the former emperor, who pay him a visit of state at his mansion.

The retired Emperor Suzaku persuades Genji to marry Suzaku’s third daughter (Third Princess). This makes Murasaki jealous. She fears that Genji’s attraction to the higher-ranking princess will supplant his affection for Murasaki. The Third Princess, however, is a careless immature young woman. One day Tõ no Chũjõs son, Kashiwagi, catches sight of her when her cat displaces a blind. His passion inflamed, he plots to seduce her and succeeds, after which the princess foolishly allows Genji to discover a love note that Kashiwagi has written her. The discovery of her unfaithfulness enrages Genji. Knowing that he has been found out, Kashiwagi torments himself with fear and self-hatred. He dies after the Third Princess gives birth to his son, Kaoru. Suppressing his rage, Genji recognizes Kaoru as his own son. As everyone in this Buddhist society understands, the karmic seeds that were laid when Genji seduced his father’s concubine, Fujitsubo, reached maturity when Kashiwagi seduced Genji’s wife The Third Princess. Recognizing the recklessness of her behavior, she takes vows as a nun.

Murasaki, now seriously ill, declares her own intention to take Buddhist vows and leave behind the world of the court, but a distraught Genji refuses to let her leave him. Unable to retire as a nun, Murasaki orders a thousand copies of the Lotus Sutra, to be dedicated to the salvation of all living beings. The karmic rewards of this meritorious act, hopes Murasaki, will result in a better rebirth for her. At last she dies. Crushed by his loss of her, Genji retires from court life and die as well. The story continues with the fortunes of the younger generation: Kaoru, son of the Third Princess and Kashiwagi (whom Genji recognized as his own), and Niou, Genji’s grandson (born to the daughter of the Akashi lady and the emperor). Kaoru and Niou, being nearly the same age, are thrown together as companions, much like Genji and Tõ no Chujõ once were. But the younger men are less assured and more inclined to become entangled in un-fulfilling situations.

Kaoru learns of the truth of his parentage on a trip to Uji, where he stays with an old prince who urges him to take care of the prince’s two young daughters. The elder one, Oigimi, rejects a belated offer from Kaoru, and his sensitive nature prohibits him from forcefully possessing her sister, Nakanokimi in the face of the younger girl’s tearful protest. The romance remains un-consummated. Instead, Kaoru convinces his


Heian courtiers were expected to be proficient in playing a number of different musical instruments. The koto, originally a term that referred to all stringed instruments, is the instrument most commonly mentioned in The Tale of Genji. Then, as now, there were 13-string kotos. About six feet long and made of two lengthy pieces of oak or paulownia wood, the koto had a main body with strings and movable bridges. Of equal tension, length, and thickness, the strings are stretched over the bridges. The tuning, of course, varies with the piece played, but there are always five tones. A koto sits on the floor, and the performer kneels to play it, moving its bridges up and down to achieve the different tunings. The sound is affected not only by the player and the tune, but also by how the instrument has been made—the way the wood has been cut from the tree and the patterns carved inside the koto to improve the music it makes. In the late twentieth century, when this translation of The Tale of Genji was published, a few households in Japan still had a koto, and playing one remained a sign of elite, cultured status

friend, Niou, to marry the girl. In the end, however, Niou is unable to visit her often and both sisters feel neglected. Oigimi falls ill, and her will to live ebbs away. Her younger sister, Nakanokimi, leaves to live at the capital, where she gradually entrances Kaoru, who sees in her a resemblance to her older sister. He becomes deeply interested, but Nakanokimi, who is unhappy in the capital, discourages his affection, diverting his attention to her half-sister, Ukifune, whom, she says, bears an even stronger resemblance to Oigimi. When Kaoru meets Ukifune, the resemblance indeed strikes him, but before he can remove her to Uji, Niou tricks her into sleeping with him. Ukifune, attracted by both men, becomes emotionally unstable and tries to drown herself in the Uji River. She survives, thanks to a Buddhist prelate, who rescues her, gives her a home and servants and administers lay ordination. Karou learns of her miraculous survival, then courts her to be his wife. As the tale ends, Ukifune is debating whether to or not to marry him, and Kaoru is wondering how to win her affection.

Poetic exchanges in The Tale of Genji

In The Tale of Genji poetry is most commonly associated with love and sexual attraction. The novel equates the skilled poet to the ardent lover. In prose and speech, Japanese society called for honorific language. But poetry did not call for these formalities. It cast aside social conventions of language that created barriers between people, serving as a vehicle for intimacy between lovers and people of different social backgrounds.

About three-quarters of the poems in The Tale of Genji are sets of exchanges between intimates. A first poem sets the theme and the vocabulary of the exchange. The reply, using portions of this vocabulary, either adds nuance to the theme, or switches direction entirely. Poetic dialogues are used for all manner of emotional expressions, including humor and irritation. In the chapter “Heartvine,” Genji’s wife, Aoi, has fallen ill, and Genji is constantly by her side. He steals a moment to visit the Lady Rokujõ, who is petulant at having been neglected. Genji passes a tense night with this lady friend, and when she sees him off in the morning, realizing that she is losing the battle for his heart, she sinks into sadness. Later that day a letter from Genji explains that his wife has taken a turn for the worse and that he cannot leave her side. Lady Rokujo’s answer contains a poem:

I go down the way of love and dampen my
And go yet further, into the muddy fields.

(Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji, p. 159)

She then comments, “A pity the well is so shallow” a reference to a poem from the collection Kokin Rokujo—“A pity the mountain well should be so shallow. /I seek to take water and only wet my sleeve.” (Also called Kokin Waka Rokujo, this tenth-century collection is the oldest existing anthology of waka poetry arranged by topic.) The interchange illustrates the full command noble men and women of the period were expected to have over Japanese poetry. To engage in this type of love banter, they had to know classic verses well. Lady Rokujõ can safely assume Genji will remember the poem referred to and will understand she is complaining of her lack of satisfaction from him. Through this reference to a traditional verse, her communique becomes a powerful, if oblique, criticism of his behavior toward her and her disappointment in it.

Genji receives the letter and first appreciates the beautiful handwriting, the best he has ever seen. He feels disappointed that of all the women he has known, there are none that he wants to give himself to completely; there is always some sense of dissatisfaction. His answer questions her reference to the old poem:

You only wet your sleeves—what can this
mean? That your feelings are not of the
deepest, I should think. [Genji continues:]
You only dip into the shallow waters,
And I quite disappear into the slough?
Do you think 1 would answer by letter and
not in person if she were merely

(Tale of Genji, p. 159–60)

The interchange demonstrates how even less happy emotions of sexual frustration and pique were conveyed using subtle poetic references to deliver an impact greater than the direct expression of these trying emotions. Both characters lean on the older poem to express their dissatisfaction, extending its meaning to accommodate their real, present-day emotions. Their mutual frustration sparks and crackles in the poetic exchange. Neither has given an inch in the argument, and one gets the impression of the enormous emotional strength and power of Lady Rokujõ. A worthy foil for Genji, she is unwilling to passively accept his excuses without revealing her own disappointment in him.

Sources and literary context

The Tale of Genji is a monogatari or “narrative fiction,” a genre of prose writing that flourished from the ninth to the fourteenth centuries in Japan. The genre took various forms—long romances, short anecdotes, and historical accounts—but the method stayed constant. It entailed embedding a series of poems in a narrative form, after the precedent set by the Kokinshũ, with each poem introduced by a short explanation of the circumstances of its composition. The individual poems were not meant to stand by themselves; context was provided by prose that linked one poem to others in the collection. Narrative prose tales such as The Tale of Genji arose from this practice of explaining the context of a poem. When Murasaki Shikibu wishes to advance the plot, she uses straightforward prose, but at important moments of emotional experience and realization, poetry dominates and time seems to stop as the characters express their deep feelings. The novel clearly regards poetry as the favored art and narrative fiction as secondary.


In Murasaki’s time the genre of narrative fiction was considered inferior to poetic composition. The very fact that we do not know Murasaki Shikibu’s real name may be attributed to the genre’s lack of prestige. She undoubtedly would have preferred to be thought of as a poetess, rather than as a novelist. Yet the novel itself defends the value of fiction. Finding Tamakazura surrounded by books of romance tales in her room one muggy rainy day, Genji laughs at her, scolding her gently for being so easily fooled by such fictions, exclaiming that there is not one word of truth in them. Tamakazura’s response is that if one is accustomed to lying, then these tales must seem like lies, but to the honest person, they simply tell the truth. This comment seems to give Genji pause. He goes on to defend the fiction he has just criticized, arguing that histories such as the Chronicles of Japan only give one side of the picture. Fictional works, though they do not record the details of specific people, relate the author’s experience of all things good and bad, evoking emotion (mono no aware) realistically and charitably, for the benefit of others. One is exposed to the pathos of life through stories, which is itself an expression of truth.

In the early development of narrative fiction, tales about poems were assembled into collections called uta monogatari. The earliest example is the he monogatari, written in the early tenth century. Around the same period, longer compositions with fully developed narratives also appeared. Among these longer compositions, known as tsukuri monogatari (courtly romances), are a few early tenth-century romances. Two of the best-known examples are Taketori monogatari (Tale of the Bamboo Cutter) and Utsubo monogatari (Tale of the Hollow Tree). The Tale of Genji is written in this tradition; with the writing of this romance, the development of this genre is believed to have peaked.

Composition and reception

Even as it was being written, Murasaki Shikibu lost control of The Tale of Genji. It passed into the hands of others, and she worried that the unedited original would ruin her reputation. Since there was no printing at this time, all books were copied by hand, a task involving many people. The practice of hand-copying manuscripts was regarded as a means of improving one’s skills in calligraphy. As a rule, highly regarded Waka poetry collections were copied faithfully, but copyists of monogatari would have felt less compunction about varying the content, since it was not considered to be serious literature. Readers often had separate chapters in their possession, but it was rare to have a single, complete copy of the book. The chapters circulated as Murasaki Shikibu wrote them; one person commonly read them to a crowd so that everyone could enjoy the story. The audience avidly consumed whatever section was available to read or hear. A passage in the Sarashina Dianes written about 50 years after Murasaki Shikibu’s death shows the great value attached to The Tale of Genji. A young woman who longed to read it at last received a rare 50-volume set of the whole tale from her aunt. Her joy suggests how much she treasured the work: “Before I had been able to read only bits and pieces, and didn’t really know how the story went. Now I had the whole Genji to read from the very first volume. When I lay down alone behind my screens and took it out to read, I would not have changed places even with the empress” (Bowring, p. 83).

By the twelfth century The Tale of Genji had attracted scholars. Fujiwara Shunzei (1114–1204) and his son Teika (1162–1241) worked to produce an authoritative text (the “Blue Covers” version). In 1255 a rival authority, Minamoto Mitsuyuki (1163–1244) produced his own text (the “Kawachi” version), which predominated for the next century and a half. It was not until the fifteenth century that Fujiwara Teika’s version was recognized as superior, and most modern translations are based on it. The ongoing perception of fiction writing as an immoral occupation hindered universal applause, though. By the twelfth century, stories circulated that Murasaki Shikibu was suffering in hell for writing The Tale of Genji. The twelfth-century work A Sutra for Genji (1168) suggested that her novel misled the young. This work claimed that Murasaki appeared to someone in a dream to say that she had been cast into hell for creating such lies. She begged people to destroy their copies of The Tale of Genji, and instead make copies of the scriptures and offer them for her salvation. The suggestion was taken up in earnest. Services were held for Murasaki Shikibu’s salvation in which writers copied out the 28 chapters of the Lotus Sutra, adding a chapter title from The Tale of Genji to each chapter heading from the scripture.

The critical mindset continued. In the thirteenth century, Murasaki Shikibu appears as a character in a type of Japanese play (the Noh play), begging people to write a poem in praise of Amida Buddha on each scroll of the novel so that she might be saved. But regard for the work as a great achievement continued as well. Like their twelfth-century predecessors, thirteenth-century scholars viewed The Tale of Genji as an important Japanese text. Some went so far as to call it a religious work, one that illustrated the Buddhist truths of impermanence and suffering for one’s actions. As the centuries rolled on and fiction grew legitimate, the work sustained an avid readership. Today it is regarded as one of the world’s earliest and foremost novels.

Both time specific and universal, The Tale of Genji continues to provide a window into court life in the Heian period in Japan and insight into the workings of human nature, especially that of the male gender. The novel’s enduring appeal is evident in the enthusiasm for the translation by Edward Seidensticker, which has itself endured. Reviewers tended to compare Seidensticker’s with another translation by Arthur Waley, the standard text for some 50 years. A critic for New York Review of Books found Seidensticker’s translation pleasing in one way, wanting in another. “There are many amusing episodes in Seidensticker which are missing from Waley: on the other hand, one grasps the whole more easily from Waley’s discursive page (V. S. Pritchett in Samudio and Mooney, p. 955). A second reviewer waxed enthusiastic for the newer translation:

A comparison . . . shows Seidensticker to be more direct and colloquial….Notes are minimal….Shinto and Buddhist terms are more adequately handled…. This translation is unlikely to be matched for another century.

(D. J. Pearce in Samudio and Mooney,
p. 955)

—Diane Riggs

For More Information

Bargen, Doris G. A Woman’s Weapon: Spirit Possession in The Tale of Genji. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1997.

Bowring, Richard. The Tale of Genji. ed. J. P. Stern. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Field, Norma. The Splendor of Longing in The Tale of Genji. ridge:Cam bridge University Press, 1988.

Konishi Jin’ichi. A History of Japanese Literature. Trans. Aileen Gatten and Mark Harbison. 3 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Malm, William P. Japanese Music and Musical Instruments. Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle, 2000.

Morris, Ivan. The World of the Shining Prince. New York: Kondansha, 1994.

Murasaki Shikibu. Tale of Genji. Trans, and abr. Edward G. Seidensticker, New York: Vintage, 1985.

_____. The Diary of Lady Murasaki. Trans. Richard Bowring. London: Penguin, 1996.

Puette, William J. The Tale of Genji: A Readers Guide. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1983.

Samudio, Josephine, and Martha T. Mooney, Eds. Book Review Digest. Vol. 73. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1978.

Shirane, Haruo. The Bridge of Dreams: A Poetics of The Tale of Genji. Stanford University Press, 1987.

Tanabe, George J. Jr., and Will Jane Tanabe, Eds. Lotus Sutra in Japanese Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989.

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