Murasaki-shikibu, Genji monogatari, Tale of Genji (1008)

(adapted from Kumiko Sato's web pages)


The Tale of Genji is a looooong romance consisting of three parts. In the first and second parts, Genji is the protagonist, but the third part is set after his death. Genji was born from Kiritsubo-no-Koyi (Kiritsubo means her rresidential room name, and koyi is her rank title), who was one of the Emperor's wives. She was the most beloved of the emperor Kiritsubo in spite of her low rank. She dies soon after Genji was born. The emperor Kiritsubo welcomes a new wife in place of Koyi, Fujitsubo. Genji has strong affection toward her, which later grows into passionate love. Genji becomes a beautiful, talented young man, always competing with his best friend, To-no-Chujo. They are stars in the imperial residence area. While having affairs with many women, Genji always longs for his prohibited love, his absent mother figure, Fujitsubo. They had consummated their love once in secret, which results in her pregnancy. So here is an interesting plot development which, although fictional, casts serious doubt about the "sacred, inviolable" nature of the Japanese monarchy because the emperor who ascends the throne later in the story is believed by the world to be Genjis brother but he is really his son!

Genji has really very many affairs with other women as well, in order to console his longing for Fujitsubo. Aoi-no-ue: his official wife, who has too much pride to express her emotion and thus alienates herself from Genji. Rokujo-no-miyasundokoro is a high-rank woman, who is much older than Genji but falls in love with him so passionately that her jelousy turns into an evil spirit and kills Aoi, his wife! Yugao is a low rank woman whom Genji accidentaly meets in the common people's area. Yugao is a fragile flower who dies in a haunted house. Sue-tsumu-hana is a fairly homely young woman, who has no sense of art in poetry nor love. Genji comes to help her (mainly financially) out of sympathy. Oborozukiyo is a fashionable girl who loves adventurous love and has affairs with Genji the night before she marries the new emperor! There is a famous chapter called "Amayo no shinasadame," or "Discussion on a Rainy Night,"which is a discussion among aa number of the young men at court on a rainy day over what kind of woman is desirable.

Because of illness, Genji spends some days in the mountains, where he finds a beautiful girl raised at the temple he visits. He decides to take her, Murasaki-no-ue, back to his residence and teaches her music, drawing, poetry, etc., in order to make her an ideal woman. They marry (or Genji raped this 11-12 year-old girl, to be precise). As she grows up, Murasaki learns to love Genji, and they come to love each other very deeply. Genji is quite successful in his career, but when a new emperor comes to the throne, he moves to Akashi in exile. He meets Akashi-no-ue there. When an emperor on Genji's side comes to sit on the throne, he returns to Kyoto, and becomes Sa-daijin (Minister of the Left) while his best friend becomes the Minister of the Right. When Murasaki dies, Genji's life loses meaning and he retreats into the way of the Buddha, and dies soon thereafter.

Part III centers on Kaoru and Niou-miya. Kaoru was born between Genji and his immature wife, San-no-miya, but his true father is Kashiwagi, a son of Genji's best friend. Niou-miya belongs to the right wing, while Kaoru is on Genji's side, i.e., the left wing. The episodes that come after this seem to be a playing out of what Genji and To-no-Chujo have already done. The last 10 chapters, known as the "Uji chapters" because much of the setting shifts to outside of Kyoto, to a place caled Uji where a the Uji river figures prominently in the narrative.


Further Comments

Genji monogatari was quite popular among people in the court, and we can know from several diaries written by women of the aristcratic class that young ladies were crazy about Genji monogatari. Although the work written in the early 11th-century makes us think that it is a serious literary work, it is actually almost equivalent to popular TV melodramas (like Beverly Hills 90120?) or film (like Titanic?) in our own age. The name, Genji, can still be found everywhere in Japanese pop culture as well as its academic studies. I have read Genji monogatari in the original classic Japanese, translation in modern Japanese, manga (esp. girls' comics), and in the anime version.

The romance of Genji seems to still excite fantasy of love. The elements of popular romance (esp. melodrama) can be found in Genji monogatari, such as tactics of love, jelousy, sentimentalism, suicide, class difference of lovers, misunderstanding, separation, all kinds of trouble in love. The most eminent difference from our age, however, is women's deep pessimism caused by polygamy, which leads them to the immerse in Buddhism. Since Genji, the most handsome guy in high rank, has many, many women, his wives and concubines incessantly suffer from the emotion of jealousy, which burns out their own life in the end. The Rokujo Lady, for example turns into an evil spirit and possess some of Genji's women. This theme of jealousy and rage turning itno spirit possession is seized upon by Enchi Fumiko in her Novel, Masks. Murasaki herself longs to be a nun, leaving all the worries of love behind. Jealousy is a significant motif in women's writings in this period. A high-ranking Fujiwara spouse expresses her concerns in the famous Kagero Diary [aka The Gossamer Years] were also about her husband's concubines and his cold treatment of her. Wives were confined within a residence, and simply had to wait for the husband's visit (A man of high rank usually did not bring their women to his residence. Wives stayed in their parents' residence and her husband was supposed to visit her at certain frequency). A man, on the other hand, was allowed to have more concubines, as his rank was higher. Although there were no iron grills to keep women inside, women of high rank were wearing that kind of kimono which weighs about a third to half of their own weight: quite naturally, even standing up was a hard move for them. Because of this heavy dress which is too hot in summer, and poisonous make-up (they used lead to blacken teeth), they died at the age of around 30 years old. In this harsh condition, jelousy devours women's psyche. Lady Rokujo's transformation into a jealous fiend effectively indicates that one of the only ways for a woman to express her emotions in this oppressive society is to become a monster in the realm of the fantastic.

There are political and literary backgrounds to be pointed out in relation to Sei Shonagon's Makura no soshi [or The Pillow Book].

Kumiko Sato (10/23/1999)

See, also, this interesting article by Sonja Arntzen.

More Commentary:

How signiicant or important is the Genji? It is clearfly an anamoly because nowhere else in the world at this time, or even during the next several centuries afterwards, for that matter, is there a text that is so "modern" in its delving into the inner, psychological states of its characters. It is a narrative about powerful emotions and how they may be linked to important historical moments and political events. The reality of the Heian court life in which the author, Murasaki Shikibu, was raised, is that court rank and marriage politics were critical determinants of one's social status and position. It is no surprise, then, that these are things about which the author was concerned and wrote about. The Fujiwara family used well-placed daughters to control the imperial line and hence the power to name or appoint to office, and to bestow court rank. Consider the legendary Fujiwara-no-Michinaga who, as Ivan Morris writes, "had the satisfaction of seeing no les than four of his daughters married to emperors, and they in turn produced three more emperors. A study of his family tree reveals that he performed the following genealogical feat: he was father-in-law of two emperors, grandfather of a third, grandfather and great-grandfather of a fourth, grandfather and father-in-law of a fifth." (The World of the Shining Prince, p. 63) Since, in those days, marriage was normally matrilocal, this meant the children were born and raised in the household of the wife's family so that fathers and grandfathers exerted enormous influence over royal offspring. It was a strategy the Fujiwara adopted to dominate the monarchy by having themselves named regents for child-monarchs whom they often had abdicate at an early age.

Royall Tyler talks about the following realizations that he experienced when translating and reflecting on the Tale of Genji. He begins by quoting from Virgina Woolf's 1925 review of Waley's first installment (9 chapters) of his translation of the Genji:

Anticipating further volumes of Arthur Waley’s Tale of Genji, Virginia Woolf wrote near the end of her review:

We can take our station and watch, through Mr. Waley’s beautiful telescope, the new star rise in perfect confidence that it is going to be large and luminous and serene—but not, nevertheless, a star of the first magnitude. No; the lady Murasaki is not going to prove herself the peer of Tolstoi and Cervantes or those other great storytellers of the Western world whose ancestors were fighting or squatting in their huts while she gazed from her lattice window at flowers which unfold themselves “like the lips of people smiling at their own thoughts.” Some element of horror, of terror, or sordidity, some root of experience has been removed from the Eastern world so that crudeness is impossible and coarseness out of the question, but with it too has gone some vigour, some richness, some maturity of the human spirit. 

Woolf had enjoyed nine chapters by the author she described as “the quiet lady with all her breeding, her insight, and her fun,” but her assumption that the rest would prolong them in kind was understandably wrong. She had not read enough to catch the significance of “the crux of the entire work,” nor could she have noted the early signs of a still greater, related theme derived from Japanese myth: that of fraternal rivalry for dominion over the land, and of the younger brother’s subjection of the elder….

However, I admit that I myself probably expected more from the tale, in the way of “strong meanings,” precisely because it has been held up so long as a great masterpiece.  My personal background and limitations being what they are, however, the meanings that readers seemed to find in it did not impress me as very “strong.” Their relationship to the narrative content of the tale also escaped me. That is why I felt impelled to comprehend for myself the work I had translated, and why this effort has constituted, for me, a second stage in the project of translation. No one, centuries ago, saw in the tale tragedy consequent upon Aristotelian error, nor do people now. No one sees either, in the relationship between Genji and his elder brother Suzaku, that between the two brothers in the myth of Hosonuseri and Hikohohodemi. Nothing could therefore demonstrate more vividly the tale’s richness and greatness, or its capacity to stand as a world classic, than the way the narrative itself has supported and rewarded my effort to read it from outside its own culture. Did the author “intend” it to be read as I read it? I have no idea. However, I am satisfied that The Tale of Genji excludes neither tragedy nor a powerful succession struggle and its aftermath, and that since a reader like me can find these in it, they can also serve to describe what The Tale of Genji is about more  intelligibly, for readers of English, than talk of love affairs and sensibility—talk that tends to turn  the tale at best into a novel…engaging but structurally weak….

I had just understood for the first time the significance of a passage in “Kiritsubo.” This passage makes it clear that although Suzaku, the heir apparent and elder brother, has expressed interest in Aoi, Aoi’s father has decided nonetheless to give her to Genji, a mere commoner. [See p. 14] No one just starting to read the tale in English, or perhaps in Japanese either, is likely to understand that the minister’s decision is highly unusual, still less to grasp its intensely political character. Suzaku is entitled to assume that if he wants Aoi, she is his. However, Aoi’s father snubs him in favor of Genji, the younger brother with an uncertain future. This is the first sign of the political and personal struggle that will dominate the tale. This struggle is founded in myth, but the myth takes the brothers’ story only through the triumph of the younger over the elder, who remains little more than a cipher. The Tale of Genji goes further. “Fujinouraba” (Chapter 33) ends with Suzaku’s complete subjection.  As retired emperor, he and Emperor Reizei, Genji’s secret son, pay a formal visit to Genji, as though to a greater monarch, at Genji’s recently completed Rokujô estate. Precisely at that moment, the “arc” of Genji’s life tips downward. At the start of the next chapter, Suzaku invites Genji to marry his beloved daughter, Onna Sannomiya.  The result is disaster for himself and for Genji. Call it karma or call it folly, the subjected elder brother wrecks his own last years just as surely as he wrecks those of his triumphant younger brother, and still without ever regaining the upper hand.  If the “horror, terror, or sordidity” that Virginia Woolf missed in the first nine chapters are present anywhere in the book, it is in these chapters that follow, no doubt with interspersed digressions, the awful, step by step consequences of Genji’s acceptance of Onna Sannomiya.  For “horror,” one might mention Kashiwagi’s ghastly presence at the party that Genji traps him into attending, and Genji’s killing glance; for “terror,” the scene when Rokujô’s resentful spirit speaks; and, for “sordidity,” Kashiwagi’s pathetic appropriation of Genji’s wife.

The story culminates in the terrible moment when Onna Sannomiya calls her father down from his mountain temple and, over Genji’s protests, has him ordain her as a nun.  The two men exchange no harsh words, but by this time harsh words would only attenuate the nightmare.  Genji has catastrophically failed Suzaku, and Suzaku’s attachment to his daughter has ruined the rest of his life.

Once, while I was translating such scenes as these, I rushed out of my study to exclaim to my wife,“ Thisis beyond anything! If The Tale of Genji is known worldwide for anything at all, it should be known for this! This is what lifts it into the company of the few greatest works of  literature ever written! ” I did not yet understand consciously how one event followed from another in this part of the tale, or how the narrative had managed to produce this effect. I now see, however, how rightly Virginia Woolf demanded of the greatest literature moment s of “terror, horror, or sordidity” and wrote of missing, in what she had so far read of the tale, a “root of experience” that she thought had been “removed from the Eastern world so that crudeness is impossible and coarseness out of the question.” No, in The Tale of Genji that “root of experience,” those transcendent touches of “crudeness” or “coarseness,” which anchor grace and beauty in lived human truth, are there after all. They take the tale to the heights of the sublime. (from:

Tyler, then, sees more serious things at stake in the Genji than just romance, manners, rank and gender differentiation--though they are all present. Power seems to lurk behind all of these things. What are we to think about the fact that a female author chose to write so much about this amazing "Shining One," Genji, whose light seemed to fill up his years? Why is she foucsing on this seemingly ideal (but flawed) young man nad his many love affairs and escapades? Is she exposing, unveiling for all to see, exactly where power resided at the Heian Court and how the marriage system was used as a politcal tool but it did little to empower women? One could cetainly argue that merely by depicting these things, by drawing our attention to them, the author is, indeed, engaging in a form of feminist critique even though no such notion of feminism or even individual human liberation was in the air at the time she lived. It could be thsat the Genji is about describing the jealousy, the hurt, and sometimes the rage that gripped Heian court women because of the double-standard that granted permission for the male courtiers to pursue and seduce women at will. As Tyler notes, many argue that this grand narrative only seems to be about Genji; it is really all about the women who populate his world. I can certainly agree, but if she is unveliling, exposing certain things, unmasking the patriarchal system, if you will, what do you think is the most significant revalation that she makes? On what grounds, if any, could we say she is challenging the patriarchy?


Translations of the Genji. There are three majoir translations of the Tale of Genji into English: the first one to appear which is by Arthur Waley, an esteemed member of thehip, beohemian literary "Bloomsbur"y Group in England of which Virginia Woolf was a distinguished member. In fact, Woolf reviewed Waley's translation in 1925. The Waley translation stood for decades and many readers loved the way in flowed and entranced readers. But it contained some inaccuracies and omissions so was more or less superceded by tby Edward Siedenticker's 1976 who remedied Waley's liberties and free style of translation by sticking closely to the original; and, most recently, that by Royall Tyler, 2001. Tyler discusses his approach to the project here. But, also, since the original tale is written in classical Japanese, many 20th century Japanese writers have (re-)translated the Genji into more contemporary Japanese, beginning with Yosano Akiko in 1913, followed by Tanizaki Jun'ichiro, and Enchi Fumiko. There are questions in the Genji about gender relationships in Heian times and they raiseserious challenges for contemporary readers without a grerat deal of context. Not the least amopng them is the fact, so central to the novel, that when Genji, the Shinone One (Hikaru) discovers the love of his live, Murasaki, she is still only a child. He takes her into his home, raises her ass his daughter, and eventutally shocks her by making her his wofe. For some, this constitutes rape iof not child avbuse. But should we apply standards of our time and place to 10th century Japan?

Royall Tyler makes some interesting observation on this topic:

Genji asks the grandmother for her granddaughter, but she demurs. Murasaki is not yet of marrigeable age, and the grandmother finds his request suspiciously strange. Meanwhile, Murasaki's father decides to bring her home after all. Genji realises that if he lets that happen he will have little further access to Murasaki and will have to wait several years before he can even hope to obtain her. The thought being unbearable, he abducts her instead. Suddenly, she is gone without a trace.

What Genji does is outrageous, not to mention implausible outside fiction. Many recent readers have roundly condemned him for it. But does it harm Murasaki? Considering the realities of her life and her prospects, the answer is no, on the contrary. At her father's house she would be (from her stepmother's controlling standpoint) no more than an unwanted stepchild, a sort of Cinderella. All her stepmother's efforts go to promoting her own daughters, who, needless to say, lack Murasaki's many qualities. The stepmother would soon be defending her daughters against the threat that Murasaki represents and relegating Murasaki as much as possible to the outer darkness. Mursasaki would of course be married off in the end, but to a relative nobody. Her beauty and her abundant gifts would go to waste. In contrast Genji treasures them throughout her life. No husband approved by her father could possibly have become Honorary Retired Emperor or made her an Empress's adoptive mother.

Still, there remains the question of how Genji actually consummates his marriage with her. That he rapes her has been self-evident to many recent readers, for whom the matter is so clear and so reprehensible that nothing further need be, or even should be, said about it. This is what happens. Having obtained Murasaki after all, Genji treats her with great affection but also with unfailing tact and respect. Despite sleeping with her (literally) every night when at home, he never betrays the slightest wish to press himself upon her. Meanwhile, she grows up. Then Genji's original wife dies, under the circumstances alluded to above. When the mourning is over, Genji looks at Murasaki with fresh eyes and sees that the time has come. He therefore tries in various, discreet ways to arouse her interest in changing the nature of their relationship. However, he fails completely. His hints pass right over her head. She cannot even wonder whether or not to consent, since she has no idea what he is talking about. The intimacy already established between her and Genji throws her incomprehension into sharp relief. Is such innocence even possible under her circumstances? Or has Genji misjudged her stage of development? With respect to the first question, one need only recall that the tale is fiction. The reader has no reasonable choice but to accept what the narrative says. As for the second, Murasaki is certainly still very young—perhaps only fourteen. However, this was a normal age for marriage in the world of the tale. In fact, many years later her adopted daughter will give birth to a future Emperor, apparently without difficulty, at the age of twelve or thirteen. There is no reason to believe that Genji is wrong by the standards of his time. He seems even to have been unusually patient.

Then what does the author mean by Murasaki's failure to understand him? The answer should be clear already. Her incomprehension proves her quality and promises her future greatness as a lady. For her to say yes would be unworthy of her; for her to say no would place Genji, hence herself, in a very difficult position; and for her to say either would compromise her by showing that she does know what he is talking about. Her utter innocence is what proves her supreme worth. As in the case of Suetsumuhana it is up to Genji to act, and he does. Yes, Murasaki remains furious with him for some time thereafter, but her anger passes, and beyond the chapter in which all this takes place the narrative never alludes to it again. The experience is inevitable, but once it is over, it is over. Its only significant consequence is that now Murasaki can begin her adult life with Genji. That life that will bring her various trials, as anyone's is likely to do, but also great happiness; and in the end it will lift her, for the reader, to a height of grandeur beyond anything her yes or no could have achieved.

[Much is said about karma in the Tale of Genji and fate does come full circle when Kashiwagi does to Genji what Genji did to his own father: seduces and impregnates his wife, San no miya, who Tyler has noted the Suzaku Emperor asked Genji to wed, and he did. The child of that union, Kaoru, becomes a significant character in the last third of the novel, after Genji and Murasaki have died. About Kaoru, Tyler writes]

...One of Kaoru's salient traits is to be unusually considerate of the opposite sex, at least when the prospective partner is of high standing.[15] He had his chance once with Ôigimi (a night that he managed to spend alone with her, over her protests), but he never seized it, as Genji or Niou would have done. Unlike any other man in the tale, he insists on refraining from making love to Ôigimi until she herself allows him to do so. At first one smiles with approval, as many readers have done in centuries past; but then one begins to understand his ghastly mistake. He is out of touch with reality. If he had acted decisively during that night, regardless of Ôigimi's local feelings on the subject, he would have committed himself to her and her to him. He would have taken the decision out of her hands, and she would not have died. Far from it: considering how deeply he and she actually felt about each other, they might really have lived happily ever after.

[The lesson seems to be that we apply contemporary standards about gender relations and how men and women conduct their romances and sexual relations with one another at our peril. We have to think about context and what the standards of the day were before we dismiss or judge.]

See Royall Tyler, "Marriage, Rank and Rape in The Tale of Genji" Intersections,


The Chinese poet Bay Juyi is quoted a lot in the sections of the Genji we are reading. Who was he?

Bai Juyi (772–846), or Bo Juyi, was a Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty. Many of his poems concern his career or observations made as a government official, including as governor of three different provinces. Burton Watson says of Bai Juyi: "he worked to develop a style that was simple and easy to understand, and posterity has requited his efforts by making him one of the most well-loved and widely read of all Chinese poets, both in his native land and in the other countries of the East that participate in the appreciation of Chinese culture. He is also, thanks to the translations and biographical studies by Arthur Waley, one of the most accessible to English readers".[1] Bai was also influential in the historical development of Japanese literature.[2]

Bai Juyi also wrote intensely romantic poems to fellow officials with whom he studied and traveled. These speak of sharing wine, sleeping together, and viewing the moon and mountains. One friend, Yu Shunzhi, sent Bai a bolt of cloth as a gift from a far-off posting, and Bai Juyi debated on how best to use the precious material:

About to cut it to make a mattress,
pitying the breaking of the leaves;
about to cut it to make a bag,
pitying the dividing of the flowers.
It is better to sew it,
making a coverlet of joined delight;
I think of you as if I'm with you,
day or night.[14]

Bai's works were also highly renowned in Japan, and many of his poems were quoted and referenced in The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu.[15]

Critical appraisal

Bai Juyi is considered one of the greatest Chinese poets, but even during the ninth century, sharp divide in critical opinions of his poetry already existed.[17] While other poets like Pi Rixiuonly had the highest praise for Bai Juyi, others were hostile, like Sikong Tu (司空圖) who described Bai as "overbearing in force, yet feeble in energy (qi), like domineering merchants in the market place."[17] Bai's poetry was immensely popular in his own lifetime, but his popularity, his use of vernacular, the sensual delicacy of some of his poetry, led to criticism of him being "common" or "vulgar". In a tomb inscription for Li Kan (李戡), a critic of Bai, poet Du Mu wrote, couched in the words of Li Kan: "...It has bothered me that ever since the Yuanhe Reign we have had poems by Bai Juyi and Yuan Zhen whose sensual delicacy has defied the norms. Excepting gentlemen of mature strength and classical decorum, many have been ruined by them. They have circulated among the common people and been inscribed on walls; mothers and fathers teach them to sons and daughters orally, through winter's cold and summer's heat their lascivious phrases and overly familiar words have entered people's flesh and bone and cannot be gotten out. I have no position and cannot use the law to bring this under control."[18]

Bai was also criticized for his "carelessness and repetitiveness", especially his later works.[19] He was nevertheless placed by Tang poet Zhang Wei (張為) in his Schematic of Masters and Followers Among the Poets (詩人主客圖) at the head of his first category: "extensive and grand civilizing power".[19]

Students are often confused about three basic facts in Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji:

1) The Tale of Genji is written about two hundred years after Bai Juyi’s poem about Yang Guifei;

2) Genji is a fictional character; and

3) all of The Tale of Genji occurs in Japan.

It is useful to explain how Murasaki knew this Chinese source. Murasaki lived in the Heian Period (794-1185). She started writing about Genji about the year 1000. Kyoto, the capital city of Japan at that time, was modeled after the Chinese capital of Chang’an, with similar parallel streets, gardens, and architecture. The life of aristocratic Japanese women was also somewhat similar to that of Tang Chang’an, even though that court life had largely disappeared in China by the year 1000. Aristocratic women in Heian Japan were highly educated, clearly for the purposes of marriage alliances. Murasaki and some other court women, such as the famous writer Sei Shonagon, could read poetry written in Chinese characters, even if they knew no spoken Chinese. Manuscripts from China entered Japan and were recopied, including illustrations. See also:



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