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.




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, centimentalism, 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 jelousy, 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 oppresive 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