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 clearly an anomaly because nowhere else in the world at this time--or even during the next seven or eight 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.

Not unike the Soga Clan before them, the Fujiwara family used well-placed daughters to control the imperial line and hence the power to name or appointpeople to office, and to bestow court rank upon them. These two things meant everything. they determined who you were and what your social status was. Consider the legendary Fujiwara-no-Michinaga who, as Ivan Morris writes, "had the satisfaction of seeing no less 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. Murasaki was thought to be born in 973, married to a Fujiwara Nobuitaka in 998 with whom she had a daughter, then widowed in 1001. She may have begun writing seriously after the death of her husband as a way to cope with her grief and loneliness.

It was Fujiwara-no-Michinaga, the most powerful individual at the Court, who invited Murasaki Shikibu to become a companion and tutor to his daughter, the Empress Shoshi, in 1006; she probably remained there, engaged and active, until 1010. At one point, Murasaki's great gandfather, Fujiwara-no-Kanesuke, had been in the top tier of the aristocracy but this branch of the Fujiwara family had fallen to the middle ranks of the by the time Murasaki was born. Her father, Fujiwara-no-Tametoki, was an accomplished scholar and writer but her mother died shortly after she was born and her elder sister, to whom she looked up, died young also. So she understood the pain of losing loved ones and key support people in her life.

But her great grandfather was a renowned poet and he and her grandfather were associates of the great Ki-no-Tsurauki. So she had a distinguished lineage in terms of learning and writing poetry and her father took care to see that she was well-educated. She apparently earned the nickname of "the Library of Japanese History." She may have already started writing what would become the Genji before 1006 which could be why she was invited to join Empress Shoshi at her court. She was a great obsrver of life around her and came to appreciate the beauty that could be found in art, poetry and dance. Consider the opening lines of Ch. 7, "Beneath ther Autumn Leaves," where she writes about how

Captain Genji danced 'Blue Sea Waves." His partner, Tô-no-Chûjô , certainly stood out in looks and skill, but beside Genji he was only a common mountain tree next to a blossoming cherry, As the music swelled and the piece reached its climax in the clear light of the late-afternoon sun, the cast of Genji's features and his dancing gave the familar steps an unearthly quality. His singing of the verse could have been the Lord Buddha's kalavinka voice in paradise. His majesty was sufficiently transported with delight to wipe his eyes, and all the other senior nobles and Princes wept. When the verse was over, when Genji tossed his sleeves again to straighten them and the music rose once more in response, his face glowed with a still-greater beauty. (128-129)

Wow! The author captures this moment of grace and beauty that was so moving to the aristocrats that they could not help but weep. Genji brought everything: his robes, his moves, his steps, his voice; his sheer presence in the moment. He flips his sleeves over on themslves in a stunning, triumphal moment. No doubt, the guy is a rock star! As the text says, he transported the emperor and the senior nobles to anothter world where they almost felt as though they were hearing the sounds of the Buddha's voice. And the emotions of the moment are incredibly intensified becaus of Lady Fujitsubo's presence, a lady who Genji loves and has had an affair with, and she is now pregnant with his child. She sits there next to Genji's father, the Emperor, who does not know he has been cuckolded. It must have been a beautiful, passionate, emotionally charged moment to experience...but of course, this is fiction so the moment only occurred in Murasaki Shikibu's imagination.

Another similar moment occurs at the end of our abridged version of the text, in the "E-Awase" or "Picture Contest" chapter, when the two sides at court, the Left and the Right, are in a heated contest to see which side can produce the best paintings or illustrations for their poems. They are at court, in the presence of the Emperor, each side's scolls resting in beautifuly carved wooden boxes off to the side which were brought out and the paintings unrolled as it were. The author describes the climactic scene as follows:

The contest remained undecided on into the night. The Left [Genji's side] had one more turn, and when the Suma scrolls appeared, To-no-chujo's heart beat fast. His side, too, had saved something special for last, but this, done at undisturbed leaisure by a genius at the art, was beyond anything. Everyone wept, Prince Hotaru, the first among them. Genji's paintings revealed with perfect immediacy, far more vividly than anything they had imagined during those years when they pitied and grieved for him, all that had passed passed through his mind, all that he had witnessed, and every detail of those shores that they themselves had never seen. He had added here and there lines in running script, Chinese or Japanese, and although these did not yet make it a true diary, there were such moving poems among them that one wanted very much to see more. No one thought of anything else. Emotion and delight prevailed, now that all interest in the other paintings had shifted to these. The question answered itself: the Left had won. (316-317)


Once again, we see what Genji brings to the table: only he can convey through his art, his calligraphy, his poetry, the immediacy of what he experienced while in exile in Suma. He brought the landscape and his emotions to life for all to see and like the moment when he danced "The Blue Sea Waves" above, the courtiers were reduced to tears. Game over. Genji wasn't called "the Shining One" for nogood reason! He was everything that the author wanted to see in her lead male character: handsome, graceful, talented, emotionally deep, sensitive, capable of tranmitting his vision, what he felt deep in his heart, to others. In the world of the Heian Period, there was really no higher accomplishment possible. He personified grace, beauty, sensitivity and deep insights into the transitoriness, the ephemerality, the impermanence of human life and emotions. It is all real and intense when it happens, but it all must pass, too. Time does this to all of us, and let us not forget that the Tale of Genji unfolds over a 50 year period encompasing two generations of characters. No mean feat, especially since there was no model for this kind of appraoch to writing anywhere in the world at the time. And even if there were, islolated on the Japaense archipelago, it is unlikely that Lady Murasaki would have known anything about it.


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,“ This is 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 moments 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 focusing on this seemingly ideal (but flawed) young man and 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 political tool but one that did little to empower women? One could certainly 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 that the Genji is about describing all 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 unveiling, exposing certain things, unmasking the patriarchal system, if you will, what do you think is the most significant revelation that she makes? On what grounds, if any, could we say she is challenging the patriarchy?

The wisdom of the age was "that those who rise to dizzying heights when young, do not endure," (319) and Genji's return from exile seems to put him in an enviable position. But rather than celebrating his triumph, he is reflective, and though he had survived his "fall," "he still doubted that his glory would last." He thinks about building a temple in the hills to which he could retire and remove himself from all the pressures of court life...but he knew he had younger ones, his children, to look out for. So, as the narrator tells us in the final line of our version, "It is not easy to fathom what he really meant to do." so, in the end, mystery and uncertainty are the order of the day.

One puzzle or mystery, is he centrslity of Genji's relationship with Murasaki and the manner in which she a) suffers his conduct some times, and b) resists him at others. Consider these observations from Royall Tyler:

The spark that brings Murasaki fully to life in The Tale of Genji flashes in the “Miotsukushi” chapter, when Genji offends her with his talk of the lady at Akashi and the daughter conceived there during his exile. “There I was, [she] thought, completely miserable, and he, simple pastime or not, was sharing his heart with another! Well, I am I!” Her ware wa ware (“I’m me!”) sharply affirms the distinctness of her existence.

Akiyama Ken wrote that studying Murasaki, more than any other character, reveals the essence of the tale. She is Genji’s private discovery and his personal treasure. Her fate in life depends so entirely on him that she might be a sort of shadow to him, without a will of her own, and yet at this moment, and later ones like it, she resists him. The pattern of give and take between the two is as vital to the unfolding of their relationship as it is to the development of the tale itself. Murasaki’s precise social standing vis-à-vis Genji and the court society they inhabit is essential, too. These interrelated issues in turn bear on the great crisis of Murasaki’s life: the disaster that strikes both her and Genji when Genji agrees to marry the Third Princess (“Wakana One”).Their relationship has its crises, and the marriage to the Third Princess strains it nearly to the breaking point, but it lasts until the loss of Murasaki leaves Genji a mere shell of the man he once was.

Scholar Shimizu Yoshiko writes of three critical scenes punctuate the relationship and calls them them Murasaki’s “perils.” They ar e1) Murasaki’s hurt when she learns about the lady from Akashi (“Akashi” and “Miotsukushi”); 2) her fear when Genji courts Princess Asagao (“Asagao”); and3) her shock when Genji marries the Third Princess (“Wakana One,” “Wakana Two”). These scenes follow a clear trajectory. Each time Genji talks to Murasaki about another woman who is or has been important to him she resents it, her anger upsets him, and his effort to calm her miscarries because it is at least in part blind and self-serving. Each time there is more at stake for Genji, and the impact on Murasaki is more serious. It is therefore reasonable to see dramatic progression from one of these scenes to the next.

Many have wondered why Genji seeks with Akashi, Asagao, and the Third Princess the tie that so disturbs Murasaki, when he already has in Murasaki a wife who meets his personal ideal and for whom he cares deeply. The answer seems to be that Genji’s desire for all three involves less erotic acquisitiveness than thirst for heightened prestige.

First, Genji’s tie with Akashi, and the consequent birth of their daughter, opens for him the way towards that highest advantage accessible to a commoner: to be the maternal grandfather of an emperor. Reaching this peak—an aspect of his destiny fostered by her father’s devotion to the Sumiyoshi deity and announced by prophetic dreams—does not depend entirely on his will, but it requires from him a cooperation that he gives gladly. What Murasaki sees, however, is attachment to a rival who, to make things worse, gives him a child when she herself cannot.

Second, Asagao and then the Third Princess promise to round out Genji’s success—one that might be called less political than representational. By the time he courts Asagao seriously, let alone by the time he accepts the Third Princess, his supremacy is secure. He does not need them politically, but he still wants one and then the other in order to seal his increasingly exalted station.

Thus Genji is a flawed man like others, despite his gifts, and for him public ambition comes into conflict with private affection. Murasaki’s quality makes her his personal, but not his social equal, and her value to him, as well as her valuation of herself despite his slights, makes this conflict a theme that runs through the tale.

The crisis over Akashi

In his twenty-sixth year Genji goes into exile at Suma, leaving Murasaki at home in charge of his affairs. Their three-year separation is painful (she is only nineteen when he returns), but it never occurs to her that he might not be faithful. Meanwhile, he misses her desperately and hesitates to take the opportunity that the Akashi lady’s father is so eager to press on him. Still, he yields in the end to the Akashi Novice’s urging, to the exotic enchantment of the place, and to the lady’s personal distinction, so unexpected in a provincial governor’s daughter. He returns from Akashi understandably full of his experience and especially of thoughts of the lady and the child she is soon to bear.

Genji feels “deeply content” once reunited with Murasaki, and he sees “that she would always be his this way.” At the same time, however, “his heart went out with a pang to [Akashi], whom he had so unwillingly left.”

He began talking about her, and the memories so heightened his looks that [Murasaki] must have been troubled, for with “I care not for myself” she dropped a light hint that delighted and charmed him. When merely to see her was to love her, he wondered in amazement how he had managed to spend all these months and years without her, and bitterness against the world rose in him anew.[41]

Despite the wonder of rediscovering Murasaki, anticipation of the birth and then the thought of his new daughter prolong the enchantment. A prophetic dream has already let him know that the little girl is a future empress and that in her his own fortunes are at stake.

However, Murasaki does not yet know about the birth, and Genji does not want her to hear of it from someone else. To mask all it means to him he behaves like a guilty husband, first claiming indifference and a commendable resolve to do his tedious duty, then passing to diversionary reproaches.

“So that seems to be that,” he remarked. “What a strange and awkward business it is! All my concern is for someone else, whom I would gladly see similarly favored, and the whole thing is a sad surprise, and a bore, too, since I hear the child is a girl. I really suppose I should ignore her, but I cannot very well do that. I shall send for her and let you see her. You must not resent her.”

She reddened. “Don’t, please!” she said, offended. “You are always making up feelings like that for me, when I detest them myself. And when do you suppose that I learned to have them?”

“Ah yes,” said Genji with a bright smile, “who can have taught you? I have never seen you like this! Here you are, angry with me over fantasies of yours that have never occurred to me. It is too hard!” By now he was nearly in tears.

Fearing Murasaki’s rebuke, Genji takes the offensive and obliges her to defend herself instead. Still, it is true that she does not quite understand. The child means more to him than the mother, and in time he will have Murasaki adopt her for that reason. Meanwhile, Murasaki remembers “their endless love for one another down the years, …and the matter passed from her mind.”

In the ensuing silence Genji goes on, half to indulge his feelings and half to pursue loyal confidences. In so doing he manages to hurt Murasaki after all.

“If I am this concerned about her,” Genji said, “it is because I have my reasons.You would only go imagining things again if I were to tell you what they are.” He was silent a moment. “It must have been the place itself that made her appeal to me so. She was something new, I suppose.” He went on to describe the smoke that sad evening, the words they had spoken, a hint of what he had seen in her face that night, the magic of her koto; and all this poured forth with such obvious feeling that his lady took it ill.

There I was, she thought, completely miserable, and he, simple pastime or not, was sharing his heart with another! Well, I am I! She turned away and sighed, as though to herself, “And we were once so happy together!”

The pattern of this conversation recurs in the two other crisis passages yet to be discussed. There, too, once the danger seems to have passed Genji indulges in reminiscing about his women, especially Fujitsubo in the second and Rokujō in the third. In each case someone then becomes angry: Murasaki here, then the spirit of Fujitsubo, and finally the spirit of Rokujō. The role played by the three women in these scenes suggests their critical importance to Genji himself.

The injury Murasaki feels is of course painful, and her response springs from a fine quickness of spirit, but the scene is still touched by the lyrically beautiful anguish of those exile years. She is hurt but not yet in danger. No provincial governor’s daughter, not even one as unusual as Akashi, can really threaten her.

In the end, it still comes down to rank and status so much of the time, especially when Genji, beseched by his brother, emperor Suzaku, to marry the Third Princess:

Murasaki and the Third Princess make a contrasting pair, as many scholars have noted. The circumstances of the Third Princess’s birth and upbringing, described early in “Wakana One,” also suggest a mirror-image contrast with Genji himself. Suzaku’s daughter is visibly conceived as, so to speak, an anti-particle dangerous to both.

Most Japanese scholars, and all writing in English,[75] agree that Genji accepts the Third Princess because of her link to Fujitsubo. Some also point out an element of pity for Suzaku. Ōasa Yūji even suggested that Genji hopes for a new Murasaki and called the marriage a mistaken attempt on Genji’s part to relive the past. Fukasawa Michio, who saw the key theme of the tale in the stark contrast between the glory of Genji’s Rokujō estate and the miseries caused by the arrival of the Third Princess, held that the “occasion” of these miseries is none other than Murasaki’s jealousy.

It is Genji’s acceptance of the Third Princess, not Murasaki’s jealousy (her growing wish to disengage herself from Genji), which causes the misfortunes of “Wakana One” and beyond. However, Murasaki’s feelings are certainly central to these misfortunes. Akashi was no threat, even if the inexperienced Murasaki thought she was. Asagao resembled distant storm clouds that melted into the sky. However, the Third Princess actually moves into the Rokujō estate and she far outranks even Asagao. “By birth [Asagao] is worth what I am,” Murasaki assures herself in “Asagao” (in other words, “My father is a prince, too!”); but she knows that that is not the whole truth and must conclude, “I shall be lost if his feelings shift to her.”[77] The Third Princess allows not even that spark of hope. Insignificant in her person, she is of crushing rank. Murasaki yields in silence. Senseless protest would only demean her further.


All of the indented passages above come from an online book published by Australian National University called The Disaster of the Third Princess: Essays on The Tale of Genji by Royall Tyler.


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 the hip, beohemian literary "Bloomsbury" 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 it was more or less superceded b ythe Edward Siedenticker 1976 translation that remedied Waley's liberties and free style of translation by sticking closely to the original; Royall Tyler's version appeared in 2001 and, most recently, a new one by Dennis Washburn (2015) has been published. Tyler discusses his approach to the project here, while Washburn comments:

“The story,” Washburn writes, “has been read as a moral and religious guide, as a source for historical data on court society, as a feminist text and post-feminist text, as a marker of cultural literacy and national identity.” The fact that such a long and abstruse work has been translated into English so many times speaks eloquently of that work’s essential appeal across time and cultural divides." [See Ian Buruma's article in the New Yorker discussing the Genji and Washburn's translation.]

I appreciate Tyler's frankness when he speaks about translation: "I could only look back wistfully on the experience of translating a book of folktales by the French writer Henri Pourrat. French being a language I actually know, I just typed. Genji was very different, but I persevered until I actually got to the end. Perhaps that is success enough for one lifetime." I know what he means about being able to sit there with a French text in front of you and basically just "type" in the translation, staying with the basic sentence structure and vocabulary that is there on the page. You cannot really do that with Japanese. You need to read, reread, break it down, comprehend it, and then render it--basically rewarite it--back into good, readable, intelligible English. It's not as easy as it may sound.

In reviewing Washburn's translation, Steve Donohough writes: "At the heart of that appeal is surely Genji himself, the story’s beautiful, feckless, slightly bumptious main character, the refined and endlessly priapic son of the Japanese emperor. Court machinations bar him from the actual exercise of his royal prerogatives – he goes about life technically a commoner in rank – but he’s the brother, lover, and father of emperors and empresses, and his occasional egalitarian gestures don’t fool any of Murasaki Shikibu’s many dozens of characters, and they don’t fool our author either, who dotes on her hero despite the many foibles with which she’s invested him." I have not read the Washburn translation, but Donohogh approves; he finds it:

immensely scholarly but also, somehow, uncannily readable, helpful without being pedantic, clarifying without ever simplifying. Gone are the Edwardian paraphrases of Arthur Waley; gone too is the somewhat flat-footed gait of the Edward Seidensticker; and the occasionally forbidding purity of the Royall Tyler is softened and colored in around the edges. It’s an amazingly cheering performance, a Genji to last a century. And if W.W. Norton should see fit to create an electronic version, your poor terrified metacarpals will scarcely notice the pages flying by. (See "The Book and the Boy,"

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, Enchi Fumiko, and writer turned Buddhist nun, Setouchi Jakuchô in 1999. Steouchi acknowledges the role sex plays in the narrative but she points out that " it wasn't pornography. All sexual acts are concealed under layers of robes or behind tastefully decorated screens. The sex in 'Genji' is very subtle and nuanced. The reader must guess what's going on, though it was always the same thing. If you know what I mean." (See There are questions in the Genji about gender relationships in Heian times and they raise serious challenges for contemporary readers without a great deal of context. Not the least among them is the fact, so central to the novel, that when Genji, the Shining One (Hikaru) discovers the love of his life, Murasaki, she is still only a child. He takes her into his home, raises her as his daughter, and eventutally shocks her by making her his wife. For some, this constitutes rape if not child abuse. But should we apply standards of our time and place to 11th 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.

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

[Added comments by Loftus: The lesson here 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. Genji, after all, was himelf married to Princess Aoi, daughter of the powerful Minister of the Left, when he was 11 and she was probably 14; he did not know her at all and they never really got along well as a couple. It was a marriage of political convenience. We never learn anything about their first occasion of sexual intercourse so we cannot compare that experience with the Genji-Murasaki affair. But these kinds of marriages were arranged and imposed by adults on their children for their own purposes.

Let us recall the line on p. 14 that reads: "By his wife, a Princess (Genji's aunt, the emperor's sister), the sponsoring Minister of the Left had a beloved only daughter, Aoi, in whom the Heir Apparent had expressed interest, but whom after long hesitation he felt more inclined to offer to Genji instead." Now this may seem rather innocuous but actually there is something significant going on here: there has been an explicit expression of interest in Lady Aoi as a wife for the Emperor's older son, Genji's elder brother, the son of the Emperor and the Kokiden Lady, who has already been named Crown Prince or Heir Apparent. This would seem a highly desirable match for any family, right? Your daughter would become Empress. But the Minister of the Left hesitates and finally decides to offer her to Genij instead. Why? Why would he make that decision? The Kokiden Lady--and those around her, the Kokiden "faction"--consider this an insult, a slap in the face. Not much is made of it in this passage on p. 14 but we know later on that the Kokiden Lady never feels that her son has received the respect he desrves and this rankles her. Even though her son his secure in his succession to the Throne, she never feels safe while Genji is around. He is "the Shining One," after all.

Remember also that back on pp. 10-11, after the Korean physiognmist has examined the young Genji and pronounced him "destined to become the father of his people," he also felt that he could sense "disorder and suffering" when he studied Genji's facial features. This is why, the Emperor "decided that rather than set the boy adrift as an unranked prince, unsupported by any maternal relative, he would assign him a more promising future by having him serve the realm as a commoner...His Majesty resolved to make him a Genji." (11) In other words, like his mother who lacked paternal or maternal support at court, who became powerless at the hands of viscious court ladies and their gossip and actually suffered and died from the relentless pressure, Genji would not have a high-ranking court lady to protect him, and his fatehr would have to support his other son whom he has designated Heir Apparent, so he would be vulnerable, too. That is why his fathermust do the dificult thing and takes his younger son out of the line of succession by granting him a surname. With his marraige to the daughter of the rival Minister of the Left faction, however, Genji will inevitably be the object of suspicion and ultimately attack by the Kokiden Lady and the Minister of the Right. So, while the Genji is and can always be read as a fantastic narrative about courtly manners, grace, refinement, elegance, beauty and romance--it is also always, from the very first chapter, a tale about power, competion, factionalism, political struggles, and which characters, in the end, are in favor, in ascendance, whose position seems guaranteedversus those who may stumble, be on the "outs" and ultimatey fall from grace and eminence. There are always other things at stake in this narrative. In a political sense, there may be no grand tragedy here; no one comes and invades the kingdom and wipes out the ruling family. But, individually, the characters do suffer significant emotional losses, they suffer anguish, anxiety and great psychological turmoil when things like humiliation, embarrassment, loss of rank or promotions occur. This comes about because whoever is in charge at the Palace is who gets to determine who receives what kind of annual promotions and gifts from the Throne when they come around at New Years. Therefore, we see in the Genji, disappointments in life, the loss of loved ones, the dimunition of status, and this in a world where rank and status mean just about everything! Perhaps what is remarkable about this tale is that we see all these things through the yes of, and from the interior point-of-view, of these characters. As one scholar puts it is "is the wonder and poignancy of human emotion" that is at the heart of this work. (Sonja Arntzen, "The Heart of History: The Tale of Genji," Education About Asia 10:3 Winter 2005, p. 29. The complete article is linked above. ) No one anywhere else in the world was drawing these kinds of portraits of their characrers in a narraitvethis long for another 800-900 years! Pretty impressive.]

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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