The Tale of Genji

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Ilustration of chapter 20—朝顔 Asagao ("The Bluebell").
Credited to Tosa Mitsuoki (1617–1691).

The Tale of Genji (源氏物語 Genji Monogatari) is a masterpiece of Japanese literature attributed to the Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu in the early eleventh century, around the peak of the Heian Period. The work is generally considered the world's first novel. Its 54 chapters recount the life and romantic entanglements of Genji, the handsome son of an emperor and a low-ranking concubine. The book is written in Heian court language, in the Japanese alphabet traditionally used by noblewomen. Translation of the book into modern Japanese and other languages presents a number of challenges. Heian court etiquette did not allow the use of proper names, so characters are referred to by their title, relation to another character, or even the color of their clothing, and different names are used in different chapters. The work also contains many references to obscure tanka poems which were well-known during the Heian period.


Genji, as the work is commonly called, was written for the women of the aristocracy (the yokibito) and has many elements found in a modern novel: a central protagonist and a very large number of major and minor characters, well-developed characterization of all the major characters, and a sequence of events happening over a period of time during the protagonist's lifetime and beyond. The work does not make use of a plot; instead, much as in real life, events just happen and characters evolve simply by growing older. One remarkable feature of Genji, a testimony to Murasaki's skill as a writer, is its internal consistency, despite a cast of some four hundred characters. For example, all characters age at the same pace and all the family and feudal relationships are consistent among all chapters.

One complication for readers and translators of The Tale of Genji is that almost none of the characters in the original text are given explicit names. The characters are instead referred to by their function (such as "Minister of the Right"), an honorific (such as "His Excellency"), or their relation to other characters (such as "Heir Apparent"). This convention stems from Heian-era court manners; it would have been unacceptably familiar to use a character's proper name. Modern readers and translators have used various nicknames to keep track of the many characters.


Genji is considered to be one of the greatest works of Japanese literature, and numerous modern authors have cited it as an inspiration. It is noted for its internal consistency, psychological insight, and characterization. The Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "The Tale of Genji in particular is the highest pinnacle of Japanese literature. Even down to our day there has not been a piece of fiction to compare with it."

There is considerable scholarly debate over whether Genji can be called "the first novel;" some qualify this claim by calling it the "first psychological novel" or "the first novel still considered to be a classic." It is difficult to identify the exact criteria that define a work as a “novel,” as it is difficult to deny the claims of the Greek novel, such as Daphnis and Chloe, or The Aethiopika. A debate exists in Japanese as well, over the definition of the terms monogatari (tale) and shosetsu (novel).


The debate over how much of Genji was actually written by Murasaki Shikibu has gone on for centuries, and is unlikely to ever be settled unless some major literary discovery is made. It is generally accepted that the tale was finished in its present form by 1021 C.E., when the author of the Sarashina Nikki (a memoir written during the Heian period by the Japanese Lady Sarashina) wrote a famous diary entry about her joy at acquiring a complete copy of the tale. If other authors besides Murasaki Shikibu did contribute to the tale, the work was done during, or shortly after, her lifetime.

Yosano Akiko, the first author to make a modern translation of Genji, believed that Murasaki Shikibu had only written chapters one through 33, and that chapters 35 through 54 were written by her daughter, Daini no Sanmi. Other scholars have doubted the authorship of chapters 42 to 44 (particularly 44, which contains rare mistakes in continuity).

According to Royall Tyler's introduction to his English translation of the work, recent computer analysis has turned up "statistically significant" discrepancies of style between chapters 45 through 54 and the rest of the work, and also among the early chapters. But this discrepancy could also be explained by a change in the attitude of the author as she grew older, and the earlier chapters are often thought to have been edited into their present form some time after they were initially written.

One of the frequent arguments made against the multiple authorship idea is that Genji is a work of such genius that it is implausible that someone of equal or greater genius could have taken over after Murasaki.

The Tale

The Tale of Genji recounts the life of Hikaru no Genji, a son of the Japanese Emperor, also known as "Hikaru Genji" ("Shining Genji"). Neither appellation is his actual name. Genji is simply another way to read the Chinese characters for the real-life Minamoto clan, to which Genji belonged. For political reasons, Genji is relegated to commoner status and begins a career as an imperial officer.

Ilustration of chapter five—若紫 Wakamurasaki (“Young Murasaki”).
Credited to Tosa Mitsuoki (1617–1691).

The tale concentrates on Genji’s romantic life and describes the customs of the aristocratic society of the time. Genji is depicted as being very handsome. His most important personality trait is the loyalty he shows to all the women in his life; he never abandons any of his wives. When he finally becomes the most powerful man in the capital, he moves into a palace and provides for each of them.

Genji is the second son of a certain ancient emperor and a low-ranking concubine. His mother dies when Genji is three years old, and the emperor cannot forget her. The emperor then hears of a woman named Lady Fujitsubo, a princess of the preceding emperor, who resembles his deceased concubine, and later takes her as one of his wives. Genji loves Lady Fuitsubo first as his stepmother, but comes to love her as a woman. They fall in love with each other, but their relationship is forbidden. Genji is frustrated because of his forbidden love for the Lady Fujitsubo and is on bad terms with his wife, Lady Aoi (Aoi no Ue). He also engages in a series of unfulfilling love affairs with other women; in each instance his advances are rebuffed, his lover dies suddenly during the affair, or he finds the lover to be dull and unsatisfying.

Genji visits Kitayama, the northern rural, hilly area of Kyoto, where he encounters a beautiful girl. He is fascinated by this little girl, Murasaki, and discovers that she is a niece of the Lady Fujitsubo. (The book’s author, Murasaki Shikibu, whose real name is unknown, is named after this character.) He eventually kidnaps Murasaki, brings her to his own palace and educates her to be his ideal lady, like the Lady Fujitsubo. During this same period Genji secretly meets the Lady Fujitsubo, and she bears his son. Everyone except the two lovers believes the father of this child to be the emperor. Later the boy becomes the crown prince and Lady Fujitsubo becomes the empress, but Genji and Lady Fujitsubo swear to keep their secret.

Genji and his wife Lady Aoi reconcile and she gives birth to a son, but dies soon after. Genji is sorrowful, but finds consolation in Murasaki, whom he marries. Genji's father the emperor dies and his political enemy seizes power in the court. Then another of Genji's secret love affairs is exposed when Genji and a concubine of his brother, the Emperor Suzaku, are discovered meeting in secret. Genji is not officially punished, but flees to the rural Harima province. There a prosperous man named Akashi no Nyūdō (Monk of Akashi) entertains Genji, and Genji has a love affair with Akashi's daughter Lady Akashi, who gives birth to Genji’s only daughter, who later becomes the empress.

Genji is forgiven by his brother and returns to Kyoto. His son by Lady Fujitsubo becomes the emperor and Genji finishes his imperial career. The new Emperor Reizei knows Genji is his real father, and raises Genji to the highest possible rank. However, when Genji is 40 years old, his emotional life begins to decline. He marries another wife, the "Third Princess," (known as Onna san no miya in the Seidensticker version, or Nyōsan in Waley's) but she is taken advantage of by Genji's nephew, and bears his son, whom she names Kaoru. Genji's new marriage changes his relationship with Murasaki.

Genji's beloved Murasaki dies. In the following chapter, Maboroshi (“Illusion”), Genji contemplates how fleeting life is. Immediately after Maboroshi, there is a chapter entitled Kumogakure (“Vanished into the Clouds”) which is left blank, but implies the death of Genji.

The rest of the work is known as the Uji Chapters. These chapters follow Niou and Kaoru, who are best friends. Niou is an imperial prince, the son of Genji's daughter, the current empress now that Reizei has abdicated the throne, while Kaoru is known to the world as Genji's son but was in fact fathered by Genji's nephew. The chapters involve Kaoru and Niou's rivalry over several daughters of an imperial prince who lives in Uji, a place some distance away from the capital. The tale ends abruptly, with Kaoru wondering if the lady he loves is being hidden away by Niou. Kaoru has sometimes been called the first anti-hero in literature.

Is Genji Complete?

The Tale of Genji ends abruptly, in mid-sentence, and opinions vary on whether this was the author’s intention. Arthur Waley, who made the first English translation of the whole of The Tale of Genji, believed that the work as we have it was finished. Ivan Morris, author of the classic The World of the Shining Prince, believed that it was not complete, but that only a few pages or a chapter at most were "missing" (to use his term). Edward Seidensticker, who made the second translation of Genji, believed that it was not finished, and that Murasaki Shikibu could not have planned a story structure with an "ending" and would simply have gone on writing as long as she could.

Literary Context

Ilustration of chapter 42—匂宮 Niō no Miya ("The Perfumed Prince").
Credited to Tosa Mitsuoki (1617–1691).

Because it was written to entertain Japanese court women of the eleventh century, the work presents many difficulties to modern readers. Murasaki's language, court Japanese of the Heian Period, was highly inflected and had very complex grammar. Since the use of proper names was considered rude in Heian court society, none of the characters in the work are named; instead, the narrator often refers to men by their rank or their station in life, and to women by the color of their clothing, or by the words used at a meeting, or by the rank of a prominent male relative. The same character has different appellations depending on the chapter being read.

Another aspect of the language is the use of poetry in conversations. In Heian court life, classic poems were regularly modified or rephrased to reflect a current situation, and often served to communicate thinly veiled allusions. The poems in Genji are often in the classic Japanese tanka form. Many of the poems were well known to the intended audience, so usually only the first few lines are given and the reader is supposed to complete the thought herself, much like today we might say "a rolling stone..." and leave the rest of the saying ("...gathers no moss") unspoken.

Like other Heian literature, Genji was probably written mostly (or perhaps entirely) in kana (Japanese phonetic script) and not in Chinese characters, because it was written by a woman for a female audience. Writing in Chinese characters was, at that time, a masculine pursuit; women were generally discreet when writing in Chinese, confining themselves mostly to pure Japanese words.

Outside of vocabulary related to politics and Buddhism, Genji contains remarkably few Chinese loan words. This has the effect of giving the story a very even, smooth flow. However, it also introduces confusion: there are a number of words in the "pure" Japanese vocabulary which have many different meanings, and, for modern readers, context is not always sufficient to determine which meaning was intended.

Murasaki was neither the first nor the last writer of the Heian period, nor was Genji the earliest example of a monogatari (prose narrative tale, comparable to an epic). However, Genji stands above other tales of the time much as Shakespeare's plays stand above other Elizabethan drama.

Reading Genji Today

In Japanese

The language of Genji is closer to modern Japanese than medieval English is to modern English. However, the complexities of the style mentioned in the previous section make it unreadable by the average Japanese speaking person without dedicated study of the language used in the tale. Translations into modern Japanese and other languages solve these problems by modernizing the language, unfortunately losing some of the meaning, and by giving names to the characters, usually the traditional names used by academics. This gives rise to anachronisms; for instance, Genji's first wife is named Aoi because she is known as the lady of the Aoi chapter, in which she dies. Because of the cultural differences, annotated versions of Genji are common, even among Japanese.

Many works including comics and television dramas are derived from The Tale of Genji. A manga (comic book) version by Waki Yamato, Asakiyumemishi (The Tale of Genji), is widely read among Japanese youth. Most Japanese high-school students will read a few passages of Genji (the original, not a translation) in their Japanese classes.

English Translations

As mentioned above, there are today four major translations into English, one each by Suematsu Kencho, Arthur Waley, Edward Seidensticker, and Royall Tyler. The Diet Member Marutei Tsurunen has also made a translation into Swedish.

Suematsu's was the first translation into English, but is considered of poor quality and is not often read today; in addition, only a few chapters were completed. Waley's is usually considered the most beautiful, but purists have pointed out many errors and criticize the freedom Waley takes in making changes to Murasaki's original. Seidensticker's translation is an attempt to correct Waley's failings without necessarily making his translation obsolete; Seidensticker follows the original more closely, but still takes some liberties for clarity's sake; for example, naming the characters. Royall Tyler's translation contains more extensive footnotes than the previous translations, explaining the numerous poetical allusions and cultural aspects of the tale, and attempts to mimic the original style in ways that the previous translations have not (by not assigning names for most characters, for instance).


The novel is traditionally divided in three parts, the first two dealing with the life of Genji, and the last dealing with the early years of two of Genji's prominent descendants, Niou and Kaoru. There are also several short transitional chapters which are usually grouped separately and whose authorship is sometimes questioned.

  1. Genji's rise and fall
    1. Youth, chapters 1–33: Love, romance, and exile
    2. Success and setbacks, chapters 34–41: A taste of power and the death of his beloved wife
  2. The transition (chapters 42–44): Very short episodes following Genji's death
  3. Uji, chapters 45–53: Genji's official and secret descendants, Niou and Kaoru
  4. The Floating Bridge of Dreams, chapter 54: This chapter seems to continue the story from the previous chapters, but has an unusually abstract title. It is the only chapter whose title has no clear reference within the text, but this may be because the chapter is unfinished. (It is not officially known exactly when the chapters acquired their titles.)

List of Chapters

The English translations here are taken from the Royall Tyler translation. It is not known for certain when the chapters acquired their titles. Early mentions of Genji refer to chapter numbers, or contain alternate titles for some of the chapters. This may suggest that the titles were added later.

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

There is one additional chapter between 41 and 42 in some manuscripts called 雲隠 (Kumogakure) which means "Vanished into the Clouds;" the chapter is a title only, and is probably intended to evoke Genji's death. Some scholars have posited the existence of a chapter between one and two which is now lost, which would have introduced some characters that (as it stands now) appear very abruptly. Later authors have composed additional chapters, most often either between 41 and 42, or after the end.

Illustrated Scroll

A famous twelvth century scroll, the Genji Monogatari Emaki, contains illustrated scenes from Genji together with handwritten sōgana text. This scroll is the earliest existing example of a Japanese "picture scroll;" collected illustrations and calligraphy from a single work. The original scroll is believed to have comprised ten to 20 rolls and covered all 54 chapters. The existing pieces include only 19 illustrations and 65 pages of text, plus nine pages of fragments. This is estimated at roughly 15 percent of the envisioned original. The Goto Museum in Tokyo and the Tokugawa Museum in Nagoya each hold scrolls (or fragments) which are Japanese national treasures. An oversized English photo reproduction and translation was printed in limited edition by Kodansha International.

Film Adaptations

The Tale of Genji has been translated into cinematic form several times, in 1951 by director Kozaburo Yoshimura, in 1966 by director Kon Ichikawa, and in 1987 by director Gisaburo Sugii. The latter is an animated film, and is not a complete version. It only covers only the first 12 chapters and adds some psychological motivation that is not made explicit in the novel.

Operatic Adaptations

The Tale of Genji has also been adapted into an opera by Miki Minoru, composed during 1999 and first performed the following year at the Opera Theater Saint Louis, with the original libretto by Colin Graham in English.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Lady Murasaki. Waley, Arthur (translator). The Tale of Genji. Dover Publications. 2000.
  • Okada, H. Richard. Figures of Resistance: Language, Poetry and Narrating in the Tale of Genji and Other Mid-Heian Texts. Duke University. 1992.
  • Puette, William J. The Tale of Genji: A Reader's Guide. Tuttle Publishing. 2004.
  • Shikibu, Murasaki. Seidensticker, Edward G. (translator) The Tale of Genji. Knopf. 1978.
  • Shikibu, Murasaki. Tyler, Royall (translator). The Tale of Genji. Penguin Classics. 2006.
  • Yamato, Waki. The Tale of Genji. Kodansha Bilingual Comics. Kodansha America. 2001.

External links

All links retrieved April 30, 2023.


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