The Tale of Genji

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Written a thousand years ago in Japan by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji takes place in Japan’s imperial city of Kyoto. It is a time of aristocracy, strict social hierarchy, and imperial wealth and ceremony, and court intrigues and powerful alliances are endemic. Social order and imperial protocol frown upon superficial gallantry, gossips, and scandals, yet these very predilections prevail under the guise of good manners, social etiquette, and propriety, and flourish among lords and ladies of gentility.

Incredibly popular in Japan, and considered one of its enduring classics, The Tale of Genji has only been fully translated into English in the twentieth century. Royall Tyler’s authoritative, comprehensive, and unexpurgated new translation finally gives an English speaker the chance to enjoy Japan’s favorite medieval romance to the fullest. Presented in a beautiful, two-volume slipcase, Tyler’s translation offers an elegant prose which captures the spirit and flair of the original and reads as beautifully as some of the spectacular sights of its narrative, which are also captured in appealing illustrations.

Into this realm of Murasaki Shikibu’s rich imagination, which is drawn in part from her real-life observations but set almost a century earlier than the author’s life, Genji, a son of the emperor and his intimate Kiritsubo, is born. Since she is only the emperor’s intimate, which ranks below the consorts and even lower than his single empress, Kiritsubo’s only livelihood is Genji and the emperor’s affection. The emperor gives up his desire to make Genji heir apparent over his firstborn son because the court would not allow such an unprecedented move. Thus, his favorite son is made a commoner and given the surname Genji (or Minamoto), freeing him to a life of wide-ranging romantic action and experience.

While Genji clearly occupies the central place and is the most colorfully drawn character and hero of the novel, The Tale of Genji does not lack at all in other characters, plots and subplots, episodic occurrences, and confusing relationships and interrelationships among the lords and ladies of the imperial realm. However, it is Genji who binds the often-fragmentary novel together. In essence, he is what gives life to the book, and Tyler’s translation effectively captures the richness of his character without detracting from the many others populating Shikibu’s masterfully spun narrative.

When Genji is twelve years old, he is married to Aoi, a sixteen-year-old daughter of an influential courtier. He is too young for the marriage to affect him much. Though officially married, he still lives in the imperial palace near the emperor and his future empress, Fujitsubo, while his wife lives at her father’s residence. This was not out of the ordinary for the upper classes in medieval Japan. Despite their distant behavior and her indifference toward him, Genji and Aoi eventually have a son, Yugiri, who resembles Genji closely.

During his early years, Genji is often near Fujitsubo. Even though the required curtains, blinds, or screens separate them physically, as was mandatory between a man and a women of respectability, Genji develops a special devotion toward Fujitsubo because she resembles his late mother closely. In a culture which strongly believes in reincarnation and rebirth, this motivation is not as repellent as it may be for a contemporary Western reader. Tyler’s informative footnotes help to fill in cultural gaps, and the illustrations give a nice visual sense of the culture which gave rise to Genji’s adventures.

As Genji matures, his father does not let him be so close to Fujitsubo any longer, with good reason. Yet Genji defies the older man and succeeds in secretly making love to Fujitsubo. The result is a son, the future Emperor Reizei, whom the cuckolded Emperor believes is his own. He even deems it natural that the boy should look just like his other son, Genji.

Despite this momentous transgression, Fujitsubo is still beyond Genji’s reach. He can truly communicate with her only by writing poems and brief letters, which are delivered by messengers. These poems are what helped distinguish The Tale of Genji in its time, since medieval Japanese society considered poetry the highest and most genteel art. All early Japanese literature placed poetry above prose. Thus, it is not unusual that Genji’s messages to all his women are carefully written and crafted with poetic allusions and penned on types of paper selected according to the recipient’s rank and the occasion of the lines.

To make up for his desire to have someone entirely his own, Genji insists on taking a little girl into his care and virtually kidnaps her from her nurse when her mother is dead. Again, he is attracted because the girl is Fujitsubo’s niece and looks just like her aunt, the woman Genji can never possess. In time, the little girl will grow up to be Lady Murasaki, and become his true and greatest love. She will have the sole privilege of daily interaction with Genji. Ironically, the real first name of the...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Tale of Genji opens with a reference to a beloved “lady not of the first rank” loved by the sovereign and reflects the Chinese Po Chu’i’s “Song of Everlasting Sorrow,” which provides the prototype for Japan’s “Paulownia Court” and initially gives the work political overtones. Murasaki Shikibu was learned and uses this evocative poem to preface her monogatari, or prose narrative, about royal succession as determined by blood ties and political power struggles.

In part 1 of the novel, Prince Genji’s nature is an aristocratic ideal: His political acumen is marvelous; his public behavior manifests wise judgments and correct actions; and his private life offers a parallel, being colorful and elegantly woman-centered. Yet, from part 2 onward, The Tale of Genji becomes uniquely Murasaki’s creation. Her transcendent structure builds in a regard for the element of time, producing a remarkably “modern” narrative style based on karma, or the cause and effect of previous existences. Murasaki implies that the lives and actions of her characters originate in acts committed in previous lives.

Part 2 of the novel depicts suffering, sometimes caused by acts committed before the characters were born. Genji’s affair with Fujitsubo, the concubine of his father, the Emperor, probably results from his awareness of his inferior lineage but may also be influenced by karma. This pattern of karmic suffering continues in part 3, in which his descendants, Niou and Kaoru, both love women of inferior lineage, especially Ukifune. The novel’s three themes gradually develop. Reality and clear insight predominate in the opening section, the second section adds the themes of karma and predetermined suffering, and the third section complements these with the addition of piety and spiritual blindness.

In order to express these themes, Murasaki’s narrative techniques include the incorporation of waka, traditional five-line poems, and classical...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Kyto (kyoh-toh). Japanese city in west-central Hnshu, northeast of Osaka, that was the imperial capital from 794 through 1869. Protected by forested hills and drawing its drinking water from the clear Kamo River, the city has pleasant surroundings that make it a worthy dwelling place for the imperial household during the novel’s medieval Heian period. The aesthetic pleasures of the place are deeply appreciated by the characters, foremost of whom is the refined but illegitimate son of the emperor, Prince Genji. The characters draw inspiration from Kyto and try to build exquisite dwellings that will add to the city’s many splendid residences and grace and stimulate the lives of their magnificent inhabitants. To be fully away from the city, living in other towns or remote rural dwellings, is seen as a form of unfortunate exile.

During the time of the novel, the imperial city was laid out in a strict grid pattern expressing the imposition of human order over a natural location. In line with ancient Chinese prescriptions for an emperor’s proper dwelling place, which Japan’s aristocracy adopted for its own use, the imperial palace stands at the center of the northern edge of the city. Facing south in his great ceremonial hall, the emperor beholds a city neatly divided into two equal parts. To the east, at his left hand, and symbolized by a cherry tree in the garden outside his hall, is the Left City, Genji’s favorite haunting place. At his right hand, to the west and symbolized by an orange tree, is the Right City.

This geographical division extended into society. The imperial government is divided into Left (eastern) and Right (western) factions, and Genji’s strongest...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Murasaki Shikibu’s central intention was to provide a woman’s response to events at Heian court, including a refreshing view of courtiers, romance, and political power. This revolutionary intention is confirmed in her diary for the years between 1007 and 1010, which rounds out the picture given in the novel of Japanese court life. She was a member of the Fujiwara clan, a widow who became part of Princess Shoshi’s entourage in 1005 or 1006. Her interest in people created a contemporary audience of women, a remarkable feat in an era when men wrote formally in Chinese. Murasaki’s world in the novel ignores Confucianism, synonymous with men’s Chinese scholarship, except for the precept of filial piety.


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Historical Context

(Epics for Students)

Heian Era (794-1186)
The era gets its name from the capital, which in 794 moved from Nara. It occupies the area today known as...

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Literary Style

(Epics for Students)

The Tale of Genji does not meet many of the classical requirements of an epic. Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of...

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Compare and Contrast

(Epics for Students)

Heian (Classical) Period (800-1186): About the time of the First Crusades, Japan's Heian Era, which was depicted so skillfully in...

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Topics for Further Study

(Epics for Students)

In The Tale of Genji, a great importance is placed on art. People gain respect and admiration based on their musical, painting, and...

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Media Adaptations

(Epics for Students)

A CD-ROM introduces the novel through picture scroll reproductions, photographs, illustrations, and narration. It was produced in 1999 by the...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Epics for Students)

Murasaki Shikibu's The Diary of Lady Murasaki, translated by Richard Bowring in 1996, primarily deals with the birth of two sons to...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Epics for Students)

Bargen, Doris G., "Yugao: A Case of Spirit Possession in The Tale of Genji," in Mosaic: A Journal for the...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Bowring, Richard. Murasaki Shikibu: “The Tale of Genji.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. This slim volume provides readable information on cultural background, including Heian politics, the author’s background and her fictionalization of history, and religions that influenced the novel. Also discusses the novel’s style, language, influence, and reception.

Caddeau, Patrick W. Appraising “Genji”: Literary Criticism and Cultural Anxiety in the Age of the Last Samurai. New York: State University of New York, 2006. An examination of the analysis of Genji by nineteenth century critic Hagiwara Hiromichi....

(The entire section is 528 words.)