The tale of Genji

In the year 1000, during the Hein period Murasaki Shikibu wrote the Tale of Genji, which is believed to be the first novel in all of literature’s history.  The fifty four chapter novel tells the story of the handsome son, Hikaru Genji, who was born to an emperor during the Heian period.  It focuses on his life, and love, and is an important manuscript of language and life in the court in medieval Japan.  However, it’s not only the book itself that has influenced Japanese history, but also the scenes from the story that have been painted onto colored woodcuts by Tosa Mitsuoki in 1617.  The structure, plot, illustrations, and author all impact the novel, and the rich history it portrays.

One important aspect of the novel is the structure in which it was designed. The Tale of Genji is composed of fifty four chapters which are broadly divided into 3 sections.  The first section is made up of thirty three chapters and includes Genji’s life starting with Chapter Kiritsubo and ending with Chapter Fuji-no-uraba.  The second portion is identified with the marriage of Onna-Sannomiya to a commoner in Chapter Wakana Part one, and concludes with the chapter mirage.  The third and final section begins with the chapter Niou, where Kaoru plays the major role.  The third portion ends with the chapter The Bridge of Dreams.  These different sections and complex grammer make it difficult  for the average person today to read and comprehend it.  The novel addtionally is full of hints, symbols and metaphors, modern readers today require the aid of extensive scholarly notes to read and advance the story; furthermore, characters often spoke in the old tradition in verse often quoting famous lines of poetry but not finishing them because the reader was expected to know the last line.

There are several main characters who play a pivotal role in the Tale of Genji.  The first character being Genji the Shining Prince himself; he is the child of the emperor and the concubine named Kritsubu.  Genji becomes known for using his good looks, poetry, and position of power to impress women.  Throughout the novel he also uses his charm and good looks to get him out of several predicaments.  Another important character is Utsusemi.  She is the first women outside the palace Genji tries to seduce.  However she succeeds many times in hiding from Genji by standing behind a screen.  An interesting character in the novel is known as the Old Style Princess.  She catches Genji’s attention by her ability to play zither.  However,  because her nose is so big she never shows her face in public.  Next there’s Koremitsu, Genji’s side kick.  He covers for Genji when Genji needs to get away, and will also set up the horses and clean up after Genji.  Another influential figure is the child Murasaki.  She comes into the story when Genji visits a nunnery.  He is fascinated with her because she looks like a women of the court and he becomes enthralled with the idea of raising a child to become a women of his own, so once the nun taking care of her dies Genji takes her.

Another important characters is Genji’s friend and rival To No Chujo.  Since Genji never talks about his personal life To No Chujo always likes to know what Genji is doing, and therefore spies on him.  Next is Lady Roujo, leaves the palace do to her jealousy of all of Genji’s wives, especially Lady Aoi.  However through her evil spirit she is able to transport her soul into Lady Aoi’s body and attempt to win back Genji through her.  Finally there is Lady Aoi, Genji’s main wife.  Like many of Genji’s companions throughout the novel, she falls sick and stays that way for most of the novel.

One of the most important aspects of the Tale of Genji is the plot itself.  In the story, Genji is born to the beloved concubine of the emperor Tenno, who dies soon after his birth.  Genji was raised in the royal family, and he used his power to satisfy his lust for women.  He  had his first unlawful affair with the young wife of the emperor Fujitsubo.  She gets pregnant and gives birth to a son whom the emperor raises assuming that the boy is his.  Despite his minor guilt from this affair, Genji goes on to having several more with other court ladies such as Yugao, Utsusemi, Hanachirusato, and Murasaki-no-ue.  Finally his affairs result in him being exiled to Suma.  However after a short time he returns to the capitol.  Genji then steadily rises in ranking and position, reaching the summit of his career.  Back in his high position he continues to pursue his excessive lust.  Not long after Genji’s wife, Onna-Sannomiya, has an affair resulting in the birth of a son.  This reminds Genji of his own past actions.

Then Genji’s real love of over twenty years passes away, leaving Genji in a deep depression, and he appears to lose his will to live.  Due to this Genji chooses to leave the capital and travels to a small mountain temple.  After his death The Tale of Genji continues, although without the hero. In his place are Kaoru, his grandson, and Niou-no-miya, Kaoru’s friend. These two youths carry on the Genji tradition with the princesses in the palace at Uji. The story then goes on to center around the young women, Ukibune, and the trial both her heart and mind endures by the courtship of these two young men.  The story does not continue, but ends abruptly, which still confuses experts to this day.

There are several different opinions on the abrupt ending and if whether or not it was done on purpose by the author.   “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; However  Ivan Morris, author of 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”, Edward Seidensticker, who made the second translation of the Genji, believed that it was not finished, and that Murasaki Shikibu did not have a planned story structure with an “ending” and would simply have gone on writing as long as she could.3[2]

In order to fully understand the plot of the story it is beneficial to understand the author, and the background in which the novel was written.  Murasaki Shikibu is believed to be the author of The Tail of Genji.  She was born  about 973.  She belonged to the vast and powerful Fujiwara family; however her given name went unrecorded, Murasaki Shikibu is simply a nickname (Murasaki is the name of the tale’s fictional heroin, and Shikibu literally means bureau of ceremonial, a position which her father held).  She married in 998, had a daughter (Kenshi) in 999, and was widowed in 1001.  Her talent with writing gave her the opportunity to serve empress Akiko.  The last record mentioning her was dated 1013; she therefore may have died the next year.  When she was younger it was impossible for women to play an important part in literature, therefore her father taught her and her brother; in doing so she received and exceptional education in Chinese language, script and literature.

One important reason the Tale of Genji is so famous, is not the book itself, but the illustrated hand scrolls that were made about one hundred years after the book was written.  These scrolls are known as the Genji Monogatari Emaki, which became a famous twelfth century scroll.  It contains illustrated scenes from Genji together with handwritten Sogana text.  The Genji Monogatari Emaki   is the earliest extant example of a “Japanese picture scroll”: collected illustrations and calligraphy of a single work.  The original scroll was believed to consist of ten to twenty rolls and cover all fifty four chapters.  However the existing pieces only include sixty five pages of text and nineteen illustrations plus nine pages of fragments.  This is believed to be only fifteen percent of the original.  The scrolls are held at the Goto museum in Tokyo and the Tokugawa museum in Nagoya.  The scrolls are considered national treasures, so therefore they are only on display once a year.

Similar to the novel, the illustrations are also incomplete.  However some of the surviving illustrations consist of: nobelmen listening to music at Genji’s daughter and mother’s home.  This illustration is from chapter eighteen.  Another one is known as the Four Seasons and illustrates chapters thirty eight, forty, forty nine, and forty five.  One popular scene is that of Genji holding an infant, the son of one of his wives and another man.  This comes from chapter thirty six.  Another scene comes from chapter forty four and is that of a courtier observing two women playing a game, and from chapter forty five where Kaoru watches another two women playing musical instruments.  The illustration that goes along with chapter fifty is that of a woman reading a story to a group of other women; however this illustration is important because scholars believe it was done by a female artist.

Even with the illustrations, reading the Tale of Genji today is still extremely difficult.  The complexities of the style make it unreadable by the average Japanese person without dedicated study of the language of the tale.  Therefore 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.[3]  Both scholars and writers have attempted to translate this, the first translation into modern Japanese was made by the poet Yosana Akiko.  Other known translations were made by the novelists Junichiro Tanizake and Fumiko Enchi.  Due to the cultural difference it is very common to just read an annotated version of the Tale of Genji, even among the Japanese.

There are several annotated versions by novelists such as Seiko Tanizaki, Osamu Hashimoto, and Jacucho Setouchi.  There have also been many different works including comics and television dramas derived from the Tale of Genji.    The tale has also been translated into move form several times.  The first was in 1951 under the director Kozaburo Yoshimura, then again in 1966 under Kon Inchikawa.  It was then made an animated film in 1987 under the director Gisaburo Sugii.  This however was not a complete version, and only covered the first twelve chapters.  It was also remade in 2001 one with an all female cast.  In this version Genji tells the story to a girl for a lesson in men’s behavior.  The Tale of Genji was also composed into an opera during 1999 by Miki Minoru.  It was first performed the following year at the opera theatre of Saint Louis, and was later translated into Japanese.  There have been at least five Manga adaptions of the Genji, read widely by Japanese youth.  Most Japanese high school students will read a little bit of the original Genji in their Japanese class.

There are also five major translations of the Tale of Genji into English.  The first ever English translation was by Seumatsu Kencho, however it is considered poor quality and is not often read today.  Also only a few chapters were completed.  The next English translation was by Arthur Waley, and is considered a great achievement for his time.  However his freedom to make changes to Murasaki’s original is criticized by purists along with many noticeable errors throughout his translation.  The next translation by Edward Seidensticker was made in an attempt to correct Waley’s mistakes, without necessarily making his translation superseded.  Seidensticker follows the original more closely but still, for clarities sake, takes some liberties in naming the characters.  The final translation is by Royall Tyler.  His translation contains more extensive footnotes than that of the previous translations.  His footnotes describe the large amount of poetical allusions, and cultural aspects of the novel.  It also, unlike previous attempts, tries to mimic the original style.

Despite the fact that the Tale of Genji was written hundreds of years ago, it still continues to have cultural prominence in Japan.  Its characters can be seen on anything from tee shirts to stationary and even manga and anime versions of the famous love story have been produced.  Every few years there is a new movie, opera, or story based on the novel.  Genji’s influence can be traced not only in later works of court fiction, but all the way through the modern novel.  Not only does the novel have a powerful effect on japanese culture, but also on the importance of women, both at the time it was written and today.


Work Cited                  

[1] Rowley, Gillian Gaye, Yosan Akiko and the Tale of Genji Ann Arbor, MI : Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2000

2 McMullen, James, 1939 Idealism, Protes, and the Tale of Genji. Oxford : Clarendon Press ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1999

3 “The Tale Of Genji”. Wikipedia. 27 November 2001.

[3] Hotelling, Katsuko T. A Study of the Rokujo Lady in the Tale of Genji. 1990