‘The Tale of Genji,’ a 1,000-Year-Old Japanese Masterpiece

Guide to the classics
January 24, 2019 Updated: January 28, 2019

Celebrating its millennial anniversary in 2008, “The Tale of Genji” (“Genji Monogatari) is a masterpiece of Japanese literature. Completed in the early 11th century, Murasaki Shikibu’s elegant and enchanting prose spans 54 chapters, features some 400 characters, and contains almost 800 separate poems. Many consider it to be the world’s first novel, predating most European texts by several hundred years.

Murasaki Shikibu transformed her experiences of courtier life into an intricate narrative fusing fiction, history, and poetry. This blending of forms defies simple categorization under any one genre, though the striking interior life of its characters has led many to term it a psychological novel with prose that feels distinctively modern.

Captivating readers across the English-speaking world from the early 20th century onward, the book’s author has often been compared to canonical artists such as Marcel Proust or Jane Austen for her ability to convey the splendor in the ordinary to her audience.

Consider this passage where a remorseful Genji seeks redemption from his deceased father for his misdeeds against him:

Coming to the grave, Genji almost thought he could see his father before him. Power and position were nothing once a man was gone. He wept and silently told his story, but there came no answer, no judgment upon it. (Chapter 12)

This beautifully captures both the infinite tragedy of losing a loved one, and the abyss of guilt that such unresolved conflicts inevitably impart on us. These words are just as poignant today as they would have been 1,000 years ago.

17th-century portrait of Murasaki Shikibu
A 17th-century portrait of Murasaki Shikibu, author of “The Tale of Genji.” (Public Domain)

The author served Empress Shoshi in the imperial court of Heian (794–1185), situated in modern-day Kyoto. Courtiers were often referred to only by rank, and women were usually known only in relation to their husbands, sons, or fathers. Due to such customs, her actual name is unknown. Thus Murasaki Shikibu was likely gifted this moniker by her readers: “Murasaki” after the story’s heroine, and “Shikibu” referring to her father’s ministerial position in the court.

Her father, Fujiwara no Tametoki, was a scholar of Chinese classic literature. Despite Chinese being a masculine genre of writing, he nourished his daughter’s keen interest and special talent for it, as well as the more traditionally Japanese feminine writing styles of “waka” (classical poetry), essays, diary, and letters (“kana”).

Scandal in the Court

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“Nio no Miya” (“The Perfumed Prince”), Ch. 42 in “The Tale of Genji,” illustrated by Tosa Mitsuoki (1617–1691). Part of the Burke Albums, property of Mary Griggs Burke. (Public Domain)

“The Tale of Genji” weaves a vivid depiction of aristocratic life in Heian Japan, which centers on the amorous exploits and political gameplay of the nobility. The titular “Shining” Genji is devastatingly handsome, with smooth-as-silk charisma and a litany of musical, literary, and academic skills that “to recount all his virtues would, I fear, give rise to a suspicion that I distort the truth” (Chapter 1).

Tale of Genji-Ch5_wakamurasaki
“Wakamurasaki” (“Young Murasaki”). Ch. 5 in “The Tale of Genji,” illustrated by Tosa Mitsuoki (1617–1691). Part of the Burke Albums, property of Mary Griggs Burke. (Public Domain)


Throughout the tale, however, he is revealed as an enigmatic but ultimately flawed hero. Rising to the rank of Honorary Retired Emperor (despite never actually reigning), the story of Genji’s success is a multigenerational saga filled with passion, deceit, jealousy, great rivalries, and also great intimacies.

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“Asagao” (“The Bluebell”). Ch. 20 in “The Tale of Genji,” illustrated by Tosa Mitsuoki (1617–1691). Part of the Burke Albums, property of Mary Griggs Burke. (Public Domain)

Potential readers should be forewarned, however, that many of Genji’s amorous conquests are likely to raise an eyebrow with contemporary audiences. Genji kidnaps and grooms a 10-year-old child bride, before fathering a secret love-child with his stepmother, all the while insistently pursuing a plethora of women in various extramarital affairs.

In a post-#MeToo world, it is perhaps difficult to see Genji’s actions as anything but deplorable; however, by Heian standards, Genji is lauded as a venerable hero. Controversial themes, including rape, have been condemned by contemporary readings. But the text allows and even encourages many different readings (for example in feminist and parodic fashions), presenting a challenge for contemporary readers and translators alike.

The Challenge of Translating ‘Genji’

The original “Genji” text in Japanese poses a number of issues for modern-day readers. Characters were rarely assigned proper names, with designations implied by way of their titles, honorific language, or even the verb form used. The writing also relies heavily on the reader’s pre-existing understanding of courtier life, poetry, and history, which is often beyond the contemporary recreational reader.

The first complete English translation was published between 1925 and 1933 by esteemed orientalist scholar and translator Arthur Waley (who translated many other Chinese and Japanese texts such as “Monkey” and “The Pillow Book”). Waley’s translation prompted strong reactions from Japanese authors such as Akiko Yosano and Junichiro Tanizaki. Both subsequently completed multiple translations of the work into contemporary Japanese. (Yosano’s last translation was in 1939, with Tanizaki’s editions spanning 1939–1965.)

East wing of scroll of Tale of Genji
A scene, “East Wing,” from “The Tale of Genji” circa 1130, by an artist of the imperial court of Kyoto. An illustrated handscroll. Tokugawa Art Museum. (Public Domain)

There have been a number of recent translations in English, modern Japanese, and several other European and Asian languages. Royall Tyler’s 2003 translation provides substantial footnotes, endnotes, illustrations, and maps, which offer thorough explanations of the nuances of the text. This makes it suitable for novices as well as the academic reader.

The attention that “The Tale of Genji” has received from translators in recent years speaks not only to the challenges in its translation but also to the beauty and importance of the work itself.

Allure Across Time

Pages from handscroll of Tale of Genji
Pages from the illustrated handscroll from the 12th century. (Public Domain)

“The Tale of Genji” is steeped in exquisite images of nature and heavily laden with tanka-style poetry. Descriptions of autumn leaves, the wailing of insects, or the subtle light of the moon work to heighten the complex and nuanced emotions of Murasaki Shikibu’s elegant characters as they traverse the difficult landscape of love, sex, and the politics of court life. Such poetic language played a very important role in the communications and rituals of Heian courtier society.

The term “mono no aware” is often used when discussing “The Tale of Genji.” This somewhat untranslatable phrase portrays the beautiful yet tragic fleetingness of life. It has deep connections to Buddhist philosophies, emphasizing the impermanence of things.

The Japanese celebration of the falling of the cherry blossoms is a good example of mono no aware. Murasaki’s poignant references to the natural world saturate the text and help us reflect on the illusory and sometimes unexplainable nature of life, love, and loss.

As a counterbalance to such exquisite imagery, Genji also explores dark and divisive elements. Apart from familial sex, polygyny, and sexualization of children, it includes several key scenes of women experiencing spirit possession or “mono no ke.” These scenes depict women acting in strange and unpredictable fashions, and suggest that possession actually caused women to become ill and die.

These examples are just a taste of the vast subject matter and textual richness that “The Tale of Genji” offers readers. Adaptations, parodies, and sequels have seen the tale reimagined into filmnoh theateroperamanga, and art. “Genji” is still very much alive.

Rebecca Hausler is a doctoral candidate and researcher in Japanese studies at the School of Languages and Cultures at The University of Queensland in Australia, and Tomoko Aoyama is an associate professor of Japanese at the University of Queensland. This article was first published on The Conversation.