Tale Of Genji, The World’s oldest

2013.06.12 [CULTURE,WHAT'S NEW]

Tale Of Genji, The World’s oldest

The Tale of Genji or Genji no Monogatari is a classic
work of Japanese literature written in the 11th Century
by the Heian period noblewoman, Murasaki Shikibu.
It is considered the world’s first novel, providing a unique description of Heian period customs and the court life of
the aristocracy. The story recounts the life of the
handsome prince, Hikaru Genji, a son of the emperor
relegated to commoner status due to political reasons,
his romances, setbacks and successes.


The book provides some of the best examples and
insights into 11th century Japanese court and court
etiquette, as well as the structure and lifestyles of the
Heian nobility.


The book was originally written not in Chinese
characters, but as the writer was a woman, in the
Japanese kana phonetic script. Lady Murasaki was not the first woman writer, nor was her book
the first of the tales of the time, however her story has been likened to Shakespeares’ works
standing out among other Elizabethan period writing.


It appears the book was written chapter by chapter, not being fully complete until around the year
1021, when it was recorded by the author of the Sarashina Diaries, (a memoir written by the daughter
of Lord Sugawara no Takasue) that she had received a complete set of the chapters. The novel is
divided into three parts. The first segments, chapters 1-33 cover Genji’s youth, loves, romance and
exile. The second set of chapters 34-41 cover his successes and setbacks, including the death of his wife.
Chapters 42 to 43 cover the transition between Genji’s demise and the final chapters known collectively
as Uji, which cover the descendants of Genji.



The protagonist, Hikaru Genji, the “Shining Prince” lives the life of an imperial officer having been
removed from the royal household. Born the second son of the Emperor Kiritsubo and a lower ranked
consort who dies when the child is just three. At the age of 19 he has an affair with his father’s consort
resulting in the secret birth of a future emperor. The story then follows the numerous seductions,
romances, marriages and problems in his love life, including those of his wife, the Lady Aoi no Ue.
The two reconcile, but she dies soon after childbirth. Genji’s father, the Emperor Kiritsubo soon dies
too, and his half brother Suzaku ascends the Chrysanthemum Throne.


Genji is further exiled upon having been caught in a love affair with the new Emperors’ concubine.
He is later pardoned when both Emperor Suzaku and Suzaku’s mother become ill, and the child Reizei,
born from Genji’s tryst with his own father’s consort is crowned. Reizei is aware of his true father’s
identity, and so escalates Genji’s position in court.



By now, Genji is around 40 years old and his life goes into decline.
While Genji is in love with the lady Murasaki, his nephew Kashiwagi forces himself on Genji’s latest wife, 
and a son, Kaoru is conceived. The situation is similar to when Reizei was born, this time with Genji
recognised as the legal father. After the death of Murasaki, there is an interesting concept where the
chapter is titled Kumogakure, translated as Vanished into the Clouds, but left blank, implying the death
of Genji. The following chapters then revolve around the comings and goings of Kaoru, before ending
abruptly in mid sentence.


Some four hundred characters are involved in the intricate web of a story, and the authoress deftly retains consistency in regards to ages, positions family and feudal relationships.  The character of Genji is believed
to have been based on the Minister of the Left at the time, while the main female character, Murasaki, is
said to have been based on the authoress herself.



Genji’s true name is never revealed in the book, nor are the names of the incidental characters,
partially as it was the custom of the day not to refer to someone’s name in writing merely referring
to them by their position or status, and also because it is believed the story was based on actual
historical personages from the ancient Imperial court.


Debate continues over exactly how much of the tale was written by Lady Murasaki, as discrepancies
in the style and some continuity details waver in later chapters, when her daughter may have been
responsible for continuing the writing.


The work has been translated into English by Suematsu Kencho in 1882, by Arthur Waley between 1921
and 1933, by Edwin Seidensticker in 1976, and in 2001 by Royall Tyler. These English versions, translations
into modern Japanese, movies and even an animated series have kept The Tale of Genji a popular story
to this day.



Related Article of this Post

2013.06.15 HISTORY Hikaru Genji, Hero of The Tale of Genji
2013.06.11 CULTURE The Tale of Genji, Japanese Classic Literature


Chris Glenn
Chris Glenn
Sam Ryan
Sam Ryan
中島 大蔵
中島 大蔵
山内 美鳳
山内 美鳳
Les Paterson
Les Paterson
山口 晃司
山口 晃司
湯浅 大司
湯浅 大司
Adam Blackrock
Adam Blackrock
中島 繁正
中島 繁正
Pauline Chakmakjian
Pauline Chakmakjian
view more


Japanese Wooden Barrel Cooper Craftsman, Kurita Minoru Kurita Minoru was born in Nagoya on July 4, 1…More

Nagoya Butsudan (Home Buddhist Altar) Craftsman, Goto Katsumi   Goto Katsumi is the third gener…More

Nagoya Yuzen,  Traditional ArtisanMitsuhisa Horibe    Mr.Mitsuhisa Horibe was born in Nagoya in…More


Samurai Signatures, Kao (花押) Samurai Signatures, Kao (花押)  Kao (花押) were stylised identification sig…More

Ninja didn’t wear black! Ninja didn’t wear black! Despite the popular image of the black clothed and…More

Samurai File; Shimazu Tadahisa Samurai File; Shimazu Tadahisa (??-August 1, 1227)  Shimazu Tadahisa,…More


Book; Shogun /  James Clavell  In Osaka castle in the autumn of 1598, the great Japanese leader Toyo…More

The 47 Ronin Story / John Allyn In late 2013, Hollywood released its re-imagined version of the clas…More

BOOK REVIEW; Japonius TyrannusThe Japanese Warlord, Oda Nobunaga reconsidered. This is a brilliant b…More



Japan World mail updates !
Get Japan’s history, culture, events with this free service. Register your e-mail below, then press 「登録する」(left) to register, or「登録解除」to cancel.