Japan’s Literary Treasures

“The Tale of Genji”: Japan’s Literary Heavyweight


Japan’s great literary classic, The Tale of Genji, was written more than 1,000 years ago. This article gives an outline of the complex plot and suggests ways to approach the work.

A Great Big Classic

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu is the centerpiece of classic Japanese literature. It recounts the story of a Japanese aristocrat in the Heian period (794–1185), famous for his many love affairs. Characters also contend with court politics and the supernatural in the form of spirit possession. The psychological realism of the eleventh-century work has led to it being lauded as the world’s first novel.

At more than 1,000 pages long and more than 1,000 years old, however, it is a daunting prospect for readers. Breaking the tome up into sections can make it more approachable. For example, it is possible to divide the chapters in which Genji appears—around three quarters of the book—into three parts, as detailed below. Like a television spinoff, the narrative then abruptly switches to focus on Genji’s ostensible (actually illegitimate) son Kaoru and his grandson Niou for the final 13 chapters. (Japanese readers, too, frequently refer to the book’s final 10 chapters, set primarily in the Uji region near what is now Kyoto, as the Uji jūjō—the “10 Uji chapters”—to be read and considered as a work within the larger novel.)

The Tale of Genji in Four Parts

1. Youth and exile Chapter 1 “Kiritsubo” (The Paulownia Pavilion) to Chapter 13 “Akashi”
2. Middle years Chapter 14 “Miotsukushi” (The Pilgrimage to Sumiyoshi) to Chapter 33 “Fuji no uraba” (New Wisteria Leaves)
3. Later life Chapter 34 “Wakana: Jō” (Spring Shoots I) to Chapter 41 “Maboroshi” (The Seer)
4. Kaoru and Niou Chapter 42 “Niou-miya” (The Perfumed Prince) to Chapter 54 “Yume no ukihashi” (The Floating Bridge of Dreams)

English chapter titles are taken from the Royall Tyler translation.

The tale is often described as idealized, and Genji put on a pedestal as the perfect lover, but readers will judge through a contemporary lens. The millennium that separates us from the original readers can create a gulf in moral attitudes, particularly regarding the treatment of women and girls. There is a superficial glamor to Murasaki’s setting, where courtiers advance their love affairs through poetic exchanges and devote themselves to artistic pursuits. Beneath the refined, aesthetic surface, however, the author repeatedly demonstrates the fragility of life and position, themes universal to this day.

None of the characters are named in the story. For convenience’s sake they are generally referred to by sobriquets based on poetic references, their place of residence, or position in court. We do not even know the real name of the author herself, who has come to be called after the common name of the character Murasaki. (Shikibu, meanwhile, is a reference to a court position once held by the writer’s father, Fujiwara Tametoki.)

Too Many Romances

The early portion of the tale describe Genji’s rise as a bright young member of the court set.

Genji is born as the son of the Emperor Kiritsubo and a low-ranking court lady, who dies when he is still very young. To protect the defenseless boy from political enemies, the emperor removes him from the line of succession by demoting him to commoner status. After a coming-of-age ceremony at around 12 years old, he marries Aoi, four years his senior. His many overlapping romances—too many to summarize—begin from his late teens, as the main story begins.

Genji first discovers Murasaki, the leading heroine of the story, when she is a child of 10 and takes her home to raise. Some years later, he makes her his concubine. Genji is initially fascinated by her resemblance to Fujitsubo, an imperial consort, who in her turn is said to look like his mother. His affair with Fujitsubo produces a son, Reizei, who succeeds illegitimately to the imperial throne.

An early romance with Lady Rokujō brings severe consequences, as the novel veers into J-horror territory. Her jealous spirit, which travels from the lady while she is still alive, kills one of Genji’s lovers. Aoi is not as impressed with Genji as many, feeling that he does not show her sufficient respect as his wife. They do ultimately have a son together, but after giving birth, Lady Rokujō’s spirit strikes again. Exhausted by battling against possession, Aoi passes away.

Exile and Return

Genji loses some of his shine as he grows older and can no longer follow each new whim of the heart.

When one indiscreet affair too many puts Genji in a tight spot politically, he beats a retreat to self-imposed exile in the dreary coastal location of Suma. While out of favor with the court, he starts a new relationship with the Lady Akashi. He is recalled to the capital, where he begins his rise to the center of political power. He also brings Lady Akashi to the city. (Their daughter eventually grows up to marry the emperor—the fourth and final imperial leader in the book.)

Genji is around 40 when his half-brother, Emperor Suzaku, asks him to marry his daughter, known as the Third Princess. He wishes to secure her future before abdicating and becoming a priest. Genji agrees, but is disappointed by her immaturity, and neglects the higher-ranking girl for Murasaki. A young aristocrat, Kashiwagi, becomes infatuated with the Third Princess and sneaks into her quarters. Kaoru, the child resulting from this affair, is thought to be Genji’s son.

Murasaki feels her position to be less secure than Genji’s other women and wishes to renounce the world. Genji will not hear of it, though, saying that he is too attached to her. Murasaki falls ill and it becomes apparent that the malicious spirit of Lady Rokujō has returned, this time from beyond the grave. After a partial recovery, Murasaki remains weak and sick. When she dies a few years later, Genji goes into mourning.

A New Generation

In the final part, the story jumps ahead. Genji has died in the interim and the story now centers on Kaoru and Niou, who is the son of the present emperor and Lady Akashi’s daughter by Genji. Kaoru, a melancholy youth, vaguely suspects there is an issue with his parentage. His body gives off a mysterious fragrance. While Kaoru shows an inclination toward religious matters, Niou, his friend and rival, is straightforward in his pursuit of women.

Much of this section takes place in Uji, a short distance south of Kyoto. There is a gloomier atmosphere than the early days of Genji, the shining prince. Relations between the young men and two sisters in an Uji household, as well as their half-sister, tend toward tragic outcomes. Although the titular hero is absent, this is not a tagged-on afterthought. Some critics even view it as the finest part of The Tale of Genji.

Four English Translations of The Tale of Genji

Arthur Waley (1933) A readable translation that is sometimes rather loose.
Edward Seidensticker (1976) Elegant, yet reader-friendly.
Royall Tyler (2001) More literal than its predecessors, this seems to be the most popular version at present.
Dennis Washburn (2015) A new challenger.

(Originally written in English. Banner image: A scene from The Tale of Genji, attributed to the seventeenth-century artist Tosa Mitsuoki. © Aflo.)

literature Heian period The Tale of Genji