The Tale of Genji

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Genji Monogatari (源氏物語), frequently translated as The Tale of Genji, is a classic work of Japanese literature attributed to the Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century, around the peak of the Heian period. Though it is sometimes called the first novel, this claim is not taken seriously by scholars of Japanese literature, due to the existence of works of a similar nature that predate the tale.

The first translation of part of Genji Monogatari into English was by Suematsu Kencho. The whole thing has been translated by Arthur Waley, Edward Seidensticker and most recently Royall Tyler (2002).

The Genji, as the work is commonly called by aficionados, was written for the women of the aristocracy (the Yokibito) and has many elements found in a modern novel: a central character and a very large number of major and minor characters, well-developed characterization of all the major players, a sequence of events happening over a period of time covering the central character's lifetime and beyond. The work does not make use of a plot; instead, much as in real life, events just happen and characters evolve simply by growing older. One remarkable feature of the Genji, and of Murasaki's skill, is its internal consistency, despite a dramatis personae of some four hundred characters. For instance, all characters age in pace and all the family and feudal relationships are consistent among all chapters.

The debate over how much of the Genji was actually written by Murasaki Shikibu has gone on for centuries, and is unlikely to ever be settled unless some major literary discovery is made. It is generally accepted that the tale was finished in its present form by 1021, when the author of the Sarashina Nikki wrote a famous diary entry about her joy at acquiring a complete copy of the tale. So if other authors besides Murasaki Shikibu did work on the tale, the work was done very near to the time of her writing.

Yosano Akiko, the first author to make a modern translation of the Genji, believed that Murasaki Shikibu had only written chapters 1 to 33, and that 34 to 54 were written by her daughter Daini no Sanmi. Other scholars have doubted the authorship of chapters 42-44 (particularly 44, which contains rare examples of continuity mistakes), or of 42-54.

According to Royall Tyler's introduction to his English translation of the work, recent computer analysis has turned up "statistically significant" discrepancies of style between chapters 45-54 and the rest, and also among the early chapters. But this discrepancy can also be explained by a change in attitude of the author as she grew older, and the earlier chapters are often thought to have been edited into their present form some time after they were initially written.

One of the frequent arguments made against the multiple authorship idea is that the Genji is a work of such genius that someone taking over after Murasaki is implausible. This argument, of course, is a highly opinionated one.

The tale

The work recounts the life of Genji, a son of the Japanese emperor, also known as Hikaru Genji, or the Shining Genji. Neither appellation is his actual name. Genji is simply another way to read the Chinese characters for the real-life Minamoto clan, to which Genji was made to belong. For political reasons, Genji is relegated to commoner status and begins a career as an imperial officer.

The tale concentrates on his romantic life and describes the customs of the aristocratic society of the time. Much is made of Genji's good looks. His most important personality trait is the loyalty he shows to all the women in his life, as he never abandons any of his wives. When he finally becomes the most powerful man in the Capital, he moves into a palace and provides for each of them.

Genji was the second son of a certain ancient emperor and his concubine whose rank was not so high. When Genji was three years old, his mother wad died. The Emperor couldn't forget her and heard there was a woman reseble to her. That was a princess of his precessor emperor. Later she became one of his concubine. Genji loved her first as a stepmother but later a woman. They fell into love each other but it was forbidden. Genji was frastrated because of his forbidden love to the Lady Fujitsubo and his bad terms to his wife, Lady Aoi. He made love affairs with other woman by chance but they were also frastrated. He was refused, or his lover died suddenly during love affair, or he found his lover was totally dull after he got her love.

Genji visited Kitayama, the northern rural hillious area of Kyoto and found a beautiful girl. He was fascinated by this little girl and knew she was a niece of the Lady Fujitsubo. Finally he kidnapped her and brought to his own palace and educated her to his ideal lady like the Lady Fujitsubo. In those days Genji succeeded to met the Lady Fujitsubo secretly and she bore his son. But everyone except them two believed the father of the child was the Emperor. Later the boy became the crown prince and the Lady Fujitsubo the Empress. Genji and Fujitsubo swore to keep secret.

Lady Aoi, the wife of Genji gave the birth to a son but soon after died. It was just after the couple reconciled. Genji was sorrowful but then he found consolation in Lady Murasaki who he had found in Kitayama. Genji made her his new wife. His father the Emperor died and his political enemy seized the power at the court. Then another secret love affairs was exposed. A concubine of his brother the Emperor Suzaku and Genji were found when they met in secret. Genji was not punished officially but fled to a rural area for avoiding the official pressure. Genji went to the Harima province. There a rural prospere man Akashi no Nyudo (Monk of Akashi) entertained him and Genji had love affairs with his daughter Lady Akashi. She gave the birth to a daughter. It was his sole daughther and later become the Empress.

Genji was forgaven by his brother and returned to Kyoto. His son became the emperor and Genji culminated his carrer. Tne new emperor, Emperor Reizei knows who is his real father and raises Genji's rank to the highest.

But when Genji become 40 years old, his life beginbs to decline. His political state didn't change, but his love and emotnional life was slowly damaged. He married a new wife but she betrayed him. And his marriage changed the relationship between Lady Murasaki who was his de faco wife but not legitimate wife.

Genji's beloved wife, Murasaki dies. (Note that Murasaki Shikibu, whose real name is unknown, is named after this character, not vice-versa.) In the following chapter, "Maboroshi" or "Illusion", Genji contemplates how fleeting life is. The following chapter begins sometime after Genji's passing and we do not know how he dies.

The rest of the work is known as the "Uji Chapters". These chapters follow Niou and Kaoru, who are best friends. Niou is an imperial prince but secretly Genji's son, while Kaoru is known to the world as Genji's son but is in fact fathered by Genji's nephew. The chapters involve Kaoru and Niou's rivalry over several daughters (including an illegitimate one) of an imperial prince who lives in Uji, a place some distance away from the capital. The tale ends abruptly, with Kaoru wondering if the lady he loves is being hidden away by Niou. Kaoru has sometimes been called the first anti-hero in literature.

Is the Genji complete?

As mentioned in the previous section, the tale ends abruptly, in mid-sentence. Opinions have varied on whether or not the ending was the intended ending of the author.

Arthur Waley, who made the first English translation of the Genji, believed that the work as we have it was finished. Ivan Morris, who wrote the very influental book 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" (to use his term). 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.

Literary context
Because it was written to entertain Japanese court women of the 11th century, the work presents many difficulties to modern readers. First and foremost Murasaki's language, Heian court Japanese, was highly inflected and had very complex grammar. Another problem is that naming people was considered rude in Heian court society, so none of the characters are named within the work; instead, the narrator refers to men often by their rank or their station in life, and to women often by the colour of their clothing, or by the words used at a meeting, or by the rank of a prominent male relative. This results in different appellations for the same character depending on which chapter you are reading.

Another aspect of the language is the importance of using poetry in conversations. Modifying or rephrasing a classic poem according to the current situation was expected behaviour in Heian court life, and often served to communicate thinly veiled allusions. The poems in the Genji are often in the classic Japanese tanka form. Many of the poems were well known to the intended audience, so usually only the first few lines are given and the reader is supposed to complete the thought herself, much like today we could say "a rolling stone..." and leave the rest of the saying ("...gathers no moss") unspoken.

As for most Heian literature, the Genji was probably written mostly (or perhaps entirely) in kana (Japanese phonetic script) and not in Chinese characters because it was written by a woman for a female audience. Writing in Chinese characters was at the time a masculine pursuit, women were generally discreet when writing in Chinese, confining themselves mostly to pure Japanese words.

Outside of vocabulary related to politics and buddhism, the Genji contains remarkably few Chinese loan words. This has the effect of giving the story a very even, smooth flow. However, it also introduces confusion because of the relatively restricted vocabulary of pure Japanese. There are a number of words which have many different meanings, and context is not always sufficient to determine which meaning was intended.

Murasaki was neither the first nor the last writer of the Heian period, nor was the Genji the earliest example of a "monogatari". Rather, the Genji stands above other tales of the time much as Shakespeare's plays stand above other Elizabethan drama.

Reading the Genji today

The language of the Genji is closer to modern Japanese than 1000-year old English is to modern English. However, the complexities of the style mentioned in the previous section 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.

Because of the cultural difference, reading an annotated version of the Genji is quite common, even among Japanese. Many works including comics and television dramas are derived from the Tale of Genji. A comic version by Yamato Waki, Asakiyumemishi, is widely read among Japanese youth.

Most Japanese high-school students will read a little bit of the Genji (the original, not a translation) in their Japanese classes.


The novel is traditionally divided in three parts, the first two dealing with the life of Genji, and the last dealing with the early years of two of Genji's prominent descendants, Niou and Kaoru. There are also several short transitional chapters which are usually grouped separately and whose authorship is sometimes questioned.

  1. Genji's rise and fall
    1. Youth, chapters 1-33: Love, romance, and exile
    2. Success and setbacks, chapters 34-41: A taste of power and the death of his beloved wife
  2. The transition (chapters 42-44): Very short episodes following Genji's death
  3. Uji, chapters 45-53: Genji's official and secret descendants, Niou and Kaoru
  4. The Floating Bridge of Dreams, chapter 54: Seems to continue the story from the previous chapters, but has an unusually abstract chapter title. It is the only chapter whose title has no clear reference within the text, but this may be because the chapter is unfinished. (This question is more difficult because we do not know exactly when the chapters acquired their titles.)
List of chapters

(The English translations here are taken from the Royall Tyler translation)

  1. 桐壺 Kiritsubo ("The Paulownia Pavilion")
  2. 帚木 Hahakigi ("The Broom Tree")
  3. 空蝉 Utsusemi ("The Cicada Shell")
  4. 夕顔 Yūgao ("The Twilight Beauty")
  5. 若紫 Wakamurasaki or Waka Murasaki ("Young Murasaki")
  6. 末摘花 Suetsumuhana ("The Safflower")
  7. 紅葉賀 Momiji no Ga ("Beneath the Autumn Leaves")
  8. 花宴 Hana no En ("Under the Cherry Blossoms")
  9. 葵 Aoi ("Heart-to-Heart")
  10. 榊 Sakaki ("The Green Branch")
  11. 花散里 Hana Chiru Sato ("Falling Flowers")
  12. 須磨 Suma ("Suma"; a place name)
  13. 明石 Akashi ("Akashi"; another place name)
  14. 澪標 Miotsukushi ("The Pilgrimage to Sumiyoshi")
  15. 蓬生 Yomogiu ("A Waste of Weeds")
  16. 関屋 Sekiya ("At The Pass")
  17. 絵合 E Awase ("The Picture Contest")
  18. 松風 Matsukaze ("Wind in the Pines")
  19. 薄雲 Usugumo ("Wisps of Cloud")
  20. 朝顔 Asagao ("The Bluebell")
  21. 乙女 Otome ("The Maidens")
  22. 玉鬘 Tamakazura ("The Tendril Wreath")
  23. 初音 Hatsune ("The Warbler's First Song")
  24. 胡蝶 Kochō("Butterflies")
  25. 螢 Hotaru ("The Fireflies")
  26. 常夏 Tokonatsu ("The Pink")
  27. 篝火 Kagaribi ("The Cressets")
  28. 野分 Nowaki ("The Typhoon")
  29. 行幸 Miyuki ("The Imperial Progress")
  30. 藤袴 Fujibakama ("Thoroughwort Flowers")
  31. 真木柱 Makibashira ("The Handsome Pillar")
  32. 梅が枝 Umegae ("The Plum Tree Branch")
  33. 藤のうら葉 Fuji no Uraha ("New Wisteria Leaves")
  34. 若菜 I Wakana: Jo ("Spring Shoots I")
  35. 若菜 II Wakana: Ge ("Spring Shoots II")
  36. 柏木 Kashiwagi ("The Oak Tree")
  37. 横笛 Yokobue ("The Flute")
  38. 鈴虫 Suzumushi ("The Bell Cricket")
  39. 夕霧 Yūgiri("Evening Mist")
  40. 御法 Minori ("The Law")
  41. 幻 Maboroshi ("The Seer")
  42. 匂宮 Niō no Miya ("The Perfumed Prince")
  43. 紅梅 Kōbai("Red Plum Blossoms")
  44. 竹河 Takekawa ("Bamboo River")
  45. 橋姫 Hashihime ("The Maiden of the Bridge")
  46. 椎が本 Shīgamoto ("Beneath the Oak")
  47. 総角 Agemaki ("Trefoil Knots")
  48. 早蕨 Sawarabi ("Bracken Shoots")
  49. 宿り木 Yadorigi ("The Ivy")
  50. 東屋 Azumaya ("The Eastern Cottage")
  51. 浮舟 Ukifune ("A Drifting Boat")
  52. 蜻蛉 Kagerō ("The Mayfly")
  53. 手習 Tenarai ("Writing Practice")
  54. 夢の浮橋 Yume no Ukihashi ("The Floating Bridge of Dreams")

There is one additional chapter between 41 and 42 in some manuscripts called 雲隠 (Kumogakure) which means "Vanished into the Clouds" -- the chapter is a title only, and is probably intended to evoke Genji's death.

See also: Japanese literature

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