The Tale of Genji

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Ilustration of ch.20 -- 朝顔 Asagao ("The Bluebell").
Credited to Tosa Mitsuoki (1617--1691).
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, in the extended narrative form called monogatari. Despite that, the complexity, psychological tension, and encompassing plot lines of the book could rightly describe it as the first "modern" novel, predating others anywhere by centuries.

The first translation of part of Genji Monogatari into English was by Suematsu Kencho. An almost complete (one chapter is missing) and well-regarded free translation was produced by Arthur Waley, a complete more literal one by Edward Seidensticker, and most recently a new attempt at a literal translation by Royall Tyler (2002). The Diet Member Marutei Tsurunen also made a translation.



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 Genji is widely considered to be one of the greatest works of Japanese literature, and numerous modern authors have cited it as inspiration. It is noted for its internal consistency, psychological depiction, and characterization. The novelist Yasunari Kawabata said in his nobel prize acceptance speech: "The Tale of Genji in particular is the highest pinnacle of Japanese literature. Even down to our day there has not been a piece of fiction to compare with it."


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 One to Thirty-three, and that Chapters Thirty-five to Fifty-four were written by her daughter Daini no Sanmi. Other scholars have doubted the authorship of Chapters Forty-two to Forty-four (particularly Forty-four, which contains rare examples of continuity mistakes), or of Forty-two to Fifty-four.

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 of equal or greater genius taking over after Murasaki is implausible. This argument, of course, is a highly subjective 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.

Missing image
Ilustration of ch.5 -- 若紫 Wakamurasaki ("Young Murasaki").
Credited to Tosa Mitsuoki (1617--1691).

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 a low-ranking concubine. His mother dies when Genji is three years old, and the Emperor can't forget her. The Emperor then hears of a woman named Lady Fujitsubo, formerly a princess of the preceding emperor, who resembles his deceased concubine, and later she becomes one of his concubines. Genji loves her first as a stepmother, but later as a woman. They fall in love with each other, but it is forbidden. Genji is frustrated because of his forbidden love to the Lady Fujitsubo and is on bad terms with his wife, Lady Aoi. He also engages in a series of unfulfilling love affairs with other women: his advances are rebuffed, his lover dies suddenly during the affair, or he finds his lover to be dull in each instance.

Genji visits Kitayama, the northern rural hilly area of Kyoto, where he finds a beautiful girl. He is fascinated by this little girl, and discovers that she is a niece of the Lady Fujitsubo. Finally he kidnaps her and brings her to his own palace and educates her to be his ideal lady, like the Lady Fujitsubo. During this time Genji also meets the Lady Fujitsubo secretly, and she bears his son. Everyone except the two lovers believes the father of the child is the Emperor. Later the boy becomes the crown prince and Lady Fujitsubo becomes the Empress, but Genji and Lady Fujitsubo swear to keep their secret.

Genji and his wife Lady Aoi reconcile and she gives birth to a son, but dies soon after. Genji is sorrowful, but finds consolation in Lady Murasaki, whom he finds and weds in Kitayama. Genji's father the Emperor dies and his political enemy seizes power in the court. Then another of Genji's secret love affairs is exposed: Genji and a concubine of his brother, the Emperor Suzaku, are discovered when they meet in secret. Genji is not punished officially, but flees to the rural Harima province. There a prosperous man named Akashi no Nyūdō (Monk of Akashi) entertains Genji, and Genji has a love affair with Akashi's daughter Lady Akashi, and she gives birth to a daughter. Genji's sole daughter later becomes the Empress.

Genji is forgiven by his brother and returns to Kyoto. His son becomes the emperor and Genji finishes his imperial career. The new Emperor Reizei knows Genji is his real father, and raises Genji's rank to the highest possible.

However, when Genji turns 40 years old, his life begins to decline. His political status doesn't change, but his love and emotional life is slowly damaged. He marries a new wife, but she betrays him. His new marriage changes the relationship between him and Lady Murasaki, who is his de facto but illegitimate wife.

Genji's beloved 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 some time 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 influential 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

Ilustration of ch.42 %u2013 匂宮 Niō no Miya ("The Perfumed Prince").Credited to  (%u2013).
Ilustration of ch.42 %u2013 匂宮 Niō no Miya ("The Perfumed Prince").
Credited to Tosa Mitsuoki (1617%u20131691).

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 color 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 behavior 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

In Japanese

Missing image
This ema at Nonomiya Shrine in Kyoto illustrates a scene from the Genji.

The language of the Genji is closer to modern Japanese than mediaeval 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 manga version by Waki Yamato, Asakiyumemishi (The Tale of Genji in English), 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.

English translations

As mentioned above, there are today four major translations into English: Suematsu Kencho's, Arthur Waley's, Edward Seidensticker's, and Royall Tyler's.

Suematsu's was the first translation into English, but is considered of poor quality and is not often read today; in addition, only a few chapters were completed. Waley's and Seidensticker's are the best established. Waley's is usually considered the most beautiful but purists have pointed out many errors and criticize the freedom Waley takes with changes to Murasaki's original. Seidensticker's translation is an attempt to correct Waley's failings without necessarily making his translation obsolete; Seidensticker follows the original more closely, but still takes some liberties (by naming the characters, for instance) in order to be clear. Royall Tyler's translation contains more extensive footnotes than the previous translations, describing the numerious poetical allusions and cultural aspects of the tale, and attempts to mimic the original style in ways that the previous translations have not (by not using names for most characters, for instance).


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. It is not known for certain when the chapters acquired their titles. Early mentions of the Tale refer to chapter numbers, or contain alternate titles for some of the chapters. This may suggest that the titles were added later.

  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

Illustrated scroll

A famous 12th century scroll, the Genji Monogatari Emaki, contains illustrated scenes from the Genji together with handwritten sōgana text. This scroll is the earliest extant example of a Japanese "picture scroll": collected illustrations and calligraphy of a single work. The original scroll is believed to have comprised 10-20 rolls and covered all 54 chapters. The extant pieces include only 19 illustrations and 65 pages of text, plus nine pages of fragments. This is estimated at roughly 15% of the envisioned original. The Goto Museum in Tokyo and the Tokugawa Museum in Nagoya each hold scrolls (or fragments) which are national treasures. An oversize English photoreproduction and translation was printed in limited edition by Kodansha International, ISBN 087011-131-2.

Film adaptations

The Tale of Genji has been translated into cinematic form several times. In 1951 by director Kozaburo Yoshimura, in 1966 by director Kon Ichikawa, and in 1987 by director Gisaburo Sugii. The latter is an animated film.

External links

de:Genji Monogatari et:Genji monogatari fr:Le Dit du Genji ko:겐지 이야기 ja:源氏物語 ru:Гэндзи-моногатари fi:Genjin tarina zh:源氏物語


Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools