Genji Monogatari by Murasaki Shikibu

Genji Monogatari or Tale of Genji is widely regarded as the world’s first novel (surprisingly enough, it is also the world’s first genre novel, belonging firmly to the same category of fiction as a Harlequin romance. I am not sure what that says about writers, literature, and popular taste, but there must be a moral in there somewhere). Written between 998 and 1021 by a Japanese noblewoman known to history as Murasaki Shikibu, it is the most influential work in Japanese literary history and is arguably one of the great pieces of world literature. One of the reasons that the book is so well-regarded is that it gives us a detailed view of life during this period. Even though Genji is a work of fiction, it affords us a better view of the day-to-day life of the Heian upper class than any other source.

Genji Monogatari

Late 16th or 17th century scroll illustrating the Genji Monogatari

Genji Monogatari is the story of Hikaru Genji (the “Shining Genji”), his life, and the women he loves. The young son of an Emperor by his favorite consort, almost from birth, people recognize Genji’s extraordinary abilities and great personal charm and beauty. The first part of the story tells about his early affairs and describes how he is blessed with success and power. Then, he runs afoul of the ruling cabal and is sent into exile. After a couple of years away from the capital, he returns in triumph and begins a long, uninterrupted climb to the heights of power, eventually having a daughter who marries the Emperor (the key to holding power in those days). As he grows older, events in his personal life seem to go bad, almost as if to make up for his phenomenal success in his governmental service. Finally, his favorite wife dies, and he follows soon after.

The action then shifts to the next generation. Two young men, both Genji’s sons, take center stage. At this point, the novel becomes much darker, as the author begins exploring the psychological aspects of male-female relations and seems almost obsessed with the transient nature of life and the dream-like quality of the “real” world, a popular Heian theme.

Although the early chapters of Genji Monogatari are similar to earlier Japanese tales, by the middle of the book, the author is breaking new ground in character portrayal and depiction of life as it was. Her description of events, conversations, and relationships may have been slightly idealized to portray them in the best possible light. But they still speak to us across half a world of distance and a thousand years of time, because she deals in the authentic emotions of the human spirit.

Genji Monogatari

Cover of Seidensticker’s Tale of Genji

Of course, Genji Monogatari is not everyone’s cup of tea. Since the book was written for court ladies by a court lady, it spends most of its time talking about Genji and his relationships with his women. One criticism of the book is that no one in it actually does anything, all they do is sit around and talk, compose poetry, or write letters to each other. Worse, the sensitivities of Heian Japan are very different from those of modern society. In one of the most infamous passages of the novel, Genji spies a nine-year old girl with whom he becomes infatuated. Determined to possess her, he kidnaps her from her guardian, then spends the next couple of years raising her himself. Once she turns eleven or twelve, he marries her, which includes consummating the relationship, apparently without her consent. This girl becomes the central woman in his life, and the author, Murasaki Shikibu, has her nickname taken from the traditional designation of the girl in the novel, Murasaki.

Also, modern readers may be a bit put off by the aesthetics of Genji and his fellow Heian noblemen. They are about as far as you can get from self-sacrificing, grim samurai for whom Japan is famous. Instead, they spend all their time wooing women, writing poems, and participating in various activities designed to showcase their sensitivity and deep feelings. As Ivan Morris once said, “Reading Genji, one wonders when anyone had any time to do any actual governance.” One scornful reviewer called Genji “the rapiest girly-man ever.”

Despite these criticisms, it would be another six-hundred years before any author approached a fictional story in such a realistic manner as Murasaki. This is the primary reason people remember and celebrate Genji Monogatari.

You can find a free download of Seidensticker’s translation of Genji Monogatari from the The University of Adelaide Library