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A Japanese Literary Masterpiece, The Tale of Genji

Updated on August 22, 2013

In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that ravaged Japan this year, and the subsequent outpouring of love and concern from the West, further study of that intriguing country seems much desired. A classic literary piece as The Tale of Genji provides a welcome window onto the unique and sometimes mysterious culture of Japan.

The Tale of Genji was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a woman who served among the royal court in the tenth century Heian period in present day Kyoto. This fascinating tale, the length of Wuthering Heights and Dickens’ David Copperfield combined, is revered as the finest work of Japanese literature and indeed one of the world’s greatest novels. Written in the lyrical style exclusive to Japanese poetics and prose, The Tale Of Genji flows in its original form as uninterrupted poetry. English translation does alter the original with paragraph-breaks and punctuation, yet the tale was so well crafted that the integral feeling of beauty holds forth, delighting and inspiring us.

Murasaki Shikibu, who was brought into the royal court as a girl, wrote her story probably with a brush and ink in the exquisitely painted characters of the syllabary, or alphabet, which had been developed over time as intrinsically Japanese and therefore distinguishable from its derivative Chinese. The Tale of Genji was written at the height of Japanese literary excellence, when artistic brilliance was cherished throughout the country, and women in particular were known to be the greatest writers of poetry and prose. Moreover, to be gifted in poetics was revered as a supreme talent in the royal court and among society at large and remains so today.

Of Japanese poetry, the Japanese poet, Kino Tsurayuki, has said,

The poetry of Japan has its roots in the human heart.

The Tale Of Genji, a masterpiece of poetics, reads as something of a Siddhartha tale; although, Genji, unlike the young Buddha, experiences a number of pivotal romantic relationships on his journey rather than spiritual encounters: Siddhartha, the son of an emperor, chose to leave the sanctuary of the court and follow his own yearning to know the world and all of human suffering first hand. In Genji’s case, his father, the emperor, forces Genji out into the world to save his beloved son from the jealousies and intrigues of the court, where highly contentious political backbiting could, his father believed, kill a spirit of such divine charisma as Genji’s.

In the genre of courtly romance, the extraordinary infuses Genji’s environment even as a commoner living amidst a realm far from the royal court. Beauty and refinement are written into the flowers, trees and things of nature. Coming from a tradition of, not only Buddhism but, firstly, the Shinto religion, in which reverence for feminine nature-deities, as the sun, mountains and rivers, Murasaki draws from these nature-tropes to imbue her tale with a subtle, supernatural ambiance. Here, the various relationships of our chivalrous Genji include the poetry, symbolism and quiet eroticism of flowers. Cantillation, or the reading out loud of poems as declarations of love, describes Genji’s character while also exhibiting Murasaki’s rarified art of poetic verse. Genji learns through his adventures the poignancy and anguish of romantic love as well as that of death’s shadow.

The evening sky was serenely beautiful. The flowers below the veranda were withered, the songs of the insects were dying too, and autumn tints were coming over the maples. Looking out upon the scene, which might have been a painting, Ukon thought what a lovely asylum she had found herself. She wanted to avert her eyes at the thought of the house of the ‘evening faces.’ A pigeon called, somewhat discordantly, from a bamboo thicket. Remembering how the same call had frightened the girl in that deserted villa, Genji could see the little figure as if an apparition were there before him.

‘How old was she? She seemed so delicate, because she was not long for this world, I suppose.’

The above excerpt is taken from the chapter entitled “Evening Faces.” Other chapter titles include: “Lavender,” “The Sacred Tree,” “Wisteria Leaves,” “Evening Mist,” “The Wizard,” “Beneath the Oak,” and “The Drake Fly.” Within these wilderness motifs, Genji embarks on his romantic adventures. As an Orpheus-hero, the prodigy evinces the nobility of his ancestry, knows something of its effects, but disavows any show of rightful hubris.

Murasaki Shikibu was the daughter of a low ranking nobleman and was recognized as a gifted writer with superior potential and was thereby invited to serve in the salon of a royal consort. Shikibu’s father preferred the education of boys, but he too saw his daughter’s genius and so allowed her to live outside of her home, inside the opulence of courtly-life. It was here, in these most ideal surroundings, for classical education and writing, that a tenth century Japanese woman wrote the world’s first novel.

It has been observed that any English translation of The Tale of Genji loses much of the natural grace of the original, and this may be a metaphor for the Japanese culture at large: we as Westerners are captivated by its charm, find mystery and adoration in it’s artistry; yet, we can perhaps never fully appreciate the essential beauty of its enigmatic language.


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    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 3 years ago from Australia

      A fascinating hub, thank you. The Genji is truly a brilliant work, about such an amazing time in Japanese history. A good book to read while travelling through the country.

    • tracykarl99 profile image

      Tracy 4 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you, Kim! "Genji" is a gorgeous tale - a world treasure. It is so nice to connect with people who still love to read it.

      Blessings to you as well :)

    • profile image

      ocfireflies 4 years ago


      It's been years since I read "The Tale of the Genji," and yet your presentation and observations are so perfect. Nicely done and much enjoyed. V+ for sure.



    • tracykarl99 profile image

      Tracy 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you ~ I sometimes feel that my writing becomes too lengthy, but I just can't hold myself to less than about 1,100 or 1,200 words... depending on subject-matter. Thanks for the support! :)

    • hhunterr profile image

      hhunterr 6 years ago from Highway 24

      I finally hit 90+ for a hubscore, and checked yours right away. What I found is that you're hard to catch! While I struggle with longer stories, you hold yours together well, and intros are stronger too. Best of the New Year to you.

    • tracykarl99 profile image

      Tracy 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you, David. I sense a hub about Japan in you! There is a large audience for history-hubs here - I hope that you will share your knowledge!

      Enjoy The Tale of Genji ~ :)

    • profile image

      Davidwork 6 years ago

      I had not previously heard of the Tale of Genji.

      Since I was very young, I have always had an interest in the cultures of China, Korea and Japan, China for its long history, ancient art treasures and inventiveness.

      Japan has interested me for the way in which it modernised and industrialised itself after being in a time warp, almost almost closed to outsiders for several hundred years.

      In 1854, Admiral Perry took a fleet to Japan and forced it to open it's doors to the outside world, and within 50 years, Japan had leapt into the modern age.

      Japanese literature and poetry is not an aspect of the culture that I had previously looked at in depth, but your hub has certainly aroused an interest. I think I will make The Tale of Genji my first piece of Japanese literature.

    • tracykarl99 profile image

      Tracy 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks, Cheeky! I appreciate your comment:) Enigmatic is a good word to describe the Japanese culture - a poetic word, too! I'm still reading The Tale. To me it is like epic poetry; though, it is not considered such - if it were, then her piece would not be as significant in terms of being a First! Cheers to you!

    • Cheeky Girl profile image

      Cassandra Mantis 6 years ago from UK and Nerujenia

      Haunting and mind blowing too, I really loved the way you described this book and the writer. I agree, the Japanese are a bit enigmatic, but in a very nice way. Their culture is so unusual, it's hard to describe. They put a very high value on the Arts, and they truly live with art, at all levels of society. Great hub, Tracy! Cheers!

    • tracykarl99 profile image

      Tracy 7 years ago from San Francisco

      Katie - I love studying Japan, too - such a beautiful culture of amazing literature and art! Would love to one day see the Japanese gardens. They seem so peaceful and otherworldly - reading Genji takes me there! Thanks a lot:)

    • katiem2 profile image

      katiem2 7 years ago from I'm outta here

      This is a great story and one any reader would enjoy, I enjoyed a focused study on Japan and loved this book, The Tale of Genji is one good read, thanks for the reminder on such a good read. :) Katie

    • tracykarl99 profile image

      Tracy 7 years ago from San Francisco

      Haunty, This is the beauty of Murasaki's tale; her words read like poetry - so the novel can and should be lingered over! Thanks for the nice compliment:)

    • Haunty profile image

      Haunty 7 years ago from Hungary

      Thank you for this great article, Tracy. This sounds like an interesting one. Novels I like to linger over, so it may take a while. :)

    • tracykarl99 profile image

      Tracy 7 years ago from San Francisco

      Suzy, Thank you! I am glad to know that Genji is being studies and read. You are smart in taking the summer to relax and read this beautiful book. I may finish it before then - it is wonderfully long:)

      Love seeing you here!

    • profile image

      Suzy 7 years ago


      This is wonderful article. I take a class on Tuesday nights and this book came into discussion. I want to read the book this summer.

      All my best,