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Invitation to World Literature

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The Poetic Loves of a Shining Prince

A thousand years ago, a Japanese woman began writing a story that was not quite fiction, not quite non-fiction, telling the story of the world of the Japanese imperial court but creating its own world, too—the world of Genji.

The Tale of Genji is the story of the royal and noble classes of medieval Japan; the small yet intriguing world they lived in, where protocol is everything, and everyone's loves, thoughts, and actions are dictated by social standing and social consciousness. Yet we can relate to the characters, people who are so very different from us, whose society is so strange to our understanding, because their humanity comes through. You could compare this world of Genji to that of Jane Austen: a small world focused on the upper class, where manners and decorum make or break people; a world very different from our own, whose principles we might disagree with, but in the end we relate to the characters in Pride and Prejudice or Emma because their humanity comes through so powerfully, and connects with our own.

Liza Dalby

Liza Dalby
Author and Anthropologist:

"Probably one of the most famous motifs in The Tale of Genji is the ephemeral cherry blossoms and how they scatter and thus it is with relationships. Thus it is with our life. You know that things don't last. And concurrently with that, is the idea that things are beautiful precisely because they don't last."

Expand each section to read more.

CE 794-1185 The Heian Period begins in Japan; a time of peace and flourishing cultural activity.
973 Murasaki Shikibu is born.
1001-1013 Approximate timespan during which Murasaki writes The Tale of Genji.
1185 The Heian period ends.

Murasaki Shikibu is the author of The Tale of Genji, but that's not her real name. Like the characters in her novel, the author is known by a title rather than a proper name. Her name was not recorded when she was born in 973 CE in Japan to a minor branch of the powerful Fujiwara clan, which effectively ruled Japan at the time. Her nickname "Murasaki Shikibu" may come from the name of the heroine of The Tale of Genji (Murasaki) and a government post her father held (Shikibu—"Bureau of Ceremonial"). This pen name would not have bothered the author, because in her world people were more often addressed by a title than a personal name.

The story of Genji is full of adventure, poetry, and ritual. He is the son of the Emperor by one of his lower-ranking wives; as such, Genji cannot be made the heir-apparent because that would require him to take the place of the son of a much higher-ranking royal wife. Widely known to be a son of the emperor, and endowed with exceptional abilities and beauty, Genji is a mixture of the royal and the non-royal.

Many of the events in Genji's life seem to be driven by women. What can we make of Genji's many exploits in ladies' bedrooms? Genji the literary character can do things that a real nobleman could not. Throughout the novel, Genji himself remains the perfect gentleman, taking liberties with women that are pardonable only because of his status and his personal beauty, manners, and integrity. His flings are always carried off beautifully, and even respectfully—he never loves and leaves anyone.

His mixture of boldness and sensitivity is what made Genji so irresistible to Japanese readers, who granted him pardon for his exploits because he performed them so thoughtfully and expressed his passion so well. Modern readers might think twice about the main love relationship of the novel, between Genji and Murasaki. He meets her when she is just ten years old and falls in love with her, basically kidnapping her to be raised in his household until she is old enough to marry. A man marrying a much younger woman was a common motif in all world literature until the late nineteenth century, and should not be seen as perverted or tragic in the context of this novel.

The Tale of Genji was written by a Japanese woman in the eleventh century CE; that means it was written in phonetic Japanese. Why? Because at that time, important writing was the realm of men, who were supposed to write in Chinese. Women were not supposed to learn Chinese, let alone write in it; the genre of "serious" writing was poetry, so Murasaki would have written her novel in Japanese. Just as Journey to the West was considered low-brow hack writing in sixteenth century China, so too prose romances were thought of as entertainment rather than serious art, fit only for women to write or read or listen to. Murasaki, however, went far beyond the conventions of the romances of her day, infusing her tale with a new poetic depth and seriousness, and giving her characters unprecedented life and complexity.

The poems in the novel are prime examples of indirect speech; in a poem, you could bare the soul in oblique patterns of imagery and allusion, conveying to an astute reader exactly what you were thinking and feeling and wanting to do. There are 795 poems in the novel, and they were a chance for the author as well as her characters to shine and show their breeding, education, and good taste. The Akashi Lady is the best poet in the novel; it is fitting that her daughter by Genji will become Empress.

The Akashi Lady
Daughter of an official in Akashi with whom Genji has an affair during his exile in Suma; she bears him a daughter who becomes Empress.
Aoi
Genji's first wife, given to him when she was twelve; she is a daughter of the Minister of the Left, one of the most powerful officials at court.
Fujitsubo
A woman the Emperor takes as his official consort because of her resemblance to Kiritsubo; she becomes a foster mother, then a lover, to Genji, bearing his son, who becomes the Emperor Reizei.
Genji
Genji, or Minamoto, roughly translated means "someone of royal descent treated as a commoner." But the epithet Hikaru Genji, by which he becomes known, means "the shining prince." He is the son of the Emperor and Kiritsubo.
Kiritsubo
Genji's mother, the Emperor's true love, is of the lower ranks of court, and dies when Genji is only three.
Kokiden
The Emperor's principal wife, Genji's stepmother, who fears Genji's power. Her son is the Crown Prince.
Kumoi nokari
To no Chujo's daughter, who wants to marry her cousin, Genji's son Yugiri; eventually they do marry.
Murasaki
Genji's second wife, whom he meets when she is 10; she is Fujitsubo's niece. Murasaki is Genji's true love, the most refined of all the women in his life. She dies tragically young.
Nyosan
Daughter of the retired Emperor Suzaku, who becomes Genji's third wife when the Emperor asks him to marry her. She has an affair with Kashiwagi, who dies, and then gives birth to his son and becomes a nun.
Oborozukiyo
A younger sister of Kokiden, who has an affair with Genji and bears him a son.
The Reizei Emperor
Genji's secret son with Fujitsubo.
The Rokujo Lady
A mistress of Genji's whom he stops seeing; enraged by jealousy of his other lovers, she sends her spirit out to kill Yugao and Aoi, and attack Murasaki. When she dies, Genji still agrees to raise her daughter.
To no Chujo
Aoi's brother, with whom Genji is very close.
Yugao
Formerly To no Chujo's lover, she becomes Genji's when To no Chujo abandons her, but she is almost immediately killed by the vengeful spirit of the Rokujo Lady. Genji raises her daughter Tamakazura, whom she had with To no Chujo.
Yugiri
Son and only child of Genji and Aoi.