The Tale of Genji (源氏物語)

Hey everyone! Do all of you know what the oldest novel in the world is? Well, what do you think? Alright, if you can’t answer this, then do you know from where is the oldest novel in the world? Well? England? France? Arabia? Persia (Iran)? China? What do you think?

Well, I guess you may have known the answer from the title above. Little do many actually know that the oldest existing novel in the world is actually from Japan, entitled “The Tale of Genji” (源氏物語, Genji Monogatari).

The Heian Period (平安時代) of Japan (794 – 1185 A.D.) literally means “The Peaceful Period” in Japanese. As its name suggests, it was the period in imperial Japan when there was absolute peace throughout the islands of Japan. During this period, Heian-kyo (平安京), or presently known as Kyoto (京都), was made the capital of Japan.

Before you continue reading on The Tale of Genji, let us first find out a little bit more about the Heian Period. The Heian Period is considered by many Japanese throughout history as the period in which the Japanese culture was at its highest peak. During this era, the Japanese emperor was mainly a figurehead while the actual power of administration was in the hands of the Fujiwara clan (藤原氏). The Heian Period saw a great influx of Chinese culture, arts and literature from China into Japan, whereby Confucianism, Chinese poetry, fairy tales and memoirs dominated Japanese culture. Due to Chinese influences, Japanese culture made great advancements in terms of literature, arts, administration and philosophy. Hence, Japan was said to have reached its zenith in imperial culture during the Heian Period.

Heian Period society of Japan

It was said that the aristocratic people of the Heian Period who lived in the imperial court hardly had much to do. The emperor was the centre of their lives and they hardly had anything else to occupy their lives with. As such, their leisure time (which covers almost their whole lifetime) is mostly occupied with music, literature, clothing, calligraphy and appreciation of nature’s beauty. Beyond the confines of the imperial palace and Kyoto itself, they knew very little of the outside world. In fact, they did not care much about the outside world and mainly confined themselves within the imperial family and the aristocratic families associated with it. The only times when they ever came out of this confinement was when they went for occasional visits to the various Japanese provinces and during religious pilgrimages to Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.

Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部)

The Tale of Genji was written by Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部), sometimes also known as Lady Murasaki in English. She was an honourable lady-in-waiting in the Heian imperial court who wrote lots of poetry and Japanese literary works during her leisure, the most famous being The Tale of Genji. Murasaki Shikibu wrote this novel somewhere between the years 1000 to 1008, which later became a favourite amongst many in the imperial court, especially ladies. Having nothing much else to pass their time with, Lady Murasaki wrote this novel to entertain the ladies in the imperial court. The popularity of the novel amongst imperial Japanese ladies was proven by an entry in a memoir entitled “As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams” (更級日記, Sarashina Nikki) by Lady Sarashina (更級) as she was commonly known. Lady Sarashina, who was born in 1008, wrote an entry in this memoir about her great happiness and satisfaction upon receiving a complete copy of The Tale of Genji.

An imperial Japanese palace built during the Heian Period

Now, why did The Tale of Genji capture the attention of imperial Japanese ladies more than men? No, not because it was written by a lady, if that’s what some of you are thinking. During the Heian Period, ladies were supposed to be seen only by two men in their entire lives – their father and their husband. Most of their lives were spent hidden in rooms behind veils. The only times when they ever get to escape from this boredom at home is when they went for pilgrimages to Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples. Even so, they had to ride in carriages which were fully covered, except for a small slit for them to peek out of. The only way for them to escape from this sort of boredom was to serve as ladies-in-waiting in the imperial court, where they could mingle around more with gentlemen in the court.

Think about it…being imprisoned at home the whole day, getting to see only your father and husband, getting to go out of house only once in a while, and even so in a covered carriage…how would you feel if it were you? No hope, no meaning? Yes, that was exactly what Heian ladies felt. So, when such ladies stepped into the imperial court, ready to serve as ladies-in-waiting, and they found out about this story called “The Tale of Genji”, how do you think they would feel? A story filled with romance, adventure, travel and a hero so perfect beyond their wildest fantasies – it was better than anything they could ask for, so they thought. Hence, The Tale of Genji gained widespread popularity amongst many ladies in the imperial court. In fact, Lady Sarashina, whom I mentioned before this, wrote in her memoirs that she frequently dreamed of living a life of romance as described in the novel. She admitted that she was frequently addicted to tales and lived in her own world of fantasy.

Clothing worn by Japanese ladies during the Heian Period

The Tale of Genji has 54 chapters, in which its English translation has over 1000 pages. The original version of this novel, as written by Lady Murasaki herself, had no specific names of characters used. They were referred to with their roles, titles or relation to other characters, for example Minister of the Left, His Excellency or Heir Apparent. This was because the Heian court society considered it rude to name people freely. However, the modern versions of this novel have been adapted to include specific names for characters to make reading easier.

A doll of Hikaru Genji (光源氏)

The novel revolves around the romantic life of Hikaru Genji (光源氏) or the “Shining Genji”, the son of a Japanese emperor. He is exquisitely described as a fine-looking and charming gentleman, in which descriptions used in the novel to depict his good looks captivated the hearts of many Heian ladies. Genji was the son of a low-ranking concubine called Lady Kiritsubo (桐壺), who died when Genji was three years old. The Emperor could not forget her, but later when he met Lady Fujitsubo (藤壺) who resembled the concubine, he took her as one of his wives. Genji first loved her as his stepmother, but later on the both of them developed mutual love feelings as a couple. He was unhappy, as this sort of love was forbidden and, on top of that, he was not on good terms with his wife, Lady Aoi (葵の上, Aoi no Ue).

One day, Genji made a visit to Kitayama (北山), the northern mountainous region of Kyoto. There, he found a pretty ten-year-old girl named Murasaki (紫) and he was interested in the girl. Genji took the girl to his palace and raised her to be like Lady Fujitsubo, his ideal lady. Meanwhile, Genji had been meeting secretly with Lady Fujitsubo and had an affair with her. She then gave birth to a son, whom everyone thought was fathered by the Emperor. The son was then made the Crown Prince, while Lady Fujitsubo was made the Empress.

A picture depicting Hikaru Genji and Murasaki ()

Genji then reconciled with his wife, Lady Aoi and she gave birth to a son. Shortly after that, she died, leaving Genji in grief. He later married Murasaki, but at that time, his father, the Emperor, died as well. Genji’s half-brother, Suzaku (朱雀), was then made the new Emperor. However, another one of Genji’s love affairs was exposed when he was discovered meeting in secret with one of Emperor Suzaku’s concubines. Emperor Suzaku then punished Genji, whereby the latter was exiled to Suma (須磨), which is now within the city of Kobe (神戸) in Hyogo Prefecture (兵庫県). There, Genji met a rich man from Akashi (明石). Genji had an affair with Akashi’s daughter, who then gave birth to a daughter. Genji’s daughter later became the Empress.

A picture depicting Hikaru Genji and the daughter of the rich man from Akashi (明石)

Back in Kyoto, Emperor Suzaku was disturbed by dreams of his late father and his eyes grew weaker as well. He then pardoned Genji and allowed him to return to Kyoto. Later, Genji’s son by Lady Fujitsubo became the Emperor. The new Emperor Reizei knew that Genji was his real father, thus he promoted Genji to the highest position possible in the imperial court.

When Genji turned 40, his love and emotional life was slowly damaged. He married another wife, which damaged his relationship with Murasaki. Murasaki then decided to become a nun. Later, Murasaki died, leaving Genji very upset. He later died as well.

The remaining chapters differ from the chapters before, as they no longer revolve around Genji. These chapters now revolve around Niou and Kaoru, two best friends. Niou was the son of Genji’s daughter who became the Empress after Emperor Reizei relinquished the throne. This Empress was the daughter of Akashi’s daughter. Kaoru was the son of Genji’s nephew. Both Niou and Kaoru were fighting over some daughters of a prince living in Uji (宇治), a place away from Kyoto. The novel ends suddenly, with Kaoru wondering if the lady he loved had been hidden away by Niou. Hence, the novel is frequently said to be incomplete, as it ends so suddenly in mid-sentence.

To read the original version of The Tale of Genji is rather difficult, even for many Japanese readers nowadays. This is because the original version of the novel was written in classical Japanese, which included complex grammar and vocabulary very different from modern Japanese. Furthermore, the novel included poetic language in classical Japanese as well, making it even more difficult to understand the story fully. However, some parts of the original version of the novel, written in classical Japanese, are studied and read by high-school students in Japan during their Japanese Language classes.

The Japanese 2000 yen banknote depicting the original script of The Tale of Genji on the left side and Murasaki Shikibu on the right bottom corner

The Tale of Genji is said to be one of the most prominent and great works in Japanese literature. In fact, the first Japanese to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, Yasunari Kawabata (川端 康成), once remarked:

“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 Tale of Genji has been adapted into a manga, which was first published from 1980 to 1993. This manga, entitled “The Tale of Genji” (あさきゆめみし – 源氏物語, Asakiyumemishi: Genji Monogatari), follows nearly the same plot as the original version of the novel, with some modern adaptations. Published by Kodansha (講談社), this manga, which covers 13 volumes, was written and drawn by Waki Yamato (大和 和紀).

The manga "Asakiyumemishi: Genji Monogatari" (あさきゆめみし – 源氏物語)

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