Literature: The Tale of Genji

aka: Tale Of Genji
"Alas, not for long will you see what you do now: any breath of wind may spill from a hagi frond the last trembling drop of dew."

"When all life is dew and at any touch may go, one drop then the next, how I pray that you and I may leave nearly together!"

"In this fleeting world where no dewdrop can linger in the autumn wind, why imagine us to be unlike the bending grasses?"
— "The Rites", The Tale of Genji, one of the most famous exchanges in all of Japanese literature.

The Tale of Genji (源氏物語; Genji monogatari) is, by most modern definitions, the first written novel and the first modern novel. It was written by a woman known as Murasaki Shikibu, a noblewoman and lady-in-waiting in the Heian courts; as it was written in the early 11th century, all tropes in it are necessarily Older Than Print at least. While considered a classic of literature, its influence on both Western and Eastern culture and literature are still not clearly defined and hotly debated.

Hikaru Genji (literally "Shining One of the Minamoto Clan") is the son of the Emperor of Japan in the Heian Period (11th Century) and is considered too handsome for his own good. Genji's father, the Emperor, removes Genji from the line of succession and demotes him to a commoner. Genji takes up a job as an imperial officer, and the story follows his sexual and personal exploits through the lens of the Heian aristocractic society.

The novel has two formal sections: Genji's birth, rise and fall are documented in chapters 1-41; while chapters 45-54 follow Kaoru, Kenji's in-name-only son, after a brief transitional section (chapters 42-44.) The plot moves with the reckless speed of a ceremonial oxcart (ie: about two miles an hour) but the exotic customs of the unfamiliar Heian world hold the reader's attention - when they aren't wincing in disbelief at Genji's hijinks. In fact, since the book was written at a time when women weren't allowed to use kanji, and within a court system where using names was considered rude, many copies of the book (including Japanese printings) are highly annotated, to keep track of the 400 or so characters that are named only by their ever-changing ranks and familial positions.

Note that despite sharing a name with the author, Princess Murasaki is not an Author Avatar. During the Heian era, all of the court ladies were Only Known by Their Nickname. The author's diary indicates that she was known at court first as Shikibu and later as Murasaki, after her own character.

Not to be confused with Genji, which is (loosely) based on the Tale of the Heike. See also Genji Monogatari Sennenki, a historical shōjo retelling of the story by Waki Yamato, and Minamoto Kun Monogatari, a more comedic and sexier modern-day retelling by Inaba Minori.

Includes examples of:

  • All There in the Manual: It's highly recommended to read an annotated copy of this book for several reasons, most of which stem from the book being written by a lady-in-waiting for her fellow women in the Heian court system:
    • The Heian period court Japanese used in the original text had a very complicated grammatical system. The writing was highly archaising even within the time period, so that it was unreadable in the next century after its writing.
    • Naming people in the Heian court system was considered very rude, so every single man in the book is addressed by their rank or status, while every single woman is referred to by their clothing, their diction or choice of words in a previous conversation, or by the rank of a prominent male relative. Many characters get different nicknames over the course of the book. Some modern translations give all characters names to ease some of the difficulty in reading the book, even if fixed names don't make sense in some situations.
    • The book was written entirely in kana (hiragana and katakana), as kanji were considered a male pursuit at the time, so women only wrote with kanji in private or in secret. By using kana, a lot of Japanese homophones are very difficult to decipher. Some aren't given enough context to decipher what Murasaki intended.
    • It was expected in Heian court life to use modified or rephrased poems to engage in tactful conversation — speaking frankly was considered very rude. As Murasaki's audience was expected to already know the poems, only the introductions or modified sections are spoken, leaving the rest up to the reader. (For example, the text would say, "When in Rome…" and omit the conclusion of the proverb, "…do as the Romans do.")
  • Anti-Hero: Kaoru is considered one of the Ur Examples of this.
  • Arranged Marriage: A very common custom at the time. Genji marries Princess Aoi shortly after his coming of age due to the high rank of the princess and the relations that his father wanted to build for him.
  • Author Avatar: Averted. You'd think that Murasaki Shikibu adding a woman to her narrative who also happens to be called Murasaki would be this - but in fact it's the other way around.
  • Bishōnen: Genji is a prime example, according to the frequent and detailed descriptions of him. Occasional comments are made that, with his beauty, he should have been born a woman.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Actually a cultural artifact of the time: frank, direct language was typically considered rude. Most casual conversations between nobles, especially for romantic purposes, were made via allusion, metaphor, and circumlocution, typically via poetry. Genji takes this a bit farther during his more Jerkass moments.
    • An inability to speak openly and frankly to others is responsible for a lot of plot complications.
  • The Casanova: Even by the standards of the time, Genji's exploits are notorious.
  • Chivalrous Pervert: Genji again. Once he takes up with a woman he continues to support and protect her even after he's lost all interest in her sexually - as the Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers and the homely Princess Safflower, among others, can attest.
  • Costume Porn: Most of the detailed descriptions of costumes are cut by modern translators, but they were fully justified when written, because choice of costume told Murasaki's contemporaries all kinds of things about a character.
  • Decadent Court: Oh yeah!
  • Death by Sex: Or possibly an aneurysm, but this didn't stop Genji from thinking that he caused this to a couple of the women he has sex with.
  • A Death in the Limelight: Several characters receive more character development and sympathy just before they die or leave the narrative.
  • Destructive Romance: The story of Genji's life starting with his father's favorite wife continuing through a catastrophic marriage; clingy obsessive lover whose living ghost kills another of his women in his arms; his brother's betrothed; later that same brother's daughter in another disastrous marriage... The guy cannot get a break!
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Believe it or not, Genji cannot have every woman he wants. A cousin of his, Princess Asagao, refuses to give him the time of day. Later his son and grandson compete for the same woman, neither gets her.
  • Does He Have a Brother?: Played literally and very squicky.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Genji himself dies in-between chapters. Also happens occasionally to some of his paramours.
  • Empathic Environment: The climate of Heian Kyo is remarkably cooperative producing falling leaves, sunsets and showers as dramatically appropriate.
  • Even the Guys Want Him: A few of the male characters imagine the beautiful Genji as a woman.
  • Everyone Is Bi: Several male characters are known to burst into tears upon seeing Genji, and Genji himself doesn't let a little thing like gender get in the way of his romantic pursuits.
    • Of course, it should be noted that, at the time, attraction and love affairs between males - particularly if one or both of said males were physically attractive, as bishounen Genji was - were not especially scandalous, or even more noteworthy than a heterosexual affair (so long as certain social conventions were followed, like the requirement that the "passive" partner be a child or adolescent).
  • Everyone Calls Him Barkeep: Aside from Genji's friend and retainer Koremitsu, pretty much every single character - including the protagonist - is referred to only by their title, rank, place of residence, or by nickname. And there are multiple retirements, promotions, and moves between houses in the book, meaning that the same name is sometimes used for several characters. Some modern editions have given the characters actual names, instead of annotating the work.
    • Also, the sources of nicknames could be pretty tenuous. Genji's first wife, Aoi, is only known by that name because the chapter in which she features most prominently includes a poem written by someone else entirely, and having nothing to do with her, which mentions the aoi plant.
    • The reason for all this is that in Heian society, it was extremely rude to use people's personal names, and thus people were customarily addressed by their social function or familial connections. Incidentally, this same reason means we don't actually know Murasaki Shikibu's real name; she's known by the name of one of her most famous characters (Murasaki) and her father's rank (Shikibu).
  • The Four Gods: At one point Genji and his four wives and concubines settle down in four houses arranged at the cardinal directions.
  • Harem Seeker: Genji.
  • I Have to Wash My Hair: A very good excuse not to receive one's lover or husband, given the length of an Heian Lady's hair. The attendants of his wife use it on Prince Niou who complains about the timing.
  • Is That What They're Calling It Now?: If we are to take Murasaki literally, her heroes and heroines spend their nights together in 'conversation'.
  • The Jeeves: Koremitsu, Genji's manservant, who usually ends up cleaning up Genji's various messes.
  • Killed Offscreen Genji's death is marked by a blank chapter, bearing only the name "Vanished Into the Clouds" (雲隠; "Kumogakure".)
  • Laser-Guided Karma: And how! Genji begets the Emperor Reizei on his own father's wife. Decades later Genji's own young wife bears another man's son. To Genji's credit he figures it's no more than he deserves and accepts the boy as his own.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Poor, poor Murasaki. Her Yamato Nadeshiko chops are sorely tested on this one. This is part of the reason why she is willing to raise Genji's daughter by the Akashi Lady as her own, since it's the closest she'll ever come to having kids. She does an excellent job raising her, too, to the point where she eventually becomes Empress.
  • Likes Older Women: Surprisingly, Genji. Most of his early loves are several years older than him, though that might be expected, since he started his philandering at around 14.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: There are roughly 400 named characters. Again, every character is only known by their rank, clothing colour or nickname, and all of them change over the course of the story.
  • Love at First Sight: Heian ladies customarily hid themselves behind screens and fans. On the rare occcasion that a man does manage to get a glimpse of one of the women, the effect was instant devastation and caused lots of plot complications. In some extreme cases, the sight of her calligraphy alone was enough to do the job.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Two major characters have a paternal reveal, in both cases second hand: Emperor Reizei discovers from an old priest that he is the product of an incestuous affair between Genji and Fujitsubo. And Kaoru's true paternity is revealed by letters from his real father Kashiawagi to his mother Nyosan.
  • Male Gaze: Extremely frustrated (see above). Male characters spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get a really good look at various ladies. Even when they succeed, all they can see is her face and maybe her hands.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Although it likely wasn't intentional on her part, Lady Rokujo's wandering spirit kills both Yugao and later Genji's wife Aoi.
  • No Ending: The final chapter is more a quiet fade-out than a real resolution of anything. The tale ends mid-sentence, with Kaoru wondering whether his best friend Niou is hiding a woman Kaoru loves from him. There is no record of whether this was intentional, or whether further chapters were lost or simply not yet written by Murasaki.
  • Not Staying for Breakfast: Very much ritualized in Heian society, meaning that actually staying for breakfast was frowned upon. A man was expected to make a quick and elegant exit after an amorous evening.
    • 'Staying for breakfast' in fact indicated a desire and intention on the gentleman's part of puting the relationship on a formal and official footing. This development was not always welcome to the lady, for all kinds of reasons.
  • Oedipus Complex: It's implied that several of the women Genji admires remind him of his late mother, and this doesn't go without comment from the other characters. Also, his first lover is one of his father's concubines.
    • A concubine who was chosen specifically because she reminded everyone - the Emperor, Genji's father, included - of Genji's late mother.
    • This even initially applies to Murasaki herself as she first came to Genji's attention because of her striking resemblance to Fujitsubo, the aforementioned concubine he's so obsessed with who reminds everyone of Genji's late mother.
  • The Ojou: Most of the female characters fit this in some form or another, being noblewomen in the imperial court at Kyoto.
  • Out, Damned Spot!: After her wandering spirit kills Genji's wife Aoi, Lady Rokujo can smell poppy seeds on her clothing (traditionally used to quell spirits) and she repeatedly tries washing her hair and clothing to get the scent out, to no avail.
  • Polyamory: For a time, Genji and his four women live peacefully together.
  • Questionable Consent: Several of Genji's 'seductions' look a lot like rape to modern reader, most notably with Utsusemi, with Fujitsubo and with Murasaki herself. The last knows perfectly well she's to marry Genji when she grows up but apparently nobody has explained to her what that entails hence the consumation of their relationship comes as an unpleasant shock.
    • Kashiawagi rapes Nyosan - maybe. Her inexperience and tsundere tendencies complicate the issue.
    • Niou definitely rapes Ukifune, who thinks she's welcoming her accepted lover Kaoru to her bed. But the day after Ukifune finds herself falling for Niou who is a lot less complicated and more positive character than Kaoru.
  • Rapunzel Hair: The norm in Heian Japan where a lady's hair was ideally deep black, perfectly straight and as long as she was.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Fujitsubo was meant to be a Replacement Goldfish for Genji's dead mother. She ends up becoming Genji's first love and Genji ends up raising Murasaki so he can have a Replacement Goldfish for Fujitsubo.
  • Shipper on Deck: Retired Emperor Suzaku ships Genji with his favorite daughter and Kashiawagi with another. Both marriages turn out badly.
  • Shotacon:
    • In a fairly famous passage, Genji, having been rejected by a lady he is pursuing, takes her young (12-13 year old) brother to bed with him. It's not clear whether this scene is supposed to imply sleeps with or "sleeps with", so it may or may not count.
    • If we take into account that Genji himself was in his early teens when he started sleeping around, then Lady Rokujo and Yugao probably count as well.
  • Stalking Is Love: Peeking, prying and outright home invasion seem to be standard male courting behavior.
  • Standard Royal Court: The Imperial Court of Heian Kyo is a crowded place; in addition to the ruling Emperor there are usually two or more ex-Emperors hanging about, each with his Empress and harem. Princes and princesses galore and innumerable rival noble families all jockeying for position and power. However, as a rule the characters are kept so busy managing their complex love lives that one wonders who - if anybody - is actually running the country.
  • Take That: Several characters are based off of people Shikibu knew in her real life, including a reference to Sei Shonagon, a rival woman poet in the court.
  • Tears of Blood: A popular poetic trope of the time, referenced in several poems with regards to emotional upheaval on the part of the characters.
  • Tender Tears: Everybody in Genji's world sheds gallons of tears over mono no aware, the sadness of things.
  • Time Skip: Many. As one example, there are about five years of Genji's life when he was 12 through to 17 that we're told little of - indeed, about the only thing we are told of is that he at least tried to have an affair with his first cousin.
  • Tsundere: Several of the ladies in Genji's life, most notably Utsusemi who makes both him and herself a little bit crazy with all the back and forthing.
  • Triang Relations: Ukifune is stuck in one of these with Kaoru and Niou and it is all Niou's fault. Unfortunately she just knows she's the one who will be blamed when it all comes out.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Nearly everyone in the story, to great degrees of "Upper Class" and "Twit". Genji says some very dumb things, faints at the drop of a hat (literally), and is totally clueless about how the real world works in many ways. Nevertheless, he's willing to ignore social class in the name of love (The Lady of the Evening Faces), and royal propriety in the name of emergency (when he calls for help after finding one of his paramours wounded or dead in bed beside him)—far more than most of his contemporaries would. His liberalism eventually sees him expelled from the court for a period of time.
    • This sort of behaviour was very much truth in television. The nobles of the Heian Court at Kyoto were known for being extraordinarily useless (even by the low standards set by the various aristocracies around the world), almost all of their time was taken up by amusements and tedious religious rituals. And when they do betake themselves to writing laws and governing, they end up frittering away their time navigating a mind-boggling maze of red tape, all to produce a decree on dictating exactly what hat a particular class of nobleman is allowed to wear in court. In fact, the utter cluelessness of the Imperial household and the bureaucrats who served them, and their willingness to outsource their leadership tasks to hired warriors ("Samurai") whom they despised eventually led to the overthrow and downfall of the Heian court depicted in the Tale of Genji. An early Samurai actually appears in one chapter and is roundly mocked and despised for his lack of taste; it was actually a chapter frequently censored because the genteel courtiers couldn't stand even reading a description of such an uncouth person.
      • Genji is physically sickened by the appearance of the father of one of his many lovers, who was the governor of one of the rural provinces. His disfigurement? Tanned skin.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: How much of what happened in the book is true is unknown, but there was a real Genji who may have even read parts of the novel while it was being written.
  • While Rome Burns: While you don't actually see it, this was actually what the Heian court was doing. While Genji is off pursuing his intricate love lives, banditry and warlordism were wracking Japan, and would eventually lead to the Age of the Country at War.
  • Wife Husbandry: Early in the story, Genji and some of his friends discuss the difficulty of finding the perfect woman, and conclude that perhaps the best thing to do is to raise her yourself. This is exactly what Genji later does with Murasaki. This example is so famous that it spawned the term Hikaru Genji Plan, which was formerly used as the trope name for Wife Husbandry.
  • Yamato Nadeshiko: Murasaki can't keep Genji in line (at all), but nevertheless, she is still the "perfect" woman, center of the Imperial household, and Genji's one true love. To the point where, when she dies, he follows in grief shortly thereafter.
  • Yandere: Lady Rokujo, one of Genji's older lovers. Said to be one of the first (and certainly one of the most well-known), Rokujo was extremely possessive towards Genji to the point that her hatred to other of his lovers manifested itself as an evil spirit which killed one or more of them.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Basically every male character and several of the female ones. Given that both polygyny and polyamory are socially acceptable you wouldn't expect this to cause the amount of heartache it does.

Derivative works:


Alternative Title(s):

The Tale Of Genji, Tale Of Genji