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Literature / The Tale of Genji
aka: Tale Of Genji

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"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?"
Chapter 40, The Law

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 is also the world's first long-running novel in the Harem Genre. Its authorship is attributed to Murasaki Shikibu, a noblewoman and lady-in-waiting of the Heian court; probably completed in the early 11th century, all tropes it provides are at least Older Than Print. While considered a Japanese and indeed worldwide classic, 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 illegitimate son of Emperor Kiritsubo of Japan, and considered too handsome for his own good. After Genji's mother dies, his father reluctantly removes him from the line of succession and demotes him to commoner status. Genji takes up a job as an imperial officer, and the story follows his sexual, personal and political exploits through the lens of Heian aristocratic 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, his son in-name-only, after a brief transitional section. The plot moves with the reckless speed of a ceremonial oxcart (i.e. about two miles an hour) but the exotic customs of the ancient and 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 supposed to learn Chinese, 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 who are named only by their ever-changing ranks and familial positions.

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


Not to be confused with Genji, which is (loosely) based on The Tale of the Heike.

Derivative works:

The Tale of Genji provides examples of:

  • All There in the Manual: It's recommended that you 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 of the Heian imperial court:
    • The style of Japanese used in the original text had a very complicated grammatical system. The language was highly antiquated even for the time period, so that it was unreadable by the next century after its writing.
    • Using personal names in the Heian court system was considered very rude, so every single man in the book is addressed by their current rank or status, while every woman is referred to by their clothing, their diction or choice of words in a previous conversation, by their place of residence, 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 used 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 know exactly what Murasaki intended to communicate.
    • The Heian court tended 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 these poems by heart, only the introductions or modified sections are spoken, leaving the rest up to the reader's imagination. (For example, the text would say, "When in Rome…" and omit the conclusion of the proverb, "…do as the Romans do.")
  • Always Someone Better: To no Chujo was envious of Genji's fame and tried to followed his actions. Nevertheless, Genji beat him as always.
  • Anti-Hero: Kaoru is considered one of the UrExamples 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.
  • Broken Bird: Many of the female characters have shades of this. The gifted Lady Akashi has an intractable inferiority complex due to being raised in the wilds of Suma by her eccentric parents. Lady Rokujo was on track to becoming empress when her husband suddenly died, leaving her a wealthy widow but with no prospects for advancement. Oborozukiyo's life is essentially ruined by her affair with Genji; she still marries the Crown Prince, but she can never love him and must live with her guilt.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: This happened occasionally. Not exactly surprising given how huge the royal family was with concubinage practiced within the court life, with a buttload of characters who don't know their actual parentage due to lots of infidelity. Most don't know they are related, however.
    • Tamakazura was pursued by To No Chujo's sons. Unbeknownst to them, she is their half-sister.
  • 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 further 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.
  • Cerebus Syndrome: Although there's still a lot of tragedy early in the novel, Genji gets into "silly" escapades as well, with the frequency of those trailing off as the story continues.
  • Cherry Blossoms: Pops up quite a bit as a seasonal descriptor and motif, making it Older Than Print. For example, To no Chujo is described as a shrub to Genji's blooming cherry, festivals at cherry blossom time appear, Genji laments that Murasaki is like a cherry blossom in that her beauty (virtue) would go unappreciated because she has no scent (she is not of noble birth), etc.
  • 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.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Murasaki toward Genji. Justified as Genji does sleep around with various women.
  • 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.
  • Cultural Translation: The elegant Arthur Waley translation is famous for doing this unusually well.
  • Damsel in Distress: In Heian literature this trope took the form of an orphaned lady living alone - except for servants - in a crumbling manor. Murasaki apparently thought this was a trope that deserved to die; her 'Princess in the Tangled Wood' is homely and socially inept, and Genji takes up with her mostly out of pity.
  • 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.
  • Decadent Court: The narrative spends paragraphs describing the decorations at a party or the elegance of someone's incense. Pretty much no space is dedicated to what work is supposedly being done with all these nobles' court appointments.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Genji succumbs to this after Murasaki dies.
  • Destructive Romance: The story of Genji's life, starting with his father's favorite wife, and continuing through a catastrophic marriage, a clingy obsessive lover whose living ghost kills another of his women in his arms, his brother's betrothed, and 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. Murasaki, his true love, has enough of his infidelity and would have become a nun had she not died before doing so.
    • Later, his son and grandson compete for the same woman; neither gets her.
  • Direct Line to the Author: There are occasional references indicating that the narrator is relating a true story to others, such as at the end of Chapter 4:
    I had passed over Genji's trials and tribulations in silence, out of respect for his determined efforts to conceal them, and I have written of them now only because certain lords and ladies criticized my story for resembling fiction, wishing to know why even those who knew Genji best should have thought him perfect, just because he was an Emperor's son. No doubt I must now beg everyone's indulgence for my effrontery in painting so wicked a portrait of him.
  • Does He Have a Brother?: Played literally and very squicky. In another chapter, after being spurned repeatedly by Utsusemi, Genji beds her younger brother (to the boy's delight), stating that he will do just as well.
  • Doorstopper: It's a very long novel. The Tyler translation clocks in at 1,120 decently large pages for the story alone, never mind the multiple glossaries.
  • Driven to Suicide: Torn apart by the love triangle she is caught in, Ukifune decides to throw herself in the river.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Genji himself dies in-between chapters. Also happens occasionally to some of his paramours.
  • The Dung Ages: Surprisingly, the Heian noble lifestyle turned out to be this. Despite how aesthetic the Heian imperial court looks, some historians point out that the living conditions would be considered unsanitary by today's standards and rival that of the Renaissance period, given that the book only mentions bathing a few times, and the characters died at a young age (including the author herself). See here for more details.
  • Empathic Environment: The climate of Heian Kyo is remarkably cooperative, producing falling leaves, sunsets, and showers as dramatically appropriate.
  • Ethical Slut: Genji may have many, many affairs with different ladies, but at least he will support any woman he chooses to pursue, even if his interest in her fades.
  • Even the Guys Want Him: A few of the male characters imagine the beautiful Genji as a woman.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Aside from a very few exceptions, such as 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 title or 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).
  • 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).
  • Exotic Extended Marriage: Polygyny isn't that unusual, but the matrilocal nature of Heian marriage is. It was perfectly normal for a young bride to go on living with her parents for years after the wedding. Ditto for mistresses and concubines. As a young man, Genji has no home at all, just a room in the palace, a standing invitation at his in-laws' place, and assorted lovers he can crash with. Eventually, he gets himself a house in the third ward where he can raise Murasaki, but it isn't until he's achieved high government office that he builds a palace large enough to house all his women and brings them to live together under his roof.
  • 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 a Heian lady's hair. The attendants of his wife use it on Prince Niou, who complains about the timing.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Unfortunately for Ukifune, what interrupts her suicide attempt is an evil spirit that possesses her.
  • Japanese Spirit: According to Genji, this is of little help when it comes to getting ahead in Heian society.
  • 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").
  • Lady-In-Waiting: Numerous. Even relatively low ranking characters like Yugao and Ukifune are surrounded by bevies of still more modestly born lady attendants.
  • 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.
    • The second half of the story is essentially Genji's downfall, as Genji not only causes his marriage to be a catastrophe, but Murasaki, whom he loves the most, is finally done putting up with his infidelity and wants to abandon him by becoming a nun.
  • 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.
    • Needless to say, Murasaki's adoption of her daughter is rather hard on Lady Akashi and gives her another reason to be jealous of Murasaki, and vice-versa. But eventually the two women bond over their common love for the little princess, and an amused Genji finds himself listening to warm praises of Akashi from her formerly jealous rival Murasaki.
  • 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.
  • Love at First Sight: Heian ladies customarily hid themselves behind screens and fans. On the rare occasion 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 Kashiwagi 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.
  • Mono no Aware: One of the most famous examples. The term was popularized by the scholar Motoori Norinaga's writings on Genji.
  • 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.
  • Nameless Narrative: Almost - very, very few members of the cast are ever given a name.
  • Never Found the Body: A funeral is held very quickly and quietly for Ukifune because no body can be found. Because she isn't dead.
  • 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 putting 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 in turn 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.
  • Prone to Tears: Everyone.
  • Questionable Consent:
    • Several of Genji's 'seductions' look a lot like rape to a 21st century 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 consummation of their relationship comes as an unpleasant shock.
    • Kashiwagi 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.
  • Really Gets Around: Pretty much everybody. Having multiple partners was completely normal behavior for both sexes, though if a woman accepted a man's protection, she was supposed to be faithful to him. To no Chujo, one of Genji's friends, is said to have fathered more than ten children from different mothers.
  • 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 Kashiwagi with another. Both marriages turn out badly.
  • Speaks in Shout-Outs: Many of the exchanges between Genji and his lovers are oblique references to poetry from Japan and China. Some of it is still known to scholars today... the rest is lost on readers.
  • 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. There are 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.
  • Tangled Family Tree: Between the men having multiple lovers, the women having affairs or being raped, the multiple generations the tale covers, and the large, interrelated cast, good luck keep tracking of who is related in what way. Family trees of the major characters pretty much require lines to hop over other lines.
  • 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.
    • A notable huge one where the story shifted 5 or 6 years from Genji's death to two of his (adopted) sons, Niou and Kaoru.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Invoked with Genji. Repeatedly.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. And the wild part is that Genji actually has his head up his ass less than the other nobles; 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.
    • Kaoru Genji, who acted as a minister of war for a time, had zero training for combat or strategy, and was described as being terrified of riding on country roads at night.
    • 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 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.note 
  • 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 700 years of nearly-uninterrupted Samurai rule (directly leading to the Kamakura Shogunate and Sengoku Period).
  • 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 in the history of Japanese Literature (and certainly one of the most well-known), Rokujo was extremely possessive towards Genji to the point that her hatred toward his other lovers manifested itself as an evil spirit, which killed one or more of them.

Alternative Title(s): Tale Of Genji