Read Japanese Literature

The Tale of Genji

October 06, 2021 Alison Fincher Season 1 Episode 2
Read Japanese Literature
The Tale of Genji
Show Notes Transcript

The world's oldest novel. A hero who is a paragon of beauty with an extreme Oedipus complex.

(CW: sex, rape, incest, pedophilia.)

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This is Read Japanese Literature. My name is Alison Fincher.


  • 15-20 minute episodes, bite-sized chunks of history of Japan, history of Japanese fiction and some of its most famous works
  • We’re going to start with some of the oldest works written in Japanese. All the works we discuss are available in translation, so you can read along if you want.
  • Today we’re talking about important Japanese classic, The Tale of Genji
    • The world’s oldest novel
    • A hero who is a paragon of beauty with an extreme Oedipus Complex
    • A brief content warning:
      • Genji's sexual activities are partially a reflection of the looser sexual taboos of the novel’s time and culture
      • They also include lots of behavior that was scandalous even at the time.
      • The story contains incest, rape, pedophilia, and several combinations of them.


  • I want to tell you today the story of the author of The Tale of Genji, a woman named Murasaki Shikibu
    • First, we have to start by going backward just a little to the Yamato Period we talked about during a previous episode: -300-710 CE, right up to the writing of The Kojiki
  • Beginning of the Yamato Period also marks Japan’s first diplomatic contact with China in the late 300s
    • Chinese historians call Japanese “Eastern Barbarians”; their accounts are the earliest written records about Japan
      • The Chinese weren’t particularly impressed by Japan
        • History of the Kingdom of Wei (ca. 297 CE)
  • “People live on raw vegetables and go about barefooted”
  • Japanese were much more impressed by Chinese culture, system of governance; hard to overstate the culture cachet China held in Japan during the Yamato Period
    • Caveat: A bit controversial, but most likely these cultural imports actually came to Japan via Korea, which was dominated by China at the time
    • Three big new ideas: 
      • Confucianism
      • Daoism
      • Most importantly: Buddhism
  • Buddhism originated in India, moved along the Silk Roads to China by the 200s
    • → Korea by the 300s
    • → Japan by the 500s, hundreds of years before the writing of The Tale of Genji
      • Buddhism became the religion of the imperial court by the end of the Yamato period, during the Nara Period that followed
      • When Murasaki Shikibu, Buddhism was an important religious, cultural, political, and even military force in Japan
  • For centuries, some readers of The Tale of Genji have read it as a Buddhist text:
    • Core conflict of Genji is a core tenant of Buddhism
      • Life is suffering; suffering comes from unmet desires
    • Quotes from Buddhist sutras or religious texts
    • Characters denounce the secular world around them as a “degenerate age” and become monks or nuns
    • Characters explain the strength of their ties to each other as connections from previous lives in the Buddhist conception of rebirth
  • Even if it isn’t a parable, Genji’s most laudable trait is his mono no aware—his capacity to be moved by beauty OR his awareness of impermanence
    • Trait is strongly influenced by Buddhist notion that the things of this world don’t last
    • The most famous example in modern Japanese culture is the love of cherry blossoms
      • Hanami cherry blossom viewing parties
      • Cherry trees aren’t more beautiful than other trees
        • Their lovely blossoms fall after only a week or so; remind us that beauty is ephemeral
  • (conclusion) Mono no Aware is a Buddist awareness that pervades The Tale of Genji

  • Murasaki’s work The Tale of Genji is the seminal literary work of Heian Japan, which lasts from 794-1185 CE
    • The age of Charlemagne and the Vikings, the Abbasid Caliphate, Ancestral Puebloan Peoples, the construction of a citadel at the city of Great Zimbabwe
    • Some people consider the Heian Period Japan’s Golden Age:
      • Meanwhile, politics in China became chaotic; Japan lost diplomatic ties, but classical Chinese culture remained the touchstone for high culture in Heian Japan
        • At the same time, Japanese high culture was “coming into itself”
          • Emergence of monogatari—prose narratives
            • Also age of great diarists
        • Physical beauty was also a sign of goodness
          • Very important in Genji where his beauty and refinement are what make Genji the Shining Prince NOT MORAL VIRTUE
    • A very classed society; we only really know what was going on amongst the upper class
      • Nobles—remember they only numbered a few thousand—were expected to be highly educated
        • Remember mono no aware, the awareness of fleeting beauty
        • Extemporaneous poetry composition was a part of court life
        • Calligraphy was supposed to reflect the status of a person’s soul
    • Marriage and sexual norms might be surprising
      • Women’s roles were extremely proscribed/limited
        • Sat behind screens when in the company of men
        • Didn’t have to do housework or child rearing
        • Boredom was a significant challenge—part of the reason reading and writing were popular pastimes
        • But, as opposed to European culture, virginity wasn’t particularly valued; fidelity wasn’t that important
      • Married women often remained with their parents instead of moving into their husband’s homes
        • Their husbands occasionally visited them
        • Sometimes other men visited them; affairs weren’t really scandalous if they were handled with propriety
          • With people of the appropriate social rank
        • Men could be openly polygamous
        • Affairs provided much of the spice in what could otherwise be a very boring lifestyle
  • So this is the setting and cultural context of Murasaki Shikibu’s novel


  • What do we know about Murasaki Shikibu?
    • Not a lot
      • “Murasaki is a pen name; some scholars have educated guesses about her real identity
      • “Shikibu” is a court title
    • From her diary, we know she was born into a minor noble family in the 970s; probably lived to her early 40s
      • Became well-known among her contemporaries as a poet and author
      • After she was widowed, she became lady-in-waiting at the imperial court in recognition of her artistic achievements
    • Unusually educated for a woman
      • Men mostly wrote in the Chinese language; women weren’t taught Chinese because men thought they weren’t intelligent enough and it was a waste of time
        • Murasaki learned Chinese by eavesdropping on her brothers’ Chinese lessons
          • Her father: “Just my luck. What a pity she was not born a man.”
    • Murasaki also had one of history’s more interesting literary rivalries with a contemporary writer, Sei Shounagon, best known for her diary The Pillow Book
      • The imperial court actively encouraged this rivalry; a kind of tabloid gossip-mongering for an earlier age
      • Murasaki wrote Sei Shounagon was “dreadfully conceited. She thought herself so clever, littered her writing with Chinese characters” which “left a great deal to be desired”
        • Murasaki herself pretended she couldn’t read Chinese
    • Murasaki claims that other people found her “pretentious, awkward, difficult to approach, prickly, to found of her tales, haught, prone to versifying, disdainful, cantankerous, scornful”
  • According to legend, Murasaki began writing The Tale of Genji on an August night while gazing at the moon; its composition consumed at least 12 years of her life

  • The Tale of Genji is a LONG narrative
    • 1300+ pages in English translation; audiobook is more than 70 hours
  • An ambitious undertaking: though Genji is the central figure, the action of the story takes place over four generations
  • 54 Chapters which we can divide into three sections—Genji’s life, Genji’s death, and the lives of Genji’s progeny:
    • Chapters 1-41 relate the life of Genji, his rise and fall
      • Chapters 1-11, his birth, youth, and more daring (troublesome?) exploits
        • 1st Chapter (from Genji’s birth and most of his childhood)
          • Genji’s father, Emperor Kiritsubo falls in love with a minor court lady; together they conceive Genji
          • When he comes of age at 12, he is so beautiful people are already calling him Hikaru Genji, which means Shining 
            • “He knew that the bearer of such a name could not escape much scrutiny and jealous censure and that his lightest dallyings would be proclaimed to posterity… he was obliged always to act with great prudence and to preserve at least the outward appearance of respectability
        • Also in chapters 1-11, Genji meets most of the women central to his life; they set the course for many of the novel’s most interesting/important events
          • Lady Fujitsubo
            • After Genji’s mother dies, Emperor Kiritsubo takes her as a new wife
              • She is supposed to look just like Genji’s mother
              • She’s only 5 years older than Genji
              • More or less the only mother Genji knowsFujitsubo, his step-mother
            • Eventually, Genji has an affair with Fujitsubo, who, again, looks like his mother; who, again, is his only real mother figure
              • Secretly conceive a boy who grows up to be emperor
          • Murasaki, who becomes the love of his life
            • When he is 18, her as a little girl: she is Fujitsubo and looks just like her
              • He essentially kidnaps the little girl to groom her as his ideal woman
              • When she grows up, she comes to be known as Lady Murasaki and marries Genji
              • Murasaki is the love of his life, though he still carries on affairs with other women
                • She is never able to bear him a son
          • Lady Aoi
            • Genji marries her when he is just 12
          • Lady Rokujo, a haughty widow many years older than Genji
            • To me, Lady Rokujo is one of The Tale of Genji’s most interesting characters
              • She’s also one of the most famous characters in classical Japanese literature
            • She is an extraordinarily talented woman, but also a proud and jealous one
              • She’s hyper-aware how much older she is than Genji; constantly fears he will lose interest
              • She cannot share Genji the way Heian society expected her to
            • In most interpretations, she possesses or haunts Genji’s other lovers a total of four times
              • She isn’t dead—it is her living spirit
                • Folk belief in Japan says that a spirit can leave the body of a living person to haunt places or other people
                • The Lady of Rokujo is maybe the most famous example
            • For example, after Genji’s first wife Aoi gives birth, the Lady of Rokujo’s spirit possesses her and more or less terrifies her to death
              • Note that Lady Rokujo doesn’t become a living ghost on purpose; she’s horrified by when she realizes what happens
                • Heian culture doesn’t leave any other outlet for her rage, jealousy, and unhappiness
            • Even after the Lady of Rokujo eventually dies, she returns to Genji in a dream to complain
      • In chapters 12-13, Genji faces the consequences of his actions
        • Briefly forced out of the capital to the provinces; unthinkable for a noble
      • Chapters 14-41: Redemption, return to Kyoto, and meteoric rise
        • Supporting the idea we can read Genji as a Buddhist parable, nothing he achieves ever really makes him happy
        • Some of the novel’s saddest scenes revolve around the death of his beloved Murasaki
      • After chapter 41, there is a blank chapter—a blank sheet of paper—titled Vanished into the Clouds
        • Most scholars read it as a rather eloquent statement that Genji has died
    • Chapters 42-44 include a few short episodes following Genji’s death
    • Chapters 45-54 are the parallel stories of Genji’s children Niou and Kaoru
  • (conclusion) Thus ends The Tale of Genji, one of Japan’s most important literary works


  • I want to talk about The Tale of Genji as an example of women’s writing
  • As a woman author, Murasaki isn’t an outlier; the evolution of the Japanese writing system empowered women’s writing
    • Before The Kojiki, really no way to write Japanese; the Japanese gradually improvised their own writing system from Chinese
      • Chinese and Japanese are from two completely different language families w/ completely different grammars; Chinese characters alone are a terrible way to write the Japanese language
      • Today, Japan has one of the most complicated writing systems in the world
        • Romaji: Japanese name for Roman alphabet
        • Arabic numerals: same ones English-speakers use
        • 2 Japanese syllabaries—each makes 1 vowel or consonant-vowel sound
          • Hiragana
          • Katakana
        • Kanji—logographic system based on Chinese characters
          • A logographic writing system uses characters/letters to represent entire sense units—e.g. whole words, prefixes/suffixes
          • Modern Japanese uses kanji for “content words”—esp. nouns, adjectives, verbs
    • By the 7th century, some texts were being written using Chinese characters for their sounds instead of by their meanings
      • The cursive script for these characters evolved into hiragana
        • Hiragana are technically sufficient for writing anything in Japanese; in practice, primary purpose today is to add grammatical parts of speech
          • Today, when people of any age start learning Japanese, they start w/ Hiragana
    • Remember that men mostly wrote in the Chinese language; women weren’t taught Chinese because men thought they weren’t smart enough
      • Educated men of the time sometimes tried so hard to imitate Chinese examples that much of men’s poetry of the period is extremely derivative
    • Many (most?) of the greatest surviving works of Heian literature are in hiragana, which means they were written by women
      • Inc. The Tale of Genji, diaries like The Gossamer Diary and The Pillow Book by Sei Shounagon

  • A reader could identify several ways that The Tale of Genji reflects the gender of its author:
    • Marvin Marcus, professor of Japanese literature at University of Washington, St. Louis identifies Genji as an intentionally feminine novel
      • Daoist dualism:
        • Yang as assertive, active, male
        • Yin as yielding, passive, female
      • Set in private spaces; Genji is an elegantly passive character
    • Even though a man is the hero of The Tale of Genji, he’s also a rather feminine figure
      • Murasaki describes the young Genji “dressed in a suit of soft white silk, with a rough cloak carelessly slung over his shoulders, with belt and fastening united. In the light of the lamp against which he was leaning he looked so lovely that one might have wished he were a girl”
  • Genji isn’t a feminist narrative by any means
    • Genji is a problematically exploitative man, even by the patriarchal standards of his time
  • (conclusion) BUT the world in the domestic, female sphere
    • In many ways, the real protagonists of Genji are the women and the focus of the narrative is on their thoughts and emotions


  • In conclusion...
  • Question I want to consider for each of the books we’ll be talking about: why are we still reading this book?
    • World’s oldest novel
      • Not everyone agrees
      • If we define a novel as long work of narrative prose, Genji definitely qualifies
        • Also notable character development of its protagonist
    • It is the work of classical Japanese literature; defined the culture of Japan’s “Golden Age”, the Heian Period
    • Huge touchstone in all of the Japanese culture that follow
      • Noh plays, Kabuki, puppet theater, film, manga, anime
      • Even shows up on the 2000 yen banknote
    • Important example of women’s writing
    • Finally, that all stories that are still worth reading, it is a good story
      • An extremely imperfect hero
      • Desires that can never be met
      • Powerful emotions, especially from the story’s women
  • If you want to read along with us, I’ve been using the public domain translation by Arthur Waley, though some more recent translations may be more accessible
    • Audiobook version of Dennis Washburn’s 2015 translation narrated by Brian Nishi
    • There is also abridged versions available, translated and edited by Royall Tyler
  • I most strongly recommend the chapters about Lady Rokujo and her living ghost
    • Chapter 4 (“Yugao”), chapters 8 (“The Flower Feast”) - 10 (“The Sacred Tree”)
    • Living ghosts remain important even in contemporary Japanese/Japanese-American literature
      • For example, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being
  • For more on the history of Japan, “History of Japan” podcast by historian Issac Meyer
  • Next time, the rise of the samurai class and their great epic, The Tale of the Heike


  • If you want to offer feedback, suggestions, tweet us at @readjapaneselit
  • Special thank you to Adam Solove for production assistance
  • Thank you to Producer Khaim (K-H-A-I-M) for today’s music, @khaimmusic and

For the blog:

Support this podcast by buying your copy from 


Project GutenbergThe Tale of Genji

The full on-line text of the Arthur Waley translation of The Tale of Genji

Tony’s Reading List

A comparison of different English-language translations of The Tale of Genji


Bargen, Doris G. “Yūgao: A Case of Spirit Possession in The Tale of Genji” in Mosaic, 1986.

Marcus, Marvin. Japanese Literature from Murasaki to Murakami. Association for Asian Studies, 2015.

De Bary, Theodore, et. al, eds. Sources of Japanese Tradition: From Earliest Times to 1600. Columbia, 1964.