The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji (源氏物語, Genji monogatari, pronounced [ɡeɲdʑi monoɡaꜜtaɾi]) is a classic work of Japanese literature written by the noblewoman and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu in the early years of the 11th century. The original manuscript no longer exists. It was made in "concertina" or orihon style:[1] several sheets of paper pasted together and folded alternately in one direction then the other, around the peak of the Heian period. The work is a unique depiction of the lifestyles of high courtiers during the Heian period, written in archaic language and a poetic and confusing style that make it unreadable to the average Japanese without dedicated study.[2] It was not until the early 20th century that Genji was translated into modern Japanese, by the poet Akiko Yosano. The first English translation was attempted in 1882, but was of poor quality and incomplete.

The Tale of Genji
Written text from the earliest illustrated handscroll (12th century)
AuthorMurasaki Shikibu
Original title源氏物語
Genji Monogatari
TranslatorSuematsu Kenchō, Arthur Waley, Edward G. Seidensticker, Helen McCullough, Royall Tyler, Dennis Washburn
LanguageEarly Middle Japanese
PublishedBefore 1021
Media typemanuscript
895.63 M93

The work recounts the life of Hikaru Genji, or "Shining Genji", the son of an ancient Japanese emperor, known to readers as Emperor Kiritsubo, and a low-ranking concubine called Kiritsubo Consort. For political reasons, the emperor removes Genji from the line of succession, demoting him to a commoner by giving him the surname Minamoto, and he pursues a career as an imperial officer. The tale concentrates on Genji's romantic life and describes the customs of the aristocratic society of the time. It is sometimes called the world's first novel, the first modern novel, the first psychological novel or the first novel still to be considered a classic. While regarded as a masterpiece, its precise classification and influence in both the East Asian and Western canons has been a matter of debate.

Historical context

Murasaki was writing at the height of the Fujiwara clan's power—Fujiwara no Michinaga was the Regent in all but name, and the most significant political figure of his day. Consequently, Murasaki is believed to have partially informed the character of Genji through her experience of Michinaga.

The Tale of Genji may have been written chapter by chapter in installments, as Murasaki delivered the tale to aristocratic women (ladies-in-waiting). It has many elements found in a modern novel: a central character and a very large number of major and minor characters, well-developed characterization of all the major players, a sequence of events covering the central character's lifetime and beyond. The work does not make use of a plot; instead, events happen and characters simply grow older. One remarkable feature of the Genji, and of Murasaki's skill, is its internal consistency, despite a dramatis personæ of some four hundred characters. For instance, all characters age in step and the family and feudal relationships maintain general consistency.

One complication for readers and translators of the Genji is that almost none of the characters in the original text is given an explicit name. The characters are instead referred to by their function or role (e.g. Minister of the Left), an honorific (e.g. His Excellency), or their relation to other characters (e.g. Heir Apparent), which changes as the novel progresses. This lack of names stems from Heian-era court manners that would have made it unacceptably familiar and blunt to freely mention a person's given name. Modern readers and translators have used various nicknames to keep track of the many characters.

The Tale of Genji was written in an archaic court language that was already unreadable a century after it was written.[3] Thus, the Japanese have been reading annotated and illustrated versions of the work since as early as the 12th century.[3] It was not until the early 20th century that Genji was translated into modern Japanese, by the poet Akiko Yosano.[4]


The debate over how much of Genji was actually written by Murasaki Shikibu has gone on for centuries and is unlikely to ever be settled unless some major archival discovery is made. It is generally accepted that the tale was finished in its present form by 1021, when the author of the Sarashina Nikki wrote a diary entry about her joy at acquiring a complete copy of the tale. She writes that there are over 50 chapters and mentions a character introduced at the end of the work, so if other authors besides Murasaki Shikibu did work on the tale, the work was finished very near to the time of her writing. Murasaki Shikibu's own diary includes a reference to the tale, and indeed the application to herself of the name 'Murasaki' in an allusion to the main female character. That entry confirms that some if not all of the diary was available in 1008 when internal evidence suggests convincingly that the entry was written.[5]

Lady Murasaki is said to have written the character of Genji based on the Minister on the Left at the time she was at court. Other translators, such as Tyler, believe the character Murasaki no Ue, whom Genji marries, is based on Murasaki Shikibu herself.

Yosano Akiko, the first author to make a modern Japanese translation of Genji, believed that Murasaki Shikibu had only written chapters 1 to 33, and that chapters 35 to 54 were written by her daughter Daini no Sanmi.[6] Other scholars have also doubted the authorship of chapters 42 to 54 (particularly 44, which contains rare examples of continuity mistakes).[6] According to Royall Tyler's introduction to his English translation of the work, recent computer analysis has turned up "statistically significant" discrepancies of style between chapters 45–54 and the rest, and also among the early chapters.[6]


The work recounts the life of Hikaru Genji, or "Shining Genji", the son of an ancient Japanese emperor, known to readers as Emperor Kiritsubo, and a low-ranking, but beloved concubine called Kiritsubo Consort. For political reasons, the emperor removes Genji from the line of succession, demoting him to a commoner by giving him the surname Minamoto, and he pursues a career as an imperial officer. The tale concentrates on Genji's romantic life and describes the customs of the aristocratic society of the time.

Genji's mother dies when he is three years old, and the Emperor cannot forget her. The Emperor Kiritsubo then hears of a woman (Lady Fujitsubo), formerly a princess of the preceding emperor, who resembles his deceased concubine, and later she becomes one of his wives. Genji loves her first as a stepmother, but later as a woman, and they fall in love with each other. Genji is frustrated by his forbidden love for the Lady Fujitsubo and is on bad terms with his own wife (Aoi no Ue, the Lady Aoi). He engages in a series of love affairs with other women. These are however unfulfilling, as in most cases his advances are rebuffed, or his lover dies suddenly, or he becomes bored.

Genji visits Kitayama, a rural hilly area north of Kyoto, where he finds a beautiful ten-year-old girl. He is fascinated by this little girl (Murasaki), and discovers that she is a niece of the Lady Fujitsubo. Finally he kidnaps her, brings her to his own palace and educates her to be like the Lady Fujitsubo, who is his womanly ideal. During this time Genji also meets Lady Fujitsubo secretly, and she bears his son, Reizei. Everyone except the two lovers believes the father of the child is the Emperor Kiritsubo. Later the boy becomes the Crown Prince and Lady Fujitsubo becomes the Empress, but Genji and Lady Fujitsubo swear to keep the child's true parentage secret.

Genji and his wife, Lady Aoi, reconcile. She gives birth to a son but dies soon after. Genji is sorrowful but finds consolation in Murasaki, whom he marries. Genji's father, the Emperor Kiritsubo, dies. He is succeeded by his son Suzaku, whose mother (Kokiden), together with Kiritsubo's political enemies, take power in the court. Then another of Genji's secret love affairs is exposed: Genji and a concubine of the Emperor Suzaku are discovered while meeting in secret. The Emperor Suzaku confides his personal amusement at Genji's exploits with the woman (Oborozukiyo), but is duty-bound to punish Genji even though he is his half-brother. He exiles Genji to the town of Suma in rural Harima Province (now part of Kobe in Hyōgo Prefecture). There, a prosperous man known as the Akashi Novice (because he is from Akashi in Settsu Province) entertains Genji, and Genji has an affair with Akashi's daughter. She gives birth to Genji's only daughter, who will later become the Empress.

In the capital the Emperor Suzaku is troubled by dreams of his late father, Kiritsubo, and something begins to affect his eyes. Meanwhile, his mother, Kokiden, grows ill, which weakens her influence over the throne, and leads to the Emperor ordering Genji to be pardoned. Genji returns to Kyoto. His son by Lady Fujitsubo, Reizei, becomes the emperor. The new Emperor Reizei knows Genji is his real father, and raises Genji's rank to the highest possible.

However, when Genji turns 40 years old, his life begins to decline. His political status does not change, but his love and emotional life begin to incrementally diminish as middle age takes hold. He marries another wife, the Third Princess (known as Onna san no miya in the Seidensticker version, or Nyōsan in Waley's). Genji's nephew, Kashiwagi, later forces himself on the Third Princess, and she bears Kaoru (who, in a similar situation to that of Reizei, is legally known as the son of Genji). Genji's new marriage changes his relationship with Murasaki, who had expressed her wish of becoming a nun (bikuni) though the wish was rejected by Genji.

Genji's beloved Murasaki dies. In the following chapter, Maboroshi ("Illusion"), Genji contemplates how fleeting life is. Immediately after the chapter titled Maboroshi, there is a chapter titled Kumogakure ("Vanished into the Clouds"), which is left blank, but implies the death of Genji.

Chapter 45–54 are known as the "Uji Chapters". These chapters follow Kaoru and his best friend, Niou. Niou is an imperial prince, the son of Genji's daughter, the current Empress now that Reizei has abdicated the throne, while Kaoru is known to the world as Genji's son but is in fact fathered by Genji's nephew. The chapters involve Kaoru and Niou's rivalry over several daughters of an imperial prince who lives in Uji, a place some distance away from the capital. The tale ends abruptly, with Kaoru wondering if Niou is hiding Kaoru's former lover away from him. Kaoru has sometimes been called the first anti-hero in literature.[7]


The tale has an abrupt ending. Opinions vary on whether this was intended by the author. Arthur Waley, who made the first English translation of the whole of The Tale of Genji, believed that the work as we have it was finished. Ivan Morris, however, author of The World of the Shining Prince, believed that it was not complete and that later chapters were missing. Edward Seidensticker, who made the second translation of the Genji, believed that Murasaki Shikibu had not had a planned story structure with an ending as such but would simply have continued writing as long as she could.

Literary context

Because it was written to entertain the Japanese court of the eleventh century, the work presents many difficulties to modern readers. First and foremost, Murasaki's language, Heian period court Japanese, was highly inflected and had very complex grammar. Another problem is that naming people was considered rude in Heian court society, so none of the characters are named within the work; instead, the narrator refers to men often by their rank or their station in life, and to women often by the color of their clothing, or by the words used at a meeting, or by the rank of a prominent male relative. This results in different appellations for the same character depending on the chapter.

Another aspect of the language is the importance of using poetry in conversations. Modifying or rephrasing a classic poem according to the current situation was expected behavior in Heian court life, and often served to communicate thinly veiled allusions. The poems in the Genji are often in the classic Japanese tanka form. Many of the poems were well known to the intended audience, so usually only the first few lines are given and the reader is supposed to complete the thought themselves, much like today we could say "when in Rome ..." and leave the rest of the saying ("... do as the Romans do") unspoken.[8]

As with most Heian literature, Genji was probably written mostly (or perhaps entirely) in kana (Japanese phonetic script) and not in kanji, because it was written by a woman for a female audience. Writing in kanji was at the time a masculine pursuit; women were generally discreet when using kanji, confining themselves mostly to native Japanese words (yamato kotoba).

Outside of vocabulary related to politics and Buddhism, Genji contains remarkably few Chinese loan words (kango). This has the effect of giving the story a very even, smooth flow. However, it also introduces confusion: there are a number of homophones (words with the same pronunciation but different meanings), and for modern readers, context is not always sufficient to determine which meaning was intended.



The novel is traditionally divided into three parts, the first two dealing with the life of Genji and the last with the early years of two of Genji's prominent descendants, Niou and Kaoru. There are also several short transitional chapters which are usually grouped separately and whose authorships are sometimes questioned.

  1. Genji's rise and fall
    1. Youth, chapters 1–33: Love, romance, and exile
    2. Success and setbacks, chapters 34–41: A taste of power and the death of his beloved wife
  2. The transition (chapters 42–44): Very short episodes following Genji's death
  3. Uji, chapters 45–54: Genji's official and secret descendants, Niou and Kaoru

The 54th and last chapter, "The Floating Bridge of Dreams", is sometimes argued by modern scholars to be a separate part from the Uji part. It seems to continue the story from the previous chapters but has an unusually abstract chapter title. It is the only chapter whose title has no clear reference within the text, although this may be due to the chapter being unfinished. This question is made more difficult by the fact that we do not know exactly when the chapters acquired their titles.

List of chapters

The English translations here are taken from the Arthur Waley, the Edward Seidensticker, the Royall Tyler, and the Dennis Washburn translations. It is not known for certain when the chapters acquired their titles. Early mentions of the Tale refer to chapter numbers, or contain alternate titles for some of the chapters. This may suggest that the titles were added later. The titles are largely derived from poetry that is quoted within the text, or allusions to various characters.

Chapter Japanese Waley Seidensticker Tyler Washburn
01 Kiritsubo (桐壺) "Kiritsubo" "The Paulownia Court" "The Paulownia Pavilion" "The Lady of the Paulownia-Courtyard Chambers"
02 Hahakigi (帚木) "The Broom-Tree" "Broom Cypress"
03 Utsusemi (空蝉) "Utsusemi" "The Shell of the Locust" "The Cicada Shell" "A Molted Cicada Shell"
04 Yūgao (夕顔) "Yugao" "Evening Faces" "The Twilight Beauty" "The Lady of the Evening Faces"
05 Wakamurasaki (若紫) "Murasaki" "Lavender" "Young Murasaki" "Little Purple Gromwell"
06 Suetsumuhana (末摘花) "The Saffron-Flower" "The Safflower"
07 Momiji no Ga (紅葉賀) "The Festival of Red Leaves" "An Autumn Excursion" "Beneath the Autumn Leaves" "An Imperial Celebration of Autumn Foliages"
08 Hana no En (花宴) "The Flower Feast" "The Festival of the Cherry Blossoms" "Under the Cherry Blossoms" "A Banquet Celebrating Cherry Blossoms"
09 Aoi () "Aoi" "Heartvine" "Heart-to-Heart" "Leaves of Wild Ginger"
10 Sakaki () "The Sacred Tree" "The Green Branch" "A Branch of Sacred Evergreens"
11 Hana Chiru Sato (花散里) "The Village of Falling Flowers" "The Orange Blossoms" "Falling Flowers" "The Lady at the Villa of Scattering Orange Blossoms"
12 Suma (須磨) "Exile at Suma" "Suma" "Exile to Suma"
13 Akashi (明石) "Akashi" "The Lady at Akashi"
14 Miotsukushi (澪標) "The Flood Gauge" "Channel Buoys" "The Pilgrimage to Sumiyoshi" "Channel Markers"
15 Yomogiu (蓬生) "The Palace in the Tangled Woods" "The Wormwood Patch" "A Waste of Weeds" "A Ruined Villa of Tangled Gardens"
16 Sekiya (関屋) "A Meeting at the Frontier" "The Gatehouse" "At the Pass" "The Barrier Gate"
17 E Awase (絵合) "The Picture Competition" "A Picture Contest" "The Picture Contest" "A Contest of Illustrations"
18 Matsukaze (松風) "The Wind in the Pine-Trees" "The Wind in the Pines" "Wind in the Pines"
19 Usugumo (薄雲) "A Wreath of Cloud" "A Rack of Clouds" "Wisps of Cloud" "A Thin Veil of Clouds"
20 Asagao (朝顔) "Asagao" "The Morning Glory" "The Bluebell" "Bellflowers"
21 Otome (乙女) "The Maiden" "The Maidens" "Maidens of the Dance"
22 Tamakazura (玉鬘) "Tamakatsura" "The Jewelled Chaplet" "The Tendril Wreath" "A Lovely Garland"
23 Hatsune (初音) "The First Song of the Year" "The First Warbler" "The Warbler's First Song" "First Song of Spring"
24 Kochō (胡蝶) "The Butterflies" "Butterflies"
25 Hotaru () "The Glow-Worm" "Fireflies" "The Fireflies" "Fireflies"
26 Tokonatsu (常夏) "A Bed of Carnations" "Wild Carnation" "The Pink" "Wild Pinks"
27 Kagaribi (篝火) "The Flares" "Flares" "The Cressets" "Cresset Fires"
28 Nowaki (野分) "The Typhoon" "An Autumn Tempest"
29 Miyuki (行幸) "The Royal Visit" "The Royal Outing" "The Imperial Progress" "An Imperial Excursion"
30 Fujibakama (藤袴) "Blue Trousers" "Purple Trousers" "Thoroughwort Flowers" "Mistflowers"
31 Makibashira (真木柱) "Makibashira" "The Cypress Pillar" "The Handsome Pillar" "A Beloved Pillar of Cypress"
32 Umegae (梅枝) "The Spray of Plum-Blossom" "A Branch of Plum" "The Plum Tree Branch" "A Branch of Plum"
33 Fuji no Uraba (藤裏葉) "Fuji no Uraba" "Wisteria Leaves" "New Wisteria Leaves" "Shoots of Wisteria Leaves"
34 Wakana: Jō (若菜上) "Wakana, Part I" "New Herbs, Part I" "Spring Shoots I" "Early Spring Genesis: Part 1"
35 Wakana: Ge (若菜下) "Wakana, Part II" "New Herbs, Part II" "Spring Shoots II" "Early Spring Genesis: Part 2"
36 Kashiwagi (柏木) "Kashiwagi" "The Oak Tree"
37 Yokobue (横笛) "The Flute" "The Transverse Flute"
38 Suzumushi (鈴虫) (not translated) "The Bell Cricket" "Bell Crickets"
39 Yūgiri (夕霧) "Yugiri" "Evening Mist"
40 Minori (御法) "The Law" "Rites" "The Law" "Rites of Sacred Law"
41 Maboroshi () "Mirage" "The Wizard" "The Seer" "Spirit Summoner"
X Kumogakure (雲隠) "Vanished into the Clouds"
42 Niō Miya (匂宮) "Niou" "His Perfumed Highness" "The Perfumed Prince" "The Fragrant Prince"
43 Kōbai (紅梅) "Kobai" "The Rose Plum" "Red Plum Blossoms" "Red Plum"
44 Takekawa (竹河) "Bamboo River"
45 Hashihime (橋姫) "The Bridge Maiden" "The Lady at the Bridge" "The Maiden of the Bridge" "The Divine Princess at Uji Bridge"
46 Shī ga Moto (椎本) "At the Foot of the Oak-Tree" "Beneath the Oak" "At the Foot of the Oak Tree"
47 Agemaki (総角) "Agemaki" "Trefoil Knots" "A Bowknot Tied in Maiden's Loops"
48 Sawarabi (早蕨) "Fern-Shoots" "Early Ferns" "Bracken Shoots" "Early Fiddlehead Greens"
49 Yadorigi (宿木) "The Mistletoe" "The Ivy" "Trees Encoiled in Vines of Ivy"
50 Azumaya (東屋) "The Eastern House" "The Eastern Cottage" "A Hut in the Eastern Provinces"
51 Ukifune (浮舟) "Ukifune" "A Boat upon the Waters" "A Drifting Boat" "A Boat Cast Adrift"
52 Kagerō (蜻蛉) "The Gossamer-Fly" "The Drake Fly" "The Mayfly" "Ephemerids"
53 Tenarai (手習) "Writing-Practice" "The Writing Practice" "Writing Practice" "Practising Calligraphy"
54 Yume no Ukihashi (夢浮橋) "The Bridge of Dreams" "The Floating Bridge of Dreams" "A Floating Bridge in a Dream"

The additional chapter between 41 and 42 in some manuscripts is called 雲隠 (Kumogakure) which means "Vanished into the Clouds"—the chapter is a title only, and is probably intended to evoke Genji's death. Some scholars have posited the earlier existence of a chapter between 1 and 2 which would have introduced some characters that seem to appear very abruptly in the book as it stands.

The Waley translation completely omits the 38th chapter.

Later authors have composed additional chapters, most often either between 41 and 42, or after the end.


The original manuscript written by Murasaki Shikibu no longer exists. Numerous copies, totaling around 300 according to Ikeda Kikan, exist with differences between each. It is thought that Shikibu often went back and edited early manuscripts introducing discrepancies with earlier copies.[9]

The various manuscripts are classified into three categories:[10][11]

  • Kawachibon (河内本)
  • Aobyōshibon (青表紙本)
  • Beppon (別本)

In the 13th century, two major attempts by Minamoto no Chikayuki and Fujiwara Teika were made to edit and revise the differing manuscripts. The Chikayuki manuscript is known as the Kawachibon; edits were many beginning in 1236 and completing in 1255. The Teika manuscript is known as the Aobyōshibon; its edits are more conservative and thought to better represent the original. These two manuscripts were used as the basis for many future copies.

The Beppon category represents all other manuscripts not belonging to either Kawachibon or Aobyōshibon. This includes older but incomplete manuscripts, mixed manuscripts derived from both Kawachibon and Aobyōshibon, and commentaries.

On March 10, 2008, it was announced that a late Kamakura period manuscript was found in Kyōto.[12][13] It is the sixth chapter "Suetsumuhana" and is 65 pages in length. Most remaining manuscripts are based on copies of the Teika manuscript which introduced revisions in the original. This newly discovered manuscript belongs to a different lineage and was not influenced by Teika. Professor Yamamoto Tokurō, who examined the manuscript said, "This is a precious discovery as Kamakura manuscripts are so rare." Professor Katō Yōsuke said, "This is an important discovery as it asserts that non-Teika manuscripts were being read during the Kamakura period."

On October 29, 2008, Konan Women's University announced that a mid-Kamakura period manuscript was found.[14][15][16] It is the 32nd chapter, Umegae, and is recognized as the oldest extant copy of this chapter dating between 1240–80. This beppon manuscript is 74 pages in length and differs from Aobyōshi manuscripts in at least four places, raising the "possibility that the contents may be closer to the undiscovered Murasaki Shikibu original manuscript".[14]

On October 9, 2019, it was announced that an original copy of Teika's Aobyōshibon was found in Tokyo at the home of the current head of the Okochi-Matsudaira clan , who ran the Yoshida Domain. The manuscript is the 5th chapter, Wakamurasaki (若紫) and is the oldest version of the chapter. Blue ink common in Teika's manuscript and handwriting analysis confirms that it is indeed by Teika, making it among the 5 original versions of the Aobyōshibon that is known to exist. [17]

Illustrated scroll

A twelfth-century scroll, the Genji monogatari emaki, contains illustrated scenes from the Genji together with handwritten sōgana text. This scroll is the earliest extant example of a Japanese "picture scroll": collected illustrations and calligraphy of a single work. The original scroll is believed to have comprised 10–20 rolls and covered all 54 chapters. The extant pieces include only 19 illustrations and 65 pages of text, plus nine pages of fragments. This is estimated at roughly 15% of the envisioned original. The Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya has three of the scrolls handed down in the Owari branch of the Tokugawa clan and one scroll held by the Hachisuka family is now in the Gotoh Museum in Tokyo. The scrolls are designated National Treasures of Japan. The scrolls are so fragile that they normally are not shown in public. The original scrolls in the Tokugawa Museum were shown from November 21 to November 29 in 2009. Since Heisei 13, they have been displayed in the Tokugawa Museum always for around one week in November. An oversize English photoreproduction and translation was printed in limited edition by Kodansha International (Tale of Genji Scroll, ISBN 0-87011-131-0).

Other notable versions are by Tosa Mitsuoki, who lived from 1617 to 1691. His paintings are closely based on Heian style from the existing scrolls from the 12th century and are fully complete. The tale was also a popular theme in Ukiyo-e prints from the Edo period.

Modern readership


The complexities of the style mentioned in the previous section make it unreadable by the average Japanese person without dedicated study of the language of the tale. Therefore, translations into modern Japanese and other languages solve these problems by modernizing the language, unfortunately losing some of the meaning, and by giving names to the characters, usually the traditional names used by academics. This gives rise to anachronisms; for instance Genji's first wife is named Aoi because she is known as the lady of the Aoi chapter, in which she dies.

Both scholars and writers have tried translating it. The first translation into modern Japanese was made by the poet Yosano Akiko. Other known translations were done by the novelists Jun'ichirō Tanizaki and Fumiko Enchi.

Because of the cultural differences, reading an annotated version of the Genji is quite common, even among Japanese. There are several annotated versions by novelists, including Seiko Tanabe, Jakucho Setouchi and Osamu Hashimoto.[18] Many works, including a manga series and different television dramas, are derived from The Tale of Genji. There have been at least five manga adaptations of the Genji.[19] A manga version by Waki Yamato, Asakiyumemishi (The Tale of Genji in English), and another version, by Miyako Maki, won the Shogakukan Manga Award in 1989.[20]

English translations

The first partial translation of Genji Monogatari into English was by Suematsu Kenchō, published in 1882. Arthur Waley published a six-volume translation of all but one chapter, with the first volume published in 1921 and the last in 1933.[21] In 1976, Edward Seidensticker published the first complete translation into English, made using a self-consciously "stricter" approach with regards to content if not form.[22] The English translation published in 2001 by Royall Tyler aims at fidelity in content and form to the original text.[6] The most recently written ("Genji and the Luck of the Sea") dates from 2007. Its initial version has been extensively revised, retitled, and updated for this publication.[23]

In 2008, WorldCat identifies 88 editions of this book. The major translations into English are each slightly different, mirroring the personal choices of the translator and the period in which the translation was made. Each version has its merits, its detractors and its advocates, and each is distinguished by the name of the translator. For example, the version translated by Arthur Waley would typically be referred to as "the Waley Genji".

Major English translations in chronological order

  • The Suematsu Genji (1882) – Suematsu's Genji was the first translation into English, but is considered of poor quality and is not often read today. Significantly, only a few chapters were completed.
  • The Waley Genji (1921–1933) –Waley's Genji is considered a great achievement for his time,[24] although some purists have criticized Waley's changes to the original.[25] Others have criticized as overly-free the manner in which Waley translated the original text. Regardless, it continues to be well-appreciated and widely read today.[26] When the Waley Genji was first published, it was eagerly received. For example, Time explained that "the reviewers' floundering tributes indicate something of its variegated appeal. In limpid prose The Tale combines curiously modern social satire with great charm of narrative. Translator Waley has done service to literature in salvaging to the Occident this masterpiece of the Orient."[27]
  • The Seidensticker Genji (1976) – Seidensticker's Genji is an attempt to correct what were perceived to have been Waley's failings without necessarily making his translation obsolete. Seidensticker hews more closely to the original text, but in the interests of readability, he takes some liberties. For example, he identifies most of the characters by name so that the narrative can be more easily followed by a broad-based audience of Western readers. (In 2008, a 4,400-page Braille version of the Seidensticker Genji was completed. This Braille edition was the product of five Japanese housewives from Setagaya, Tokyo, working voluntarily for five years and was subsequently donated to the Japan Braille Library (日本点字図書館) and the Library of Congress. It is also available for download.[28])
  • The McCullough Genji (1994) – An abridgement.
  • The Tyler Genji (2001) – Tyler's Genji contains more extensive explanatory footnotes and commentary than the previous translations, describing the numerous poetical allusions and cultural aspects of the tale. Tyler consciously attempted to mimic the original style in ways that the previous translations did not. For example, this version does not use names for most characters, identifying them instead by their titles in a manner which was conventional in the context of the 11th-century original text – "...while wonderfully evocative of the original, can be difficult to follow..."[29]. Tyler's version "makes a special virtue of attending to a certain ceremonial indirectness in the way the characters address one another. The great temptation for a translator is to say the unsaid things, and Tyler never gives in to it."[30] This has been praised by some critics as "preserving more of what once seemed unfamiliar or strange to English readers", as understanding the culture of Lady Murasaki's time is arguably a chief reason for reading Genji.[26]
  • The Washburn Genji (2015) – Dennis Washburn's Genji separates the poems from the prose and puts interior thoughts in italics. The translation has been received slightly more controversially than Tyler's. [31]

Reception and legacy

The Tale of Genji is an important work of Japanese literature, and modern authors have cited it as inspiration, such as Jorge Luis Borges who said of it, "The Tale of Genji, as translated by Arthur Waley, is written with an almost miraculous naturalness, and what interests us is not the exoticism—the horrible word—but rather the human passions of the novel. Such interest is just: Murasaki's work is what one would quite precisely call a psychological novel ... I dare to recommend this book to those who read me. The English translation that has inspired this brief insufficient note is called The Tale of Genji."[32] It is noted for its internal consistency, psychological depiction, and characterization. The novelist Yasunari Kawabata said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "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 Genji is also often referred to as "the first novel",[33] though there is considerable debate over this—some of the debate involving whether Genji can even be considered a "novel". Some consider the psychological insight, complexity and unity of the work to qualify it for "novel" status while simultaneously disqualifying earlier works of prose fiction.[34] Others see these arguments as subjective and unconvincing.

Related claims, perhaps in an attempt to sidestep these debates, are that Genji is the "first psychological novel" or "historical novel",[35] "the first novel still considered to be a classic" or other more qualified terms. However, critics have almost consistently described The Tale of Genji as the oldest, first, and/or greatest novel in Japanese literature,[36][37] though enthusiastic proponents may have later neglected the qualifying category of in Japanese literature, leading to the debates over the book's place in world literature. Even in Japan, the Tale of Genji is not universally embraced; the lesser known Ochikubo Monogatari has been proposed as the "world's first full-length novel", even though its author is unknown.[38] Despite these debates, The Tale of Genji enjoys solid respect among the works of literature, and its influence on Japanese literature has been compared to that of Philip Sidney's Arcadia on English literature.[36]

The novel and other works by Lady Murasaki are staple reading material in the curricula of Japanese schools. The Bank of Japan issued the 2000 Yen banknote in her honor, featuring a scene from the novel based on the 12th-century illustrated handscroll. Since a 1 November, 1008 entry in The Diary of Lady Murasaki is the oldest date on which a reference to The Tale of Genji has appeared, November 1st was designated as the official day to celebrate Japanese classics. According to Act on Classics Day, the “classics” that are honored not only include literature, but encompass a wide range of arts such as music, art, traditional performing arts, entertainment, lifestyle art including tea ceremony and flower arrangement and other cultural products.[39]

The names of the chapters became a central element a sort of incense based game called Genjikō, part of the larger practice of Monkō popular among the nobility. In Genjikō, players must match the scents of a series of five incense samples without being told the names of said samples. Each possible combination was matched to a symbol, called a genji-mon, that represented a chapter from the story.[40]

On November 1, 2008, Google celebrated 1000 years of The Tale of Genji with a Google Doodle.[41]

Adaptations in other media

See also


  1. Lyons, Martyn (2011). Books: A Living History. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum. p. 30.
  2. Birmingham Museum of Art (2010). Guide to the Collection. Birmingham, AL. p. 49. ISBN 978-1-904832-77-5.
  3. ""The Tale of Genji" – Playboy of the eastern world". The Economist. Retrieved January 9, 2014.
  4. Yosano, Akiko; NDL.
  5. The Diary of Lady Murasaki, ed. Richard Bowring, Penguin Classics 2005, p. 31, note 41. In his introduction to the text, Bowring discusses its dating which, in any case, is generally accepted by most authorities. Royall Tyler, in his edition of the Tale of Genji cited below, also draws attention to the entry in Murasaki Shikibu's diary: see the Penguin Books edition, 2003, Introduction, p. xvii
  6. Shikibu, Murasaki; Tyler, Royall (2002). The Tale of Genji. Viking.
  7. Seidensticker (1976: xi)
  8. Martin, Gary. "When in Rome, do as the Romans do". The Phrase Finder. Retrieved 4 June 2015.
  9. Yamagishi (1958: 14)
  10. Yamagishi (1958: 14–16)
  11. Nihon Koten Bungaku Daijiten (1986: 621–22)
  12. "鎌倉後期の源氏物語写本見つかる" (in Japanese). Sankei News. 2008-03-10. Archived from the original on 2008-03-14. Retrieved 2008-03-11.
  13. "源氏物語の「別本」、京都・島原の「角屋」で発見" (in Japanese). Yomiuri. 2008-03-10. Archived from the original on 2008-03-14. Retrieved 2008-03-11.
  14. "源氏物語の最古級写本、勝海舟?の蔵書印も…甲南女子大" (in Japanese). Yomiuri. 2008-10-29. Archived from the original on 2008-11-01. Retrieved 2008-10-29.
  15. "「千年紀に奇跡」「勝海舟が恋物語とは」源氏物語写本に驚きの声" (in Japanese). Sankei News. 2008-10-29. Archived from the original on August 2, 2009. Retrieved 2008-10-29.
  16. "源氏物語:最古の「梅枝巻」写本 勝海舟の蔵書印も". Mainichi (in Japanese). 2008-10-29. Retrieved 2008-10-29.
  17. "Fifth chapter of oldest 'Tale of Genji' copy found in Tokyo:The Asahi Shimbun". The Asahi Shimbun. Retrieved 2019-10-09.
  18. Walker, James. Big in Japan: "Jakucho Setouchi: Nun re-writes The Tale of Genji", Archived April 26, 2009, at the Wayback Machine Metropolis. No. 324; Spaeth, Anthony. "Old-Fashioned lover", Time. December 17, 2001.
  19. Richard Gunde (2004-04-27). "Genji in Graphic Detail: Manga Versions of the Tale of Genji". UCLA Asia Institute. Retrieved 2006-11-16.
  20. 小学館漫画賞:歴代受賞者 (in Japanese). Shogakukan. Retrieved 2007-08-19.
  21. Shikibu, Murasaki; Waley, Arthur (1960). The Tale of Genji. Modern Library. Vintage.
  22. Shikibu, Murasaki; Seidensticker, Edward (1976). The Tale of Genji. Knopf.
  23. Tyler, Royall (2009). The Disaster of the Third Princess: Essays on the tale of Genji. National Library of Australia.
  24. "Genji Finished", Time. July 3, 1933.
  25. Takatsuka, Masanori. (1970). Brief remarks on some mistranslations in Arthur Waley's Tale of Genji
  26. "Coming to Terms with the Alien". Monumenta Nipponica 58:2
  27. "In All Dignity," Time. August 27, 1928.
  28. "Braille version of The Tale of Genji completed in 1,000th year 2008". Yomiuri Shimbun (in Japanese). Archived from the original on 2008-08-25. Retrieved 2009-01-05.
  29. Nimura, Janice P (2 December 2001). "Courtly Lust". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 October 2018.
  30. Wood, Michael. "A Distant Mirror", Time. March 11, 2002.
  31. Ian Buruma, "The Sensualist," New Yorker, July 20, 2015, p. 67.
  32. Shikubu, Murasaki; Shikibu, Murasaki (2010-03-10). The Tale of Genji (Tuttle Classics). p. Editorial Reviews. ISBN 978-4805310816.
  33. Tyler, Royall (2003). The Tale of Genji. Penguin Classics. pp. i–ii & xii. ISBN 0-14-243714-X.
  34. Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince (1964), p. 277
  35. Tyler, Royall (2003). The Tale of Genji. Penguin Classics. p. xxvi. ISBN 0-14-243714-X.
  36. Bryan (1930), 65.
  37. Kokusai Bunka Shinkokai (1970), 37.
  38. Kato (1979), pp. 160, 163.
  39. "Symposium Commemorating Classics Day". MEXT. Retrieved 6 July 2018.
  40. Japan Encyclopedia, p. 237, at Google Books
  41. "1000 Years of The Tale of Genji". Google. 1 November 2008.


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