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In this lesson, you will explore the context and summary of the classic work of Japanese literature ‘The Tale of Genji.’ Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Great Japanese Novel

If I mentioned the name William Shakespeare, you’d probably know who I was talking about.

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Every culture has that writer whose work defined an era; for Elizabethan England it was Shakespeare. For Russia we might look to Tolstoy. As Americans, let’s say George Lucas.For Japan, the first great writer who defined Japanese life and culture through her works was Murasaki Shikibu, a noble lady-in-waiting of the imperial court who wrote about life and politics in Japan. Murasaki was writing during the Heian Period, an era remembered as the height of classical Japanese culture when art, poetry and literature were practiced daily. Her masterpiece, The Tale of Genji, was completed around 1021 and is sometimes called the world’s first novel, because of its style of storytelling and character development that were centuries ahead of its time.

Characters and Context

The Tale of Genji mainly follows the lives of two central characters.

Shining Genji is the son of an emperor who is removed from the line of succession for political reasons and becomes an official in the imperial court. The other main character is a low-ranking but lovable concubine named Lady Kiritsubo. Overall, there are over 400 characters that appear throughout The Tale of Genji, but don’t worry – you don’t have to learn them all. Actually, it can be very difficult to keep these characters straight because they are never referred to by name.

In the Heian era, it was very impolite to refer to nobles by name. Instead, men were referred to by title (like Minister), and women were often known by a common color they wore or some other defining trait. All of the characters in The Tale of Genji are referred to by these titles, not by name, reflecting Murasaki’s life in the imperial court.The imperial culture of the Heian Period is the primary context of the story. Genji and the other characters live and work within proper imperial behavior and traditions.

One of the most evident customs that appear in the story is poetry. The characters of The Tale of Genji almost always speak in poetic verse. During the Heian Period, the elites were expected to speak in poetry when in the imperial court.

This demonstrated that they were educated, refined, and clever. All the time they spoke in verse – can you imagine anything worse?

Summary of Genji

The Tale of Genji is not driven by plot – not the way that modern novels in English are. Instead of a central event that drives the story, The Tale of Genji follows Genji throughout his life. It starts with him as a young man and court official and describes his life up through his death.One of the central themes of the story is love in the imperial court, and Genji’s life appears as a series of love affairs. He is married, but also maintains relationships with the emperor’s wife, the former concubine Lady Kiritsubo, and other ladies of the court.

Genji and Kiritsubo have a son, although everyone thinks he is the son of the emperor, who becomes the crown prince of Japan. Eventually, Genji is banished after being caught with another one of the emperor’s concubines until his son becomes the new emperor. After Genji turns roughly 40 years old, he begins reflecting on his life and contemplating how fleeting life really is. Genji’s death is not described, but rather implied through a chapter called ‘Kumogakure‘, or ‘Vanished into the Clouds,’ which is entirely blank.The story does not end with the death of Genji, but continues to follow the lives of some of his children in the imperial court. Like Genji, they are involved in political drama and love affairs. The Tale of Genji ends very abruptly during the section, in the middle of a sentence in fact.

Scholars debate whether Murasaki intended this or if the remaining chapters have been lost to time. Whatever the case, The Tale of Genji has remained a cornerstone of Japanese culture to this day.

Lesson Summary

The Tale of Genji is one of the first major works of literature in Japanese history, and one of the world’s great stories. Written by the noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu during the Heian Period of Japan in the early 11th century, it describes life and culture in the imperial court. This story does not have a true plot, but follows the life of the main character, Shining Genji, and one of his loves, Lady Kiritsubo.

Throughout The Tale of Genji are several customs of the actual Heian court, including the tradition of speaking in poetry and referring to people by their title or clothing rather than name. The Tale of Genji describes Japanese life in the classical period of artistic development and has remained an important part of Japanese literature and culture to this day.

Learning Outcomes

You’ll have the ability to do the following after this lesson:

  • Identify the author and time period of The Tale of Genji
  • Describe the novel’s main characters, storyline, writing style and cultural significance
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