5 Compelling Reasons Why YOU Should (sacrifice several weeks of your life and) Read The Tale of Genji

LET me sell you on why you should must read The Tale of Genji:

1. It was written in the early 11th century.   I found it fascinating to read something written a thousand years ago and be able to relate to so much of it.  No, blackened teeth are no longer considered desirable and neither is ankle-length hair, but it was quite amusing to find out that “playing” or just being “hard to get” in order to attract and keep the interest of a man seems to be universal both culture and time–just to note one frivolous example. It was equally fascinating to read and think about the many things that were so important to the daily life of Imperial Heian Japan that have been devalued over time and have little worth to us today.

Or you can just read the manga version!

Or you can just read the manga version!

2. It was written by a woman. This naturally piqued my interest immediately–an ancient romance from a women’s point of view.  Given my unfamiliarity with Japanese names, it was not immediately apparent to me that the author Murasaki Shikibu was a woman.  She was born 973 in Kyoto Japan to minor but very learned nobility and was encouraged in her studies by her scholarly father who controversially gave her a male education so to speak– teaching her kanji and classical Chinese. She was a lady in waiting at the Imperial Court, which experience she drew from for her novel. All of this made me very interested in what she might have to say.  From her diary:

 “When my brother … was a young boy learning the Chinese classics, I was in the habit of listening to him and I became unusually proficient at understanding those passages that he found too difficult to understand and memorize. Father, a most learned man, was always regretting the fact: ‘Just my luck,’ he would say, ‘What a pity she was not born a man!'”

Bowring, Richard John (ed). “Introduction”. in The Diary of Lady Murasaki. (1996). London: Penguin.

I don’t know of many ancient women authors that have works that have survived to this era and are still considered classics and influential today.  The Greek lyric poetess Sappho comes to mind, but the only contemporary I can think of to Murasaki Shikibu would be Hildegard von Bingen. Hildegard was a gifted child born to nobility in 1098, became a nun,  and over the span of her  accomplished life  produced an amazing body of work in its variety and intellectualism. But nothing I’ve ever been excited to read, and it is not like you can pick something up of hers at the local library. It’s not really until the 18th century where women writers became more commonly known.

Hildegard coin800px-2000_Yen_Murasaki_Shikibu

Murasaki-Shikibu-in-takefu stamp hildegard on stamp

Something else Murasaki and Hildegard have in common: Currency and Postage Stamps

This is an obvious point, but of course any ancient female writers with works that survive today were well-educated women of the nobility.  Only those with access to education and resources would have the time and ability to create works that could get recognition and be preserved in some way.  I wonder though about the common women. If they even could read and write, did they record their thoughts at all? Would it have been in a diary? Would any of them have thought to write fiction? Would anything have been preserved? I had hoped maybe Tale of Genji would also reflect a little bit about every-day goings on- the life of the common people in Japan at that time. But no, it was pretty much ONLY the lives of the privileged who were described. And it didn’t seem that those in the nobility had much contact with the commoners to gain any perspective on their life anyway, so perhaps Murasaki Shibuku couldn’t have accurately written about the common folk like she did on those at court. But I digress….

3. It is considered to be the world’s first novel, or first modern novel. Well what is a novel?

  •   A work of fiction.
  • Written in prose, which means that it is not in any metric form (not poetry).
  • The narrative is usually long and complex and involves a character-driven plot.
  • It usually has a connected sequence of events and a defined setting.

I’m not here to debate whether or not it was really the FIRST novel, but based on my very scanty research, I feel that claim has merit. For example…

Works contemporary (roughly) to Tale of Genji:

  • Beowulf, an epic poem (thus not a novel) was written in England sometime between the 8th and 11th century. 
  • I could cite several great works of German poetic literature contemporary to Genji, such as Hartman von Aue’s Der Arme Heinrich (1190) or Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (13th century)[side note: If I had known about Genji in college, I would have loved to have written a paper comparing the two “heroes.” Chivalric values of the medieval court system vs. the intrigues of Imperial Japan…..the Western sense of “true love” resulting in a monogamous relationship formalized by marriage vs. Genji’s discussion about what makes the perfect woman and the Heian custom of polygamous relationships…]
  •  Al-Risalah al-Kamiliyyah fil Sira al-Nabawiyyah (Theologus Autodidactus)  written by the Arab Physician Ibn al-Nafis is considered to be the first science fiction novel and was written someitme between 1268 and 1277. 

Parzival (on R)

Tosa Mitsuoki

Genji (on L)

Comparable works of literature that are considered novels BUT are written much later than Genji: 

    • Beware the Cat written by William Cavendish- 1561 (fitting the category of novel, this work is more obscure, having been lost for many years and is not considered an influential work by any means. Although the description of an Irish werewolf and an underground society of talking cats sounds fascinating!
    • Don Quixote written by Miguel de Cervantes- 1605
    • Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe- 1719 (Followed shortly thereafter by Moll Flanders).

4. It is a romance, a psychological novel and historical fiction all in one. Set during the Heian Period, Genji provides an interesting INSIDE look into the intrigues, scandals and mundanities of privileged court life.  The span of time between 794 to 1185 was considered to be the Golden Age of the imperial court system, before the rise of military clans led to civil war and then into the feudalism of medieval Japan. It sometimes has a stream of consciousness to it as it delves into the emotions and motives of the main characters.  There’s an especially weird situation wherein one character becomes obsessed after catching a glimpse of a noblewoman and transfers his fixation onto her cat and which ultimately results in his demise. In the introduction of my copy, the translator Edward Seidensticker states that Japanese scholars believe that Murasaki Shikibu thought of her work as a historical romance since it is set three quarters of a century before her time. Once again, she came up with an amazing work of a nature (novel) that was unlike anything of her time. This must have taken an incredible feat of imagination. Seidensticker (the translator I read) describes it actually as a bold series of imaginative leaps.


Stunning Genji interpretation by Yoshitaka Amano

5. Genji is an anti-hero and playboy. The anti-hero trope has been MAJORLY popular in television recently. Think McNulty in The Wire, Sawyer of Lost, Walter White of Breaking Bad, Dexter, Mad Men’s  Don Draper. The main character of Genji is probably (0ne of?) the first anti-heroes in literature. (This is my own theory based on my reading of the character though I am sure it is not an original one).  There are probably a lot of anti-heroes in Greek and Roman literature (don’t worry I won’t bullet point them) but I was NOT expecting this kind of character when I started reading.   I found it both irritating and intriguing that Murasaki picked such a flawed character to develop throughout the novel.

I told one of my Japanese English students that I was starting to read Tale of Genji and asked her if she had ever read it.  She waved her hand a bit and said, “only parts…..in school.”  Then she leaned forward in her chair and said, “Genji…..is…how do you say??…..a playboy!!” And then she sat back with a little smirk on her face. At the point of my reading, Genji was still a child, so I had no idea…and I thought worriedly….is Genji some sort of Tom Jones?? I was imagining more of a heroic Japanese prince?? Oh….the surprises (and essentially rape scenes) that were still in store for me……

manga genji_innocence

So, are you sold yet??  My reasons for reading Genji were of course all of the above, but as far as the time frame of WHEN to read Genji, I did develop a pretty tight timeframe. I do find it significant to read a major work of Japanese literature while in Japan. Back toward the beginning of my time here- when I feel like I had more time for reading, I researched a few major authors and checked some books out of the library. For example, the modern author Haruki Murakami. I checked out Genji then, but never even cracked it before I had to return it to the library. Then, while we were on our major trip, I got an email saying that the book club (that I get emails for but heretofore had never attended) was going to be reading Tale of Genji and the discussion would be led by a Japanese friend of mine on February 18th.

THIS was the incentive I needed to start reading- I knew that Yukuri (my friend) had previously read the book as part of her Japanese book club, so I was excited to have the opportunity to be part of a discussion that she would in turn lead for her English-speaking friends.  I checked the book out of the library and thus began my week of Genji!!

I didn’t have time to make a whole lot of notes or analysis while I was reading because I had such an imminent deadline, so I just stuck little sticky notes and wrote a few phrases on it to remind myself of my thoughts. Now, this book (checked out actually on my neighbor Fiona’s account)  is now WAY overdue and I can’t bring myself to just take out all of these notes without at least writing up a few of my thoughts/quotes. I wish I had more time to have read it and also more time to think and write about it more. But that is not my life right now, and this is as good as it gets.

Therefore- in the next post or two, I plan to do a very cursory outline of the notes and thoughts I had while reading Genji.  So there will be SPOILERS for anyone who cares and doesn’t want to read them…then don’t worry about those posts. They are really more for me anyway.


The translation is important!!

When I checked the book out from the library, I didn’t even think about the translation. There were two copies and I grabbed the one with the nicer cover. (I guess I forgot that old adage…..!)  I also had only 2 weeks to finish it. All 1135 pages of it.  I also found a podcast which contained only the first few chapters- from a translation by  Suematsu Kencho. I listened to these during my long and annoying commute to work.  I thought I could maybe save a little time by listening to some and reading the rest. This proved to be terribly wrong.

I noticed immediately that what I had read and what I was listening to was significantly different. Of course I knew it was the translation, but I didn’t think it would be THAT different. This led me into a whole frenzy of researching the different translations of Genji and trying to decide which one I should spend my time reading. Of course I didn’t bother to see what was AVAILABLE before I made my decision.

I could write a whole other blog post just on the topic of Genji translations alone if I had time. (Sorry I don’t have time, and you can find more educated discussions on this topic online anyway if you are interested!) I could also write a whole other blog post just on the problematic nature of translating itself! Actually, I think I have done that. (Ein Bad in der Menge) The first thing to realize is that the language that Murasaki Shibuku actually wrote was essentially archaic and unreadable even a century after she wrote it. Even if you could read it in Japanese, you will not be reading what the author originally wrote.  Once I learned that, I realized that the aspect of translation wasn’t as much about what would be the most authentic, but instead the quality and the intent of the translator and what they felt was important to convey.

My copy was the Arthur Waley translation, completed in the 1920’s. It was taking a LOT of concentration and effort to get through. Just the font and pagination was more old-fashioned. The writing was artistic and seemed a bit antiquated.  When I first started reading it, not knowing about the many different translations, I was just imagining it as a very close and accurate translation of the original.  After reading up on Waley and his translation, I realized my sense of the translation was due to it really just being a product of the 20th century and Waleys personal approach to the novel.  In fact, one of the articles I read (sorry I don’t remember and can’t cite) made some comment about how in the Waley translation the Japanese nobility sound like a bunch of Cambrige graduates. I thought that was a pretty funny and apt description. Waley also took a more liberal attitude, and tended to embellish more and had a “heavier” hand in the translation, even eliminating a whole chapter.

Based on my research, I decided I wanted to read the newest translation by Royall Tyler (2001). It seemed to be very well received critically and something I read over and over again was praise for the extensive footnotes, character lists and chronologies which supported the reader much more in understanding the work as a whole and contextually than previous translations.

I then asked my friend Fiona who was headed to the library to check out the OTHER book…provided it was a different translator than Waley. A strange request I knew, but she is always a good sport about these kinds of things. (Being my friend/neighbor is more high-maintenance than one would think). She called me back…….the one with the ugly library cover was………SEIDENSTICKER.

Obviously the military library would not have the most modern translation, and instead have the one with this sentence in the intro, “It seems likely, further, that in this year, 1976, we are not far from the millennial of her [Murasaki] birth.” Oh well, 1976 is MUCH better than 1925.  Or was it…..??? When I started reading it, it felt TOO modern and TOO easy to read. I could read it faster and it wasn’t like a strange puzzle. I felt like I kind of lost the feeling like I was reading an ancient work.  I even told Fiona that I would probably take it back and stick with Waley.

After another day or two spent wasting more time by reading them side by side ( I just couldn’t help it) and then at one point (but only a short point) reading four at one time and comparing them….I realized obviously this was not the way to get through a thousand pages in 2 weeks. I had to figure it out and decide. When I was disappointed that the library didn’t carry the Royall Tyler, I hadn’t even THOUGHT about getting it on my iPAD. I haven’t read that many books electronically, and I felt for this kind of book I wanted to be able to make notes and flip back and forth.  I also didn’t want to spend the money when I could get it from the library for free. I did download the free sample and did really like the writing and the footnotes. The woodblock pictures explained!!

However what sold me on the Seidensticker in the end was the greater ease of reading (better chance to meet the deadline), the clearer pagination with paragraphs but MOST of all the translations of the poetry. There is a LOT of poetry in Genji, (759 poems to be exact) mostly because that is how he and his women communicate back and forth. And the poetry is really lovely.  Waley took out the poetry aspect, often just converting it into prose. In the Seidensticker translation, the poems are set apart from the rest of the text and are very nicely translated- truer to content than form. Even though the dialogue and description felt a little more modern, the poetry brought me the ancient sense that I felt was important to reading such an old text. It was like the best of both worlds.


Forgot to mention that Seidensticker ALSO has the woodblock illustrations dating from 1650!

A true recommendation would be from someone who has read all 3 major translations. However I would probably recommend the Royall Tyler if you are able to get a copy. If not, then for sure the Seidensticker. And if you have the time and inclination, read them both! But who am I kidding, I bet hardly anyone has even read to the end of this blog post.  If you have, prove it and leave me a comment!


6 responses to “5 Compelling Reasons Why YOU Should (sacrifice several weeks of your life and) Read The Tale of Genji

  1. I skimmed some sections, but I didn’t miss the final sentence about leaving a comment! Next time you should hide it in the middle somewhere… 😉 I enjoyed reading your post and have added the (first) novel to my reading list.


  2. I love your analysis! I must say I am intrigued and will have to see which edition my library has. My only other experience with different translations/versions was with a book club reading of Jane Eyre. So I know finding the right edition for you is essential. I’ll have to send you an email to catch up a bit! Xoxo Court


  3. Pingback: Coming to You Sporadically Since 2009…. | RIJ & MEG·

  4. Pingback: THE TALE (AND SCENES) OF GENJI | Simanaitis Says·

  5. I highly enjoyed your (entire) Genji item. Many thanks for your work. I encountered it while researching my own website’s modest item on the evolving art of Genji. It’s at http://wp.me/p2ETap-4af. (At least I hoped I’ve typed this correctly….)
    Again, thanks for your evidently thoughtful research. –ds


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