References to Genji in Japanese art are one measure of its resonance over time. Here, a detail of “Murasaki Shikibu Gazing at the Moon,” a scroll by Mitsuoki Tosa held by Ishiyamadera Temple. 

Credit…Tosa Mitsuoki/Ishiyamadera Temple

By Motoko Rich

  • April 15, 2023

TOKYO — Perhaps it was the fact that my daughter was in her final year of high school while I was reading “The Tale of Genji,” a 1,300-page tome written more than 1,000 years ago by a lady-in-waiting at the court of a Japanese emperor. But when I reached a pivotal scene, a few lines of poetry nearly undid me.

Hikaru Genji, the titular hero, had asked one of his many wives to give up their daughter to be raised at court by another woman. As the little girl’s mother, Lady Akashi, watched the toddler climb into a carriage waiting to spirit her away, she recited a classical waka poem:

Its future lies in the far off distance
This pine seedling being taken from me
When will I see it spread its splendid shade

“Shedding tears,” I read, “she could say no more.”

In those lines, I foresaw my own grief. Soon I would be saying goodbye to a daughter, too, when we would leave her at a university thousands of miles away.

I had picked up “Genji Monogatari,” as it is known in Japanese, out of professional interest. As the Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times, it felt like a gap in my knowledge never to have read the work by Murasaki Shikibu that is often described as the world’s first novel and a touchstone of Japanese literary history.

A centuries-old illustration drawn from “The Tale of Genji” showing court life, with some people talking in an enclosed area and others outside.
The book, set during the classical Heian period of the 11th century, takes place among elite courtiers, with their mysterious rituals, monarchal codes and allusive poetry.Credit…Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of the Hofer Collection of the Arts of Asia

In Japan, “The Tale of Genji” has maintained an unwavering grip on the culture. Passages are taught to most schoolchildren. It has been subjected to countless translations, interpretations and adaptations across seemingly every possible art form: paintings, Noh plays, dance, film, television drama, manga, anime, even a rom-com.

When I first opened its pages, I was reading for edification. I expected to feel distance from the medieval text. After all, the book is set among the courtly elites of the classical Heian period of the 11th century, with their mysterious rituals, monarchal codes and allusive poetry.

Instead, I found common ground not only with my personal experience but with my reporting over six years as a correspondent in Japan. The more I read, the more this ancient work made me think about how gender and power dynamics have echoed across the centuries in Japan.

The narrative is structured around the life of Genji, who is the son of an emperor and his favorite consort. From the time Genji is barely a teenager, he cavorts across the region now known as Kyoto, hopping from one woman to another as he breezes through affairs and takes on multiple wives. Although he amasses great influence, he never ascends the throne to the pinnacle of power.

A painting mostly in white showing a boat with a man and a woman lying inside.
The narrative tells the life of Genji, the son of an emperor. But the author often centers female perspectives, with an eye to how women steer the hero’s fate.Credit…Osaragi Jiro Memorial Museum

There are epic plot twists. Genji has to conceal the paternity of one of his sons, because the boy is the product of Genji’s affair with one of his father’s consorts. (The secret weighs heavily when that boy goes on to become emperor.) One of Genji’s consorts transforms into a jealous spirit who takes possession of one of his other wives, in a spine-chilling scene that prefigures the horror genre. Genji is sent into exile on a remote island after he has sex with a consort of the emperor.

Through it all, the author (a woman! writing more than 1,000 years ago!) continuously centers female perspectives in a work that ostensibly chronicles the escapades of a male hero.

From its opening line, “The Tale of Genji” signals its author’s focus on how women steer the fate of the hero. We are introduced to Genji’s mother, “a woman of rather undistinguished lineage” who has “captured the heart of the emperor and enjoyed his favor above all the other imperial wives and concubines.”

While she may have the emperor’s heart, she is “despised and reviled” by the emperor’s other wives, most prominently the mother of the crown prince and heir to the throne. When Genji is born, “a pure radiant gem like nothing of this world,” he immediately unsettles the political order of the court.


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