Tale of Genji: Learning About the Life of Hikaru Genji

Throughout history, there have been various pieces of art and literature that have shaped the minds, as well as the lives, of people. These pieces contain something different but significant within them that not only fascinates the mind of a person but also challenges the ordinary aspect of life. These pieces, mostly classics, are engrained in the history of not just a single culture. Due to its impact on how people progressed in their way of thinking, these classics are taught even to the younger generation of today in hopes of the youth getting enlightened by these pieces as much as their ancestors did back in the day. One of the many classics known to men hails from Japan, entitled “The Tale of Genji.”

Definition and Summary of the Tale of Genji

By English: Unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Also known as “Genji Monogatari” in Japanese, “The Tale of Genji” is a classic Japanese literature that was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a noblewoman as well as a lady-in-waiting. Written during the initial years of the 11th century, The Tale of Genji is in the style of “concertina” or “orihon,” wherein numerous sheets of paper were combined together by paste and folded interchangeably in a single direction then the other. At the height of the Heian period, this classic text is sometimes called the “world’s first novel.” Other tags on the Tale of Genji are the first modern novel, the foremost psychological novel, and the first novel to be recognized as a classic. This literature also contains a unique illustration of the lifestyles of the high courtiers that lived during the Heian era.

The Tale of Genji revolves around the life of Hikaru Genji and his adventures. Also known as “Shining Genji,” Hikaru Genji was the son of an ancient emperor in Japan known to many as Emperor Kiritsubo and his low-ranking albeit beloved concubine by the name of Lady Kiritsubo. Genji was removed from the line of succession by the emperor due to political reasons that might later on endanger the life of Genji. Furthermore, he was demoted to a commoner and was given the surname Minamoto. Genji, later on, works as an imperial officer. The Tale of Genji focuses more on the romantic life of Genji and showcases the various customs and traditions of the aristocratic society during that era.

Unfortunately, Lady Kiritsubo, Genji’s beloved mother, passes away when Genji was just three years old. Having been loved by the Emperor for so long, he cannot seem to forget her and move on. After hearing about a woman known as Lady Fujitsubo who resembles his deceased concubine, the Emperor then decides to make her as his wife. Lady Fujitsubo was a former princess of the preceding emperor. Kind-hearted, Lady Fujitsubo becomes the mother that Genji lost at age three. Genji loves Lady Fujitsubo initially as a stepmother, but his feelings later on develop into something more.

With the two having fallen in love with each other, they are still well aware that theirs is a forbidden love. Due to frustration regarding the matter and also Genji being on bad terms with his wife Lady Aoi no Ue, he begins to engage in various love affairs with different women. However, the outcome of these affairs are either that his advances are rejected, the other woman dies in the middle of the affair, or Genji just grows bored of the affair and leaves.

Upon Genji’s visit to Kitayama, which is a rural area in the northern part of Kyoto, he discovers a beautiful ten-year-old girl by the name of Murasaki. It turns out that Murasaki is a niece of Lady Fujitsubo. Having been fascinated by the little girl, Genji decides to kidnap Murasaki, bring her to his own palace, and educate her so she would grow up to be his ideal lady, which is just like Lady Fujitsubo.

While this was all happening, Genji and Lady Fujitsubo were also meeting in secret. From these meetings bore a son by the name of Reizei. Reizei is recognized by everyone, except his biological parents, as the son of Emperor Kiritsubo. He later on becomes the Crown Prince. Furthermore, Lady Fujitsubo also later on becomes the Empress. Still, Genji and Lady Fujitsubo promise to keep the true birth of Reizei a secret so as to protect not just Reizei but their lives as well.

As for Genji and his wife, they finally reconcile. Lady Aoi also eventually gives birth to a son though she passes away soon after. Though Genji is in grief of his wife’s passing, he finds solace in the arms of Murasaki, whom he marries after some time. Finally, Genji’s father, Emperor Kiritsubo, also passes away. His throne is filled in by his son named Suzaku. Suzaku is also the son of Lady Kokiden who, along with the political enemies of the late Emperor Kiritsubo, eventually takes power in the court. 

By Imperial court in Kyoto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This was not a good time for Genji as one of his secret love affairs was also exposed during this time. It was with a concubine of the Emperor Suzaku. They were both exposed during one of their secret meet-ups. Though personally just amused by the exploits of Genji, Emperor Suzaku is still bound by duty to punish his half-brother. Hence, Genji is exiled to the town of Suma located in rural Harima Province, which is now known as part of Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture.

An affluent man by the name of Akashi Novice entertains Genji during the latter’s exile in Suma. The name Akashi Novice was taken from the fact that the man hails from Akashi in Settsu Province. Genji eventually forms a love affair with the daughter of Akashi. Together, they bore a child who is the only daughter of Genji. The daughter would also later become the Empress.

On the other hand, troubles begin to rise in the capital. Emperor Suzaku is bothered by his dreams that consist of his later father, Emperor Kiritsubo. At the same time, Emperor Suzaku’s eyes also begin to weaken. As for his mother, Lady Kokiden, she begins to grow ill. This results to her power in the court weakening after some time. From this, the Emperor decides to pardon Genji; thus, Genji returns to Kyoto. Reizei, his son with Lady Fujitsubo, succeeds the throne. Having known that Genji is his real father, the new Emperor Reizei raises Genji to the highest rank possible.

Upon reaching the age of 40, Genji’s life starts to decline. While his status in politics remains unchanged, his love life and emotional life begins to take a toll. He takes another wife by the name of Onna san no miya, also known as Nyosan, who is the Third Princess. However, a nephew of Genji by the name of Kashiwagi forces himself on Genji’s wife and this results to the Third Princess giving birth to Kaoru. Similar to Reizei, Kaoru is legally known as Genji’s son despite the fact that he is not.

Genji’s new marriage to the Third Princess also puts a strain on his relationship with Murasaki. She later on decides to becomes a nun, also known as bikuni in Japanese. Eventually, Murasaki passes away, which disheartens Genji. He begins to contemplate just how fleeting and short life is, as demonstrated in the following chapter entitled “Maboroshi” or “Illusion.” Following “Maboroshi” is a chapter that was entitled “Kumogakure,” which translates to “Vanished into the Clouds” in English. This chapter is left blank, which indicates the passing of Genji as well.

The following chapters after “Kumogakure” are known as the “Uji Chapters.” These works center around the life of Kaoru and his best friend Niou, who is an imperial prince. Niou is also the son of Genji’s only daughter who is now the present Empress after Emperor Reizei finally abdicated the throne. The Uji Chapters revolve around the rivalry between Kaoru and Niou over the numerous daughters of an imperial prince who resides in Uji, which is a place situated away from the capital. The ending depicts Kaoru wondering if his rival Niou has the lady that the former loves in hiding to keep her away from him. Many consider Kaoru as the first anti-hero in literature.

The Main Characters of the Story 

Toyohara Kunichika [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Obviously, the protagonist of this story is none other than Hikaru Genji or Prince Genji. Being the main focus of the tale, Genji is present and actually takes the center stage from Chapter One to Chapter Forty-One. The narrative of the story also revolves around his amorous exploits as well as his successes in politics. While his life soared during the early years, the tale also depicts its slow but sure decline when he reached the age of 40. He became vulnerable to the new generation of young heroes such as Yugiri and Kashiwagi. The last straw that ended the shining light of the prince was the death of his beloved Murasaki.

Genji’s mother, Lady Kiritsubo, is another notable character in the story. Despite being beloved by Emperor Kiritsubo, Lady Kiritsubo was highly at a disadvantage at court without the political support of both parents. Because she is the favorite of the Emperor, Lady Kiritsubo was also an eyesore to the other concubines who pine for the Emperor’s attention as well as the throne of the Empress. The concubine who despises her the most would probably Lady Kokiden, who aspires to become the Empress someday. Lady Kiritsubo was subject to harassment and humiliations from other women, which may be one of the causes of her early demise.

Genji’s father, on the other hand, is the Emperor Kiritsubo. Despite the big social gap between the Emperor and Lady Kiritsubo, his devotion for her was still unwavering. However, he was aware of the fact that there are many who would wish harm upon her and their son should Genji be in the line of succession. A particular threat is Lady Kikoden. Hence, he demoted his son to a commoner in order to protect him and his mother. When Lady Kiritsubo passed away, the Emperor was in deep sorrow and mourning.

Other main characters to research about would be Lady Kikoden, Lady Fujitsubo, Murasaki, Suzaku, Reizei, and other people who held positions in the palace such as the Palace Minister.

Basic Analysis on the Themes of the Novel

Written in an archaic court language, The Tale of Genji remained unreadable even after a century since the author wrote it. As a result, the Japanese only based their understanding on annotated and illustrated versions of the work during the 12th century. Thankfully, The Tale of Genji was converted into modern Japanese translation by a poet known as Akiko Yosano. Other people who made attempts to translate this work were Minamoto no Chikayuki and Fujiwara Teika.

Divided in three parts, The Tale of Genji revolved around the life of Genji in the first two parts. On the other hand, the last part dealt more with the early years of two prominent descendants of Genji, which are Kaoru and Niou. Themes of the novel and its series are more on the romance and adventure that Genji, and later on his descendants, experiences throughout his life. It also delves on the complicacy of their lives in terms of following what is right and what their heart wants.

Adapting the Tale of Genji and Its Famous Quotes Into Movies and Anime

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The first time that the Tale of Genji was adapted into cinematic form was in the year 1951 as directed by Kozaburo Yoshimura. It was followed by a film directed by Kon Ichikawa in the year 1966. Later on, it was adapted into an anime film in the year 1987 under Director Gisaburo Sugi, though this version only covered the first twelve chapters of the story. Furthermore, this anime film incorpoerated some psychological motivation that were not really part of the novel. An anime TV series based on the Tale of Genji was made in the year 2009 as directed by Osamu Dezaki.

There were also famous quotes coming from the novel such as, “Real things in the darkness seem no realer than dreams,” and, “No art or learning is to be pursued halfheartedly...and any art worth learning will certainly reward more or less generously the effort made to study it.” Truly, this story has not made a lot of impacts also the Japanese way of thinking.