2022 NO.33


Journey Through Japanese Literature


Learn About the World’s Oldest Full-Length Novel

A masterpiece of dynastic literature in a romantic full-length novel by the 11th-century lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu—Explore the appeal of a work of classic literature still read today as a refined example of Japanese aesthetics.

Genji Monogatari Zu Byobu; Wakana jo Byobu (“The Tale of Genji scene on folding screen; Wakana-jo screen”) painted by 17th century painter Tosa Mitsuoki (Collection: Freer Gallery of Art, gift from Charles Lang Freer)

Kyoto flourished as a political and cultural center, reaching its peak during the Heian period (794–1185). As aristocratic society took root, the uniquely elegant dynastic culture of Japan blossomed.

It was at the peak of this golden age, in the early 11th century, that the world’s oldest extant full-length novel, The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari), was written by author and noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu. The story centers on the life of prince Hikaru Genji, depicting the peaks and valleys of his life as he falls in love with woman after woman, rising to power within noble circles, and finally living out his later years in disappointment.

The work comprises 54 volumes, featuring over 500 characters and spanning 70 years in this fictional world. Murasaki Shikibu elegantly captures the comings and goings of court life on a grand scale. The novel has captivated legions of readers and has been translated into some 40 languages, beginning with an English translation done by a British literary scholar.

13th century manuscript of The Tale of Genji (Collection: Hosa Library, City of Nagoya)

The Tale of Genji has also inspired derivations of many kinds throughout the ages. The best known of these are Genji-e (“Genji Scene”) paintings. There are so many paintings from the Heian period to the present day which at-tempt to reproduce the world of this novel that they form their own genre. The novel also profoundly influenced subsequent performing arts such as the incense and tea ceremonies, as well as noh and kabuki theatre, and even today it features as the subject of anime and manga. It is no exaggeration that The Tale of Genji pioneered the mixed genre arts at which Japan has excelled in recent years.

Those who have the chance to visit the spots in Kyoto and elsewhere associated with the story, or to see Genji-e paintings and other art in person, will enjoy envisioning the world that unfolds in The Tale of Genji. The novel is a wonderful guide for exploring the soul of Japanese culture by pondering a dynasty from more than 1,000 years ago.

English translation of The Tale of Genji by Arthur Waley

Painting of The Tale of Genji author Murasaki Shikibu from the 19th century (Collection: Tokyo National Museum)