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A Review of our JanuaryinJapan Online Book Club Event!

illustration of murasaki shikibu

We loved looking at this beautiful image of Murasaki Shikibu.

What could the significance of the green and red colours in her juunihitoe be?

Have you ever loved a book and the world that it recreates in your imagination so much that you’d love to find like-minded friends to share your thoughts with?

Well, that’s exactly what happened for me when Yukki and I hosted our JanuaryInJapan Bookclub online and chose as our subject The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu.

It was our first ever Bookclub, and we didn’t know what to expect. What delighted us was an online gathering of wonderful people from many parts of the world including Pakistan, Japan, Italy, France, and of course different parts of the UK – bringing with them many different viewpoints and a profound fascination for this highly acclaimed book, which is regarded as the world’s first novel.

We shared our discussion with artists, linguists, Japan lovers, students and academics, and so the discussions were rich and valuable and informative, bringing many different ways of appreciating and thinking about this text.

Thank you to everyone who came! It would not have been the same without any one of you!

Our Special Guest

We were especially fortunate to have Yukki’s friend Akira-san join us from Osaka, where he’s currently a researcher at Osaka University specialising in Greek philosophy. Akira-san has tutored Japanese high school students in classical Japanese literature for many years, and we were fortunate to be able to listen to him share his valuable insights regarding the interpretation of waka poetry in the first chapter of The Tale of Genji.


I made some notes after our event and I’d love to share them with you, just so that you can get an impression of what we discussed!

The Significance of Purple
murasaki shikibu holding a fan

Lavender shoots

on the Plain of Kasuga,

like the riotous patterns

of this purple robe –

what tangled feelings you arouse.

(Poem 1, The Tales of Ise)

After a lovely initial chat, I began by introducing the display behind me which featured the lilac colours of our tenugui, especially our wisteria prints.

Through the first chapters of The Tale of Genji, the great loves of Genji’s life are connected by the lavender colour which is regarded by Heian aristocracy as especially noble.

  • Purple for Kiritsubo who was so named owing to the villa that she lived in the Imperial Palace grounds which housed a dazzling violet Paulownia tree.

  • Purple for Fujitsubo, the new wife of the Emperor, Genji’s father, who is believed to resemble Kiritsubo, Genji’s mother. Fujitsubo means the wisteria pavilion and it becomes her name as that is where she lives.

  • Purple for Murasaki. The word murasaki means purple in Japanese, and it is a pigment that comes from a little star-shaped gromwell plant. The character Murasaki is Genji’s true love, and we meet her in Chapter 4, and it’s from her that our author Murasaki Shikibu gets her nickname.

In Murasaki 's diary we possibly read of the first time that our author is named after her beloved character:

Zusetsu Tenugui with wisteria and koi carp

Major Counsellor Kintou poked his head in.

‘Excuse me,’ he said, ‘Would our little Murasaki be in attendance by any chance?’

‘I cannot see the likes of Genji here, so how could she be present?’ I replied.

A quick summary of the world of Murasaki Shikibu
Genji in the palace

The Tale of Genji was written at the beginning of the 11th century and it is considered the world’s first classic novel, and one of the central pillars of classic Japanese literature.

The story is set in the Imperial Court of the capital - Heian-kyo, the ‘city of peace and tranquility’, which we know today as Kyoto. Heian-kyo was, at this time the most flourishing cultural centre in the world next to the Chinese capital of Chang’an, on which it was partially modelled.

The Tale’s evocative description of the imperial court and the rituals of the aristocracy captured this golden age of courtly life.

It is a novel that centres on the romantic entanglements of its chief protagonist Hikaru Genji, the second son of the emperor.

How was it entering Murasaki Shikibu’s world of Genji?
a gold Japanese screen featuring the tale of genji

Everyone had found the world of Genji through different means: for some it was through the beautiful art that followed the Tale that made them curious about who the people were and what the story was about. Yukki had read bits in high school in Japan, much like how here in UK schools we read Shakespeare. The Tale had been accessed through manga and Japanese movies, and also read in several different translations.

Many of us had instantly fallen in love with the book and its world of beauty, describing it as:

  • Compulsive reading, the opening chapter reading like a thriller.

  • Immersive and enveloping.

  • Like a dream world. Aspiring to the perfection of beauty.

  • The most beautiful writing, where the expression of grief and love are described so delicately and in a very relatable and understandable way.

  • The opening to the story is reminiscent of Moghul tales from the same era, where there is an emperor and a girl of low rank who he adores.

The court is distant and the novel is set over a thousand years ago, but there’s something about the way that Murasaki writes that’s very relatable.

There is a psychological aspect to the book, where we get to see the interiority of Murasaki’s characters, particularly the women. Genji and his male associates have many love affairs, but Murasaki describes these relationships from the perspective of the women who are suffering from them. In this way the book feels quite modern.

Genji is so beautiful, and so brilliant and intelligent, and he’s so wonderful at everything he does, that he has the potential to be the perfect emperor. And while we know that his mother Kiritsubo wasn’t highborn enough and so it can never be, it’s interesting to see the connections between Genji and his mother: the love that the Emperor has for Genji’s mother evolves into the love that the Emperor has for the little boy.


What do we know about Murasaki Shikibu the author of this Tale, and who is she telling it to?
old illustration of empress shoshi and lady murasaki

Fujiwara no Shōshi became the Empress of Emperor Ichijō. In her service she had a number of women of first-class literary talent, including Izumi Shikibu, Akazome Emon, and Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji.

We can see that even among a group of women in Shōshi's service who were all talented in poetry and literature, Murasaki Shikibu attained special distinction and special treatment through writing a long-form narrative tale, recording a detailed account of her mistress' family celebration – the birth of a Prince - and tutoring the Empress in Chinese literature.

Murasaki Shikibu’s great-grandfather is one of the Thirty-Six Poetry Immortals, also a Fujiwara: Fujiwara no Kanesuke whose famous poem she references in The Paulownia Pavilion.

Emperor Ichijo had a second consort, the Empress Teishi, who had a rival literary salon which included Sei Shōnagon, author of The Pillow Book. Murasaki describes her in her diary as ‘dreadfully conceited’.

Murasaki Shikibu's Diary has an entry from the winter of 1008 telling of how Empress Shōshi's ladies-in-waiting turned a tale into fine books. It does not identify the tale as The Tale of Genji, but it does indicate that a large number of ladies-in-waiting divided up the work of transcribing the story which suggests that this is The Tale of Genji.

Murasaki Shikibu writes this entry in her diary:

That time for the return to the palace was approaching, but we were constantly rushed off our feet. Her Majesty was involved in her book-binding, and so first thing every morning we had to go to her quarters to choose paper of various colours and to write letters of request to people, enclosing copies of the stories. We were also kept busy night and day sorting and binding work that had already been finished.

We also read in the Diary that Shōshi's father Michinaga came to observe the work of producing the books. He makes a gift of high-quality extra-thin paper, as well as fine brushes, ink, and an inkstone.

At that time, before the development of printing, the work of putting together books all had to be by hand. Each letter had to be written out and the books needed to be physically put together. The project to make books out of the long narrative that Murasaki Shikibu describes in her diary must surely have involved a large number of ladies-in-waiting. It was a collaborative effort.

The Diary
statue of murasaki shikibu in Uji

The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu makes a wonderful companion piece to the fictional work – this is Murasaki’s record of events from within the actual court. This is what I love about Murasaki Shikibu’s diary – it feels like we’re getting a live report from the court about what’s happening with the physical creation of The Tale of Genji.

These stories are a part of the aristocrats lives in the court, which were then transcribed and written out in manuscript. We read in the Diary that the ladies of the court are transcribing the stories. We have the Empress Shōshi providing the materials. The emperor pops in at one point and provides beautiful paper, fine brushes and inks for the story to be recorded. So we can see that the background to The Tale of Genji, the court world that we’re entering, is very much something that is in Murasaki Shikibu’s everyday life, even if the Tale is set slightly in the past.

A Way to Pass the Time
Heian ladies with manuscripts

Writing stories and diaries must have been a good way to pass the time. The impression that you get from the books (the nikki, Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book, and The Tale of Genji) is that days were very long for ladies in the court, however much they were punctuated by festivals, and various calendar events, and pilgrimages.

Between these excitements the ladies of the court were secluded from the outer world behind screens and standing curtains. Creating a world of fantasy in instalments must have helped pass the time. And literature was such a central part of their lives, as we see by the way the Heian nobles correspond by waka poetry.

We see in The Tale of Genji that a courtier was very much judged on their ability to write a worthy response to a poem. It needed to include allusions to Chinese and Japanese poetry of the past, as well as a reference to nature. Their response demonstrated their quick wit and their education.

The Tale of Genji was not a book meant for commoners - they didn’t have access to this story initially. It was only for aristocracy and the royals. The Heian courtiers lived a life in times of peace, creating poetry, playing the koto, romancing, enjoying their days. The novel is very much of its time, but because people began to talk about it the manuscript began to be copied. It was given to young girls when they were married.

The Sarashina Diary, which was written a decade or two later, begins with a young girl writing her diary, saying, ‘Oh, please arrange things so we may soon go to the capital where there are so many tales, and please let me read them all!’ This young girl known as Takasue no Musume is bursting to get her hands on The Tale of Genji!

genji and tamakazura with fireflies

In the Fireflies chapter, we see Genji and the daughter of his best friend, Tamakazura, gather the stories, the monogatari. They discuss the value of tales, in a way that echoes how this Tale may have been used to occupy the time:

‘The long rains were worse this year than most, and to get through the endless wet the ladies amused themselves day and night with illustrated tales. The lady from Akashi made up some very nicely and sent them to her daughter. This sort of thing particularly intrigued the young lady in the west wing, who therefore gave herself all day long to copying and reading. She had several young gentlewomen suitably gifted to satisfy this interest…

...Finding her enthralled by works like these, which lay scattered about everywhere, Genji exclaimed, ‘Oh no, this will never do! Women are obviously duped without a murmur of protest. There is hardly a word of truth in all this, as you know perfectly well, but there you are, caught up in fables, taking them quite seriously and writing away without a thought for your tangled hair in this stiflingly warm rain!’ He laughed but then went on, ‘Without stories like these about the old days though, how would we ever pass the time when there is nothing else to do?’ (Murasaki Shikibu, (Royall Tyler trans.), The Tale of Genji, (Penguin Classics), p. 460).

Genji then backtracks a little bit, saying, well actually, the historical chronicles which were officially written, they were all very well, but where we really find out about what life was really like is in the tales.

‘I have been very rude to speak so ill of tales…’ Genji says. ‘Not that tales accurately describe any particular person, rather, the telling begins when all those things the teller longs to have pass on to future generations…’


How does The Tale of Genji compare with western literature of the 11th century?
king arthur

I find it fascinating that here in the UK, our contemporary stories, while also originating from the oral story-telling tradition and set down in manuscripts, were epic tales of battle and broad swords; revenge and courage. Nothing could be further from the ladies of the Kyoto court obsessing over the colour combinations (kasane) of their robes!

At the same time, I think it’s interesting that our contemporary UK hero, King Arthur, who at the time of 950AD appears as a leader of battle in the Welsh Annals, has continued to be an inspiration over the centuries for poetry and story and currently film, just as Genji after a thousand years continues to be at the heart of Japanese culture.

But, because The Tale of Genji has depth and psychological insights, (it particularly shares the perspectives of the women who are suffering), and because it has a particular narrative style, it is comparable to Don Quixote, the 17th century novel by Miguel de Cervantes, which is regarded as the first modern novel.

Interestingly, The Tale of Genji does share aspects of epic as well as a collection of anecdotes like Don Quixote. In terms of political strife, Genji was expelled from the centre of Kyoto to outlying Suma, and he later returns to the centre of Kyoto again. This episode is one of the main threads of the story in the first half of the book, and in this way it does resemble the epics. There is a huge battle politically speaking, and Genji on his return is regarded as some kind of hero.


The Characters in Chapter 1: The Kokiden Consort
ladies of the Kyoto court

The first chapter, ‘The Paulownia Pavilion’, begins by relating how the Emperor favoured one of his women with special affection, even though she was not the highest ranked among them.

She was known as the Kiritsubo Intimate (literally meaning ‘the Intimate of the Paulownia Pavilion’), and eventually she gives birth to Genji, the main character of the tale.

Genji is the Second Prince of the Kiritsubo Emperor, and his mother, the Kiritsubo Intimate, enjoys the highest favour of the Emperor. But the Intimate is so hounded by the other ladies out of jealousy, especially the Kokiden Consort, who is the daughter of a powerful Fujiwara, that she dies in the end. After much deliberation, the Emperor decides to give this Second Prince a commoner’s surname, Genji (Minamoto).

Another factor in the Kokiden Consort’s reaction could be that the birth of Genji to a woman without a controlling Fujiwara patriarch behind her means a potential rival to the throne who would not be subject to control by her Fujiwara family, who acted as regents.

Because Genji does not have powerful maternal male relatives behind him to support him, Genji’s position is precarious, prompting the emperor to make him a commoner – a Genji. A Genji is someone of Imperial lineage who is made a commoner so that his rivals will not kill him.

Genji will never ascend the throne like his half-brother the future Emperor Suzaku, but he will achieve a symbolic form of sovereignty, ultimately rising to the exalted position of ‘honorary retired emperor’.

The Tale legitimises Genji’s claim to this position in these first pages, using imagery of wonder and otherworldliness to describe him:

  • ‘He was turning out to be so handsome that he hardly seemed of this world at all.’

  • ‘When he reached his seventh year, His Majesty had him perform his first reading, which he carried off with such unheard brilliance that his father was frankly alarmed.’

  • …’ he was already so charmingly distinguished in manner…’, …’he set the heavens ringing with the music of strings and flute.’

  • ‘In fact, if I were to list all the things at which he excelled, I would only succeed in making him sound absurd.’

  • ‘The family found Genji preternaturally attractive..’

The Palace Layout
the emperor's private apartments in Kyoto

The opening of the first chapter of The Tale of Genji, The Paulownia Pavilion, refers to 'all His Majesty's Consorts and Intimates'.

The high-born consorts, as well as the top-rank intimates like Kiritsubo, were each granted their own individual building. Each building had a name, and the women were known by the name of their residence. For example, Genji's older brother's mother, who sees Genji as a threat to her son's Imperial ascendancy, is known as the Kokiden Consort, which means that she lives in the Kokiden.

The detached building west of the Kokiden was known as Fujitsubo or the Wisteria Pavilion for the fuji or wisteria trees that grew in the garden. This was the home of the woman known as Fujitsubo, who becomes the new wife of the Emperor. Genji tragically falls in love with her.

It is important to note how close the buildings are to each other: the Kokiden, the Fujitsubo, and the Seiryōden (the private apartments of the Emperor).

The Kiritsubo, or the Paulownia Pavilion, was named after the kiri or paulownia trees planted there. This is where Genji's mother lived, which is why she is called Kiritsubo. We learn in the first chapter that the Kiritsubo is at a distance from the Emperor's quarters in the Seiryōden: it’s at the far corner of the Inner Palace.

And so we learn in The Paulownia Pavilion, that when Kiritsubo, who was the most beloved of the Emperor, made her frequent visits to visit him at the Seiryōden, she passed the villas of all the other consorts. Whenever the Emperor walked to the Kiritsubo and spent the night with his beloved Kiritsubo Intimate, all of the consorts and Intimates would be aware of him passing by. It would have created significant tensions within the Inner Palace.

The Tales of Ise
a Heian court lady

The Tales of Ise is a template for love outside the norm of arranged political marriage.

The opposition between love and orthodox marriage lies at the heart of the uta-monogatari or poem-tale tradition.

Though the Ise Monogatari depicts various aspects of love it does not reflect the social customs of the Heian aristocracy. If anything, it represents the opposite: its heroes and heroines disregard the norms and taboos of society in the pursuit of love.

The amorous hero of the early monogatari emerged in reaction to the impersonal nature of the court bureaucracy and the marriage system.

In an age when aristocratic marriage was normally an arrangement between families, it comes as no surprise that the hero of the popular uta-monogatari should discover love outside that institution.

The Court Hierarchy
Heian court ladies in the tale of genji

The Kokiden clearly suffers, witnessing the Emperor falling for another woman. Everyone in the court would have been very aware of what the rules were within the court, and how the emperor should be behaving with which consort and which intimate.

The Emperor is acting in opposition of the rules of the court - he’s following his heart. It sets up a template for the kind of love affairs that Genji begins to follow.

It’s understandable that the Kokiden is upset, because the secure position of her son becoming the next emperor is threatened by the love that the Emperor bears for Kiritsubo and for their child, the dazzling Genji.

An interesting point was made about the Kokiden, in that we possibly shouldn’t put too much trust in what is written in The Tale of Genji. This story is narrated from the position of the Emperor and Kiritsubo, and from their perspective the Kokiden behaves very badly.


The Waka Poems
illustration of genji sitting

By composing waka poems, people in the Heian era communicated their feelings, emotions, and thoughts.

There are nine waka poems in chapter 1, but the fifth poem was our focus, where the mother of Kiritsubo is taking care of the fate of her grandson Genji, and sends the poem to the Emperor.

Myōbu the messenger visits Genji’s grandmother to talk about how the Emperor is doing, and how deep his sorrow is after Kiritsubo’s death. Here is the original of the waka and also its translation:

⑤荒き風(araki-kaze), harsh wind

⑦ふせぎし蔭の(husegi-shi-kage-no), the tree that prevented [it]

⑤枯れしより(kare-shi-yori), ever since [it] withered

⑦小萩がうへぞ(kohagi-ga-ue-zo), over the little hagi

⑦静心なき(shizugokoro-naki), there is no calm mind

In natural Japanese the poem reads: araki-kaze, husegishikageno, kareshiyori, kohagi ga ue zo, shizugokoro naki.

The numbers indicate the number of the syllables in each line. We can see that it follows the typical waka meter: 5,7,5,7,7.

The more modern Japanese poetry form haiku, which evolved in the Edo era has a meter of 5,7,5: it is shorter than waka. An example may be the famous frog haiku by Bashō:

Furu ike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

This translates as: an ancient pond, a frog leaps in, the sound of water.

By composing waka poems people in the Heian era tried to communicate their feelings, emotions and thoughts, and a good waka often communicates only in an indirect manner. If a courtier expressed his or her message too explicitly it would be regarded as a quite poor waka.

The Tales of Ise is a collection of poems about an aristocratic person presumed to be Ariwara no Narihira. It contains a lot of waka poems from the Heian period. It also contains a number of episodes where poorly made poems are made fun of by aristocrats from Kyoto!

The Tales of Ise was written before The Tale of Genji and it is explicitly mentioned in the 47th chapter.

The waka above is a good example of how the people belonging to the imperial court expressed their messages in a highly sophisticated manner. Because it is sophisticated its message is ambiguous and therefore difficult to interpret. Therefore there is room for different kinds of interpretation.

Here is how the authors of the three most well-known translations of The Tale of Genji translated this waka into English.

The first one is the newest one, Royall Tyler’s translation:

‘Ever since that tree whose boughs took the cruel winds withered and was lost

my heart is sorely troubled for the little hagi frond.’ [R.T.]

What is interesting about this translation is that he uses the word frond for kohagi. The frond is a cluster of small tiny leaves.

By contrast, let’s see Ed Seidensticker’s translation. It goes as follows:

"The tree that gave them shelter has withered and died.

One fears for the plight of the hagi shoots beneath." [E.S.]

So for him, first of all, kohagi is not singular but plural, and it’s not a frond but shoots.

Next, Arthur Waley’s translation:

‘All this, together with a poem in which she compared her grandchild to a flower which has lost the tree that sheltered it from the great winds, was so wild and so ill-writ as only to be suffered from the hand of one whose sorrow was as yet unhealed.’ [A.W.]

Its translation is unique in that Waley does not actually translate it into an English poem, but instead he inserts it into the main text. So for Arthur Waley, kohagi, little hagi, is a flower: not a frond, not a shoot, but a flower.

The use of the metaphor of a plant is understandable: the tree that prevented the harsh wind stands for Kiritsubo who has passed away or withered. The little hagi is of course the little child Genji. There is no 'calm mind' in his grandmother – her first thoughts are for Genji’s future.

What’s so interesting however is not so much the translation itself, but the interpretations. What does the composer of this poem, the grandmother of Genji, actually mean by this waka?

The letter she sent is said to be 'distracted'. According to Royall Tyler’s translation, he translated this from the original Japanese word midari ga hashiki 乱りがはしき. But, in what sense is it distracted? This is quite a technical point, but generally speaking, the adjective 乱りがはしき (midarigahashiki) is the original of midarigahashi, and midarigahashi has three meanings:

1) unordered or messy

2) rude or impolite

3) amorous or erotic

Among these three meanings of midarigahashi, (1) and (2) can be relevant here. If we accept (1) to be what is principally meant, the letter from the grandmother would be “distracted” in the sense that she was so concerned for the future of Genji that her style of writing was exceptionally unordered. She was upset that her way of writing was messy. This is probably the most usual way of understanding the point.

However, by contrast, if we understand (2), rude or impolite, to be principally relevant here in the waka, accordingly, the interpretation of the waka at issue may change. In that waka, the grandmother of Genji would be implicitly demanding that the Emperor pays much more attention to her grandson. She is asking that the Emperor becomes another tree that shelters Genji from the 'harsh wind' (i.e.political strife).

This would be regarded as very impolite, given the high respect that the courtiers had for the Emperor.

Of course, both interpretations are possible. Whether we choose (1) or (2) depends on how we understand Genji’s grandmother’s feelings and the relationship between her and the Emperor.

Of course there may be yet another way of understanding the waka and the situation.

It is worth noting that the grandmother is described as being in an inner conflict in chapter 1. There are three points of evidence for this:

  • Directly after Kiritsubo’s cremation, while claiming that it is better to see the ashes than to see the body, the grandmother’s grief is so great that she almost falls from the ox-cart.

  • Genji’s grandmother feels that it is a bad omen for Genji to be with her, but at the same time, she hesitates to let him return to the court. She loves Genji a lot, and she wants to be with him but at the same time she feels it’s not best for Genji.

  • Genji’s grandmother has a bitter feeling about the emperor.

She is thankful that the Emperor loved Kiritsubo, but because he loved Kiritsubo so much her daughter cannot now see the face of her son Genji.

She surely believes that her daughter was bullied harshly by the other ladies and died because his love was too overt.

She may well think that he should have made much more effort to protect her daughter from the bullying. So it is possible she has some resentment toward the Emperor.

To sum up, in her mind, there is a tension between her true gratitude and her resentment towards the Emperor. The gratitude accords with her reason, and the resentment accords with her emotional self.

Although the Emperor shows a deep genuine sorrow and grief, and cares about Genji a lot, his feelings do not portray the tremendous conflict that clearly resides in the grandmother.

From this point of view he may be seen as a shallow person in comparison with the grandmother. And it is possible that his character is inferred to simply by The Song of Unending Sorrow, which we turn to next.

It's not that the emperor is depicted as a bad person. Later, in the 13th chapter, Akashi, his ghost appears in the dream of Genji, to talk him out of committing suicide. In this way, the Emperor does, at last, fulfil his duty to Genji to be his shelter as the grandmother requests.

It is also possible that the original interpretation of messy and unordered could be because when the emperor’s messenger Myōbu comes to the grandmother she notices that the garden is messy and disordered and not taken care of. It could be that the grandmother’s mind and thoughts are messy and disordered because of the grief she feels owing to the loss of her daughter.


There may be many differing translations to this waka because in ancient Japanese poetry there were kakekotoba, which are homophonics: the words have the same sound but they have a different meaning.

An example is 松, matsu, meaning ‘pine tree’ and 待つ, matsu, which is the verb ‘to wait’.

Sometimes it is difficult to understand the intention of the waka poem. Sometimes there isn’t only one meaning, but there may be two or three, and in this case the grandmother’s intention could be all of the interpretations, not just one. If she could not openly criticize the Emperor, she may have been grieving but she may also believe that the Emperor had caused the death of her daughter. There could be multiple layers of meaning creating tension in those five lines. There can be intertextualities and allusions, and without a lot of knowledge it is not always possible to know the true meaning.


Bai Juyi and The Song of Unending Sorrow

How does China's Yōkihi (Yang Guifei) depicted in The Song of Unending Sorrow relate to the unfolding story in Chapter 1?

Yang Guifei sitting

The ancient capital of Heian-kyo was heavily modelled on the capital of China, Chang’an, or modern day Xian.

In The Tale of Genji we see the response of the courtiers to items from China - they are regarded as of superior taste. The poem The Song of Unending Sorrow by the 8th century Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi ripples through the opening of The Tale of Genji, and shows us the influence that China had over the Kyoto court, although it was beginning to weaken by this point. In any case, Bai Juyi was more revered in Heian-kyo than in his native China.

We also know from reading Murasaki Shikibu’s Diary that she was fluent in Chinese, having overheard the lessons of her brother. She writes:

‘I was in the habit of listening with him and I became unusually proficient at understanding those passages that he found too difficult to grasp 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!’

We know that Murasaki reads the poetry of Bai Juyi to her Empress in secret, (because it was considered too unladylike to be too knowledgeable in this sort of subject) and teaches her a little.

Murasaki Shikibu enabled her contemporary readers to read The Tale of Genji as if it might be a true story. Her tale is set in the court that was her life and home, and she references and alludes to real Emperors who were a part of her cultural reference.

An explicit example is in the opening chapter of The Tale of Genji, where we learn of illustrations commissioned by Emperor Uda, the 59th Emperor of Japan(867-931).

So here we meet the fictional Emperor (Genji’s father) who is suffering from the loss of the Kiritsubo Intimate (Genji’s mother and the Emperor’s true love).

Myōbu felt a pang of sympathy when she found that His Majesty had not yet retired for the night. The garden court was in its autumn glory, and on the pretext of admiring it he had quietly called into attendance four or five of his most engaging gentlewomen, with whom he was now conversing. Lately he had been spending all his time examining illustrations of The Song of Unending Sorrow commissioned by Emperor Uda, with poems by Ise and Tsurayuki, and other poems as well, in native speech or in Chinese, as long as they were on that theme, which was the constant topic of his conversation. (Murasaki Shikibu, Royall Tyler (trans.), The Tale of Genji, (Penguin Classics), p.10).

The lingering grief of Genji’s father and the way that he pines over his lost love echoes themes from ‘The Song of Unending Sorrow’:

...The pools, the gardens, the palace, all were just as before,

The Lake Taiye hibiscus, the Weiyang Palace willows;

But a petal was like her face and a willow-leaf her eyebrow --

And what could he do but cry whenever he looked at them?

This poem tells the tragic love story of a contemporary Chinese Tang dynasty Emperor, Xuanzong, for his concubine, the ‘beauty that might shake an empire’, ‘a face that put all flowers to shame’: Yang Guifei.

Later in the first chapter, the Emperor laments that the gentlewoman Myōbu returns with gifts from young Genji’s home but not ‘the hairpin that she sent back from beyond’. Here the Emperor is directly referencing the part in The Song of Unending Sorrow where Yang Guifei is in the other world , she’s in this other island, and she sends back half a golden pin and half a shell box for the emperor to keep.

The Emperor’s love for his Kiritsubo koi mirrors the Tang emperor’s love for the lowborn but incomparably beautiful concubine, and this threatens the public order (and ultimately brings about her death).

And there’s an example of this on page 9 of the Royall Tyler translation, where the Kiritsubo Intimate’s mother says to Myōbu: ‘Unfortunately, His Majesty became far more fond than was right of someone who did not deserve that degree of favour…’ and Myōbu responds telling of the Emperor’s regret, and how he says, ‘I now understand how damaging my love for her really was. I insisted despite my better judgement on favouring her to the point of scandal..’


murasaki shikibu statue in Uji

Thank you to Marie for sharing her photos of Murasaki Shikibu's statue

by the 'Floating Bridge of Dreams' at Uji.

Well, as you will now know, we had a wonderful time discussing this extraordinary first chapter and the mesmerising world of Murasaki Shikibu. The discussions were amazing, and we believe that an online community get-together is a truly great thing. We all showed up with our passion for this incredible book, and we're certain we will come together again to share our thoughts and ideas :)

We look forward to seeing you next time,

thank you for reading,

Cathy and Yukki


cherry blossom
Further Resource


Murasaki Shikibu, Royall Tyler (trans.), The Tale of Genji, (Penguin Classics).

Murasaki Shikibu, Richard Bowring (trans.), The Diary of Lady Murasaki, (Penguin Classics).

Takasue no Musume (Lady Sarashina), Ivan Morris (trans.), As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, (Penguin Classics).

Peter Macmillan (trans.), The Tales of Ise (Penguin Classics).

Haruo Shirane, The Bridge of Dreams, (Stanford University Press).

WasedaX: Invitation to The Tale of Genji: The Foundational Elements of Japanese Culture.

Harvard Edx: Ancient Masterpieces of World Literature.

Illustration of Murasaki Shikibu: Wikimedia Commons.

Illustration of Murasaki Shikibu: Artelino

Illustration of the Kokiden and Kiritsubo by Masao Ebina: Fuji Arts

Illustration of Yang Guifei: Wikipedia

Illustration of Genji by Hokusai: Harvard Art Museum

Illustration for Poem 23 of The Tales of Ise, 1st Art Gallery

Yoshio Okada, Hotaru: Artelino

Genji Screen, Nine Scenes from The Tale of Genji and An Aviary: Met Museum

King Arthur: Wikipedia

Masao Ebina, The Picture Contest

Illustration of Genji: Harvard Wiki


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