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JanuaryInJapan Bookclub: The Tale of Genji

two Heian ladies in the Kyoto court

Genji's mother is diminished by the Kokiden Consort. Illustration for Kiritsubo by Masao Ebina, (Fuji Arts).

Yukki and I couldn't think of a better way to start the new year than to host a special online event about the book that melts our hearts: Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji.

There's no denying it's a big book, and it can be a little daunting. So we thought, why not break it down into bite-size pieces, and ease our way in, in our first online bookclub. We can bring Japanese drinks and snacks along and make a proper event of it!

But what makes our event seriously special, is that Yukki's friend Akira-san, currently a Researcher at Osaka University, has offered to come along too and share his very special insights into this central masterpiece of Japanese literature. With his knowledge of Ancient Japanese, he can help shed light on what Murasaki Shikibu wrote a thousand years ago!

In today's blog, we'd like to cover a few introductory materials regarding The Tale of Genji, which will be relevant during our JanuaryinJapan Bookclub. We will be specifically covering the following topics in this blog: 1. Our bookclub details and how you can join! 2. An introduction to the world of Genji and why we think it's such an important piece of literature 3. A short summary of Chapter 1, which is what we will be focusing on in our JanuaryinJapan Bookclub

4. An introduction on renowned Chinese poet Bai Juyi's poem The Song of Unending Sorrow and how the poem plays a role in The Tale of Genji 5. An introduction to waka (a type of classical Japanese poetry) and their significance in The Tale of Genji

6. A look into how to interpret waka poetry, using three famous translations of an iconic waka from Chapter 1


1. How to Join the JanuaryinJapan Bookclub

If you haven't already, we would be absolutely thrilled to see you at our bookclub! You can sign up to our online bookclub from here!

Date: January 29 (Sat) 2022, 1-2:30PM GMT

the cover of The Tale of Genji book

We will be discussing The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, Chapter 1 Kiritsubo (The Paulownia Pavilion) in the translation by Royall Tyler. Some of the key discussion questions we have are:

  • Who is Murasaki Shikibu, and what does the first chapter say about the time in which she lives, and her life in the Imperial court?

  • Why is Murasaki Shikibu telling this tale? Who is she telling it to?

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

  • What do we think of the Kokiden Consort?

  • What do we think of Genji's relationships with Aoi and Fujitsubo?

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

  • How does the waka poetry relate to the story?

With these questions in mind, let's dive right into the world of Genji!


2. An Introduction to the World of Genji

Murasaki Shikibu writing The Tale of Genji

Murasaki by unknown artist c.1890, (

When Yukki and I happened on the idea of creating a small community online centred around a bookclub, there was only one novel that could possibly contend for our first reading. It’s a book that has made a massive impression on us – because it seems to unlock the key to the elusive perfection of beauty that is found in our beloved city, Kyoto.

The Tale of Genji was written at the beginning of the 11th century, when the Heian court’s meticulous refinement of the expression of beauty was reaching its peak.

Many of the court’s occupations have filtered down over the centuries and are still present in the city today: the same festivals and traditions, the beautiful textiles, the art of scent, and the art of poetry.

We’ve chosen to read the translation by Royall Tyler, not least because he retains the essence of the characters’ communication through poetry.

In his translated edition, Royall Tyler introduces The Tale of Genji and puts it in context far more succinctly than I can:

The Tale of Genji must be the oldest novel still widely recognised today as a masterpiece.

Its author was a woman whose work ranks in Japanese Literature and culture as do the Homeric epics,

the works of Shakespeare, and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past do elsewhere.

Within a few decades of its completion in the early eleventh century, it was deemed a classic,

and writings on it multiplied over the centuries.

The great poet Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114-1204) even declared study of it to be indispensable

for anyone who would compose poetry, and his words were long remembered.

The tale’s popularity also made motifs from it perennially prominent in Japanese painting.’


3. An Introduction to Chapter 1: Kiritsubo (The Paulownia Tree)

Genji in the Kyoto court

Tosa Mitsunobu, The Paulownia Tree, Chapter 1 of The Tale of Genji, (Harvard Art Museum)

"I have been very rude to speak so ill to you of tales!

They record what has gone on ever since the Age of the Gods.

The Chronicles of Japan and so on give only a part of the story.

It is tales that contain the truly rewarding particulars!"

He laughed. "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—whatever there is about the way people live their lives,

for better or worse,

that is a sight to see or a wonder to hear—overflow the teller's heart."

At the beginning of Chapter 1, the Emperor (Genji's father) shows more consideration and affection for the lower-ranked woman known as the Kiritsubo Intimate. This causes great concern among his other favoured women, not least the Kokiden Consort, who is a high-born woman with a son who is destined to become the next Emperor. When the Kiritsubo Consort also bears the Emperor a son, she is hounded to death through her jealousy and rage.

The beloved son who is born to the Kiritsubo Intimate and the Emperor is a child of dazzling beauty, and clear brilliance and charm that suits him perfectly to become the next Emperor. However, he has no support on his mother's side, which is crucial to becoming a successful Emperor, and so, the Emperor makes the decision that the boy will be a commoner - a Genji - and his path to success is detailed through the novel.

At his coming-of-age ceremony at the age of 12, Prince Genji marries Aoi, the daughter of the high-powered Minister of the Left.

But the seed of sadness underlying Genji's story has already been planted, because he has fallen in love with his father's new consort, the lady Fujitsubo. Fujitsubo is said to resemble the mother that Genji lost all those years before.


4. The Song of Unending Sorrow

Murasaki Shikibu

Murasaki Shikibu (Artelino)

In our JanuaryinJapan Bookclub, we will be discussing how the poem The Song of Unending Sorrow by the renowned poet Bai Juyi relates to The Tale of Genji.

Much of the Heian court in Kyoto (Heian-kyo) was modelled on the contemporary Chinese Tang Dynasty (around 618-907), and the poet Bai Juyi was very much a part of the literature that the highly-educated court read.

Much of his work is referred to by Murasaki Shikibu in The Tale of Genji, and this poem runs through the story of the grief-stricken Japanese Emperor and would have resonated with the contemporary audience, adding extra layers of meaning.

illustration of yang guifei

The poem tells the tragic love story of the Tang Emperor Xuanzong and his favourite concubine Yang Guifei.

When the Emperor gazes at illustrations of scenes from the poem he identifies with the Chinese Emperor Xuanzong, who is mourning the loss of 'the beauty that might shake an empire', 'a face that put all flowers to shame', Yang Guifei.

...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?

In the Japanese text of The Tale of Genji we see that these illustrations were commissioned by the Teiji Palace. Teiji Palace was a retirement palace of the real Emperor Uda, and the passing mention of it creates a sense of realism in the audience.

So we are looking at the poem to gain insight on how this famous poem gave this opening chapter of Genji a root in contemporary history, and a realism and veracity that adds to its credibility as a story.

Chapter 1, 'The Paulownia Pavilion':

    '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.'


5. An Introduction to Waka Poetry in The Tale of Genji

Two ladies playing Go in the Kyoto court

Scenes from The Tale of Genji by Tosa Mitsuyoshi and Chojiro, (Kyoto National Museum)

The poetry in The Tale of Genji is significant in that it condenses and heightens the emotion of the moment and is used as a key tool of communication. It is astonishing to discover that the earliest translation into English referred to them obliquely.

The Tale of Genji contains 795 waka poems, and these became an indispensable part of the education of any Japanese poet from the 12th century. It is evident that The Tale of Genji was written by a highly-educated woman for a highly-educated court - her wealth of references and allusions to earlier poems could only have resonated with those of a formidable education. By the end of the twelfth century, knowledge of the poems from The Tale of Genji and the tale itself became an indispensable part of a poet’s education.

Waka poetry was an essential part of life for the Heian nobility, which is why characters in The Tale of Genji have the incredible facility to compose or recite poems at given moments in the story.

The most well-developed form of waka is the tanka, or 'short poem', which has a syllable phrasing of five-seven-five-seven-seven, for a total of thirty-one. In the Heian period, the tanka was the basic form of waka.

The many poems of The Tale of Genji reflects that waka were a central part of everyday life among the the Heian courtiers.

a Heian knotted letter

A knotted letter

Zōtōka punctuate The Tale of Genji. They are the romantic poetic communications between a man (alluding to his love) and a woman (who often is encouraged to respond by her waiting ladies).

These are the poems that were expected after a romantic overnight assignation. It was courtly of a man to lament leaving at dawn and it was expected that he would send a note detailing his misery at leaving :)

These are the poems that were written onto carefully chosen special paper which was loaded with meaning, tied into an elegant knot, and sent on foot across Kyoto to the beloved with a branch of cherry blossom, or some other symbolic plant that was in season.

They were the romantic text message of their day!


6. A Look into Interpreting an Iconic Waka Poem

two Heian ladies looking at manuscripts in The Tale of Genji

Masao Ebina, The Picture Contest from The Tale of Genji, which was inspired by Heian poetry contests.

There are three famous translations of The Tale of Genji into English:

  • Royall Tyler (2001),

  • Ed Seidensticker (1976)

  • Arthur Waley (1925-33)

At our JanuaryinJapan Bookclub, Akira-san will help us pay special attention to an iconic waka from Chapter 1 (page 10 in the Royall Tyler translation), which the mother of Kiritsubo, taking care of the fate of her grandson (Genji), sends to the Emperor. Its original as well as its literal translation goes as follows:

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 general, by composing waka poems, people in the Heian period tried to communicate their feelings, emotions, and thoughts. A good waka often communicates them only in an implicit, indirect manner; if one expressed his or her message explicitly, such a person would be treated as quite vulgar (cf. the Tales of Ise, a famous collection of waka poems from the Heian Period, contains a number of episodes where such “vulgar” poems are made fun of by aristocrats from Kyoto).

This particular waka poem is a good example of how people related to the Imperial Court and expressed their messages in a highly sophisticated manner. And since it is sophisticated, its message is ambiguous and therefore very difficult to interpret and translate into English.

hagi plant

The little hagi frond

Here is how the three authors mentioned above have translated this waka into English: Royal Tyller ‘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.]

Ed Seidensticker

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

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

Arthur Waley ‘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.]

How do you interpret these waka translations and how do you think the poem relates to the unfolding story? What was Kiritsubo's mother trying to tell the Emperor by sending him this poem? What were her intentions? Akira-san will share two key examples of how we can interpret the message from this waka at our bookclub! 😄


We hope you join our JanuaryinJapan Bookclub!

We look forward to seeing you at our JanuaryinJapan Bookclub! 🌸 Remember you can sign up to the bookclub from here and you can always email us at if you have any questions.

Cathy & Yukki xx

Heian lady reading

Sources used for this blog

  • Ed Seidensticker translation of The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu online

  • Arthur Waley translation of The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu online

  • Genji quote in An Introduction to Chapter 1: Murasaki Shikibu, Royall Tyler (trans.), The Tale of Genji, Hotaru, (Penguin Classics), Chapter 25, p.461.

  • Knotted letter photo: thank you to NHK

  • The Song of Unending Sorrow illustration, thank you to 100 Tang Poems

  • Hagi illustration, thank you to Tales of Genji Blogspot and to

Additional resources for further reading!

Where to read the first chapter of The Tale of Genji for free:

Where to buy the entire book:

  • Blackwell’s UK The Tale of Genji Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, by Murasaki Shikibu and translated by Royall Tyler £20.99.

  • Amazon (includes Kindle edition for £2.99)

Where to read a summary of The Tale of Genji:

  • Try here on

  • For an introduction to Murasaki Shikibu and The Tale of Genji, you might enjoy listening to this short podcast on BBC Sounds, too!

Book recommendations if you love the Heian court world of Genji:

  • Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince, (Kodansha).

  • Sei Shonagon, Meredith McKinney (trans.), The Pillow Book, (Penguin Classics).

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

  • Murasaki Shikibu, The Diary of Lady Murasaki, (Penguin Classics).

  • Royall Tyler, The Disaster of the Third Princess (essays) at

  • Also, there is a fascinating recorded webinar from Daiwa Foundation presented by Haruo Shirane and Dr Jennifer Guest called Women in Classical Japanese Literature, which you can find here!

Zusetsu blog recommendations if you adore the world of Genji:


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