Simanaitis Says

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THE TALE OF GENJI is noteworthy for several reasons: This 11th-century work of Japanese literature has been called the world’s first novel. It was more than just a tale; its story had psychological aspects, sort of the proto-Haruki Murakami. What’s more, this first of literary masterpieces was written by a woman. And its illustrated interpretations reach from 12th century scrolls to today’s manga graphic novels.


Murasaki Shikibu, c. 973 or 978 – c. 1014 or 1031, Japanese author of The Tale of Genji, written between about 1000 and 1012. Late 16th-century portrait by Kanō Takanobu.

Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji, was an 11th-century poet and lady-in-waiting at the Imperial Court during Japan’s Heian Period, 794 – 1185. This era in Japan’s history is considered a high point of its poetry and literature.


Text from the earliest illustrated handscroll, 12th century. Image from the Gotoh Museum, Tokyo.

The Tale of Genji tells the life of Hikaru Genji, “Shining Genji,” the son of an ancient Japanese emperor. A saga with more than 400 characters, the story is renowned for describing the customs of Heian aristocracy.

Briefly, Genji is an ideal of his times, a master of the arts, good looking and a great lover. It is likely Lady Murasaki composed The Tale of Genji in serialized form presented to ladies of the court, sort of a daily soap opera.


An illustrated scroll from The Tale of Genji. The original resides in the Fogg Museum of the Harvard Art Museums.

The original tale was illustrated on hand scrolls, ink and color on paper, interspersed by Lady Mukasaki’s text, the illustrations often done in bird’s-eye view.


An illustration to the Azumaya chapter of The Tale of Genji. The original in the Tokugawa Art Museum, Nagoya.

In the scene above, one maid reads to entertain a noble woman while another combs the woman’s hair. Noble figures are stylized, with their emotions suggested symbolically through colors and composition. For example, art experts note that strong diagonal elements create emotional intensity in a scene.


Six-panel screen of scene from The Tale of Genji, by Kanō Tsunenobyu, color and gold on paper, 17th century. The original in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

In the 17th-century screen above, clouds of gold permit glimpses of different scenes from The Tale of Genji. By this time, artists began to illustrate the emotions and personalities of commoners. However, noble personages were still shown as aloof, their emotions depicted symbolically.


A modern diorama from the Tale of Genji Museum, Kyoto.

Kyoto’s The Tale of the Genji Museum opened in 1998 and reflects the continuing popularity of “the world’s oldest love story.” There have been more than a half-dozen English translations, the first in 1882, another as recently as 2015. The Tyler Genji, 2001, is annotated and likely closest in spirit to Lady Murasaki’s tale.


An example of a manga Genji. Image from rigandmeg.

Indeed, for those reluctant to concentrate through 1135 pages, there’s a manga version, also in English. Whichever is chosen, Rij & Meg offer entertaining views in “5 Compelling Reasons Why You Should (Sacrifice Several Weeks of Your Life and) Read The Tale of Genji.

I haven’t decided which version as yet, though I’m leaning toward Tyler. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2016


  1. Pingback: The Tale of The Princess Kaguya: Mono no aware in Japan I – Rose's Town of Tales

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