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Two tales of Japan of more than a thousand years ago – The Tale of Genji and The Tale of Murasaki

Tension between Russia and Japan is increasing at the moment, because of the disputed nation status of the Kuril Islands, a group of tiny specks of land in the Pacific Ocean, midway between the northern tip of Japan and the southern tip of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. It’s a long story – though the earliest records indicate that Japan first took nominal administrative control of the islands during the Edo Period, around 1603. At the moment, they are Russian territory. The Kuril Islands have strategic value due to their location, as well as useful mineral deposits, but the main reason that they are in the news is that every so often, either Russia or Japan makes a statement confirming their territorial claims. This happened again, just last week, with Japan calling Russia’s occupation of the islands “illegal”. Does this sound familiar? Of course it does.

Territories and material and human resources have been chess pieces in the giant strategy games between nations for as long as there have been people and nations.

While recently re-reading two novels set in Japan, The Tale of Genji and The Tale of Murasaki, and linked by a common origin, I was reminded again of Japan’s history, and its beginnings as an imperial power. Like Russia had its Tsars, Japan had (still has) its Emperors. Japan’s Emperors were never so powerful as when they ruled as veritable gods in the Feudal Era, when the first of these novels, The Tale of Genji, was written.

Novel reminders that history repeats itself

I have been meaning to write about these two extraordinary novels for years, but now it seems that the timing is good due to what is happening again with Japan, Russia and the Kuril Islands.

The Tale of Genji

During the Heian period (794–1185), the distinctly indigenous Japanese culture – as we recognize it today – developed from the dominant Chinese culture. This included the development of the Japanese writing system. It was during this period of progress that the most famous work of fiction about Japan was written: Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji.

Murasaki Shikibu (紫 式部, English: “Lady Murasaki”), lived from about 973 or 978, to 1014 (some say 1031) AD. The earliest version of her famous book dates from the year 1007 AD or 1008 AD, and consists of 54 chapters that are attributed to her. There have been a great number of known copies, versions, editions, and translations made of this famous book.

My copy is the respected English translation by Royall Tyler, and is 1120 pages long, not counting the Acknowledgments, Introduction, indices, bibliography, copious notes, and illustrations, which brings it to a total of a whopping 1216 pages.

The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu; translated from the Japanese by Royall Tyler (Publisher: ‎Penguin Classics; Illustrated edition; Nov. 26, 2002; paperback; 1216 pages) The hardcover, boxed edition was published by Viking USA, on Oct. 18, 2001.

Heian Era Japan

The Tale of Genji (“Genji Monogatari”) is the definitive, first-hand depiction of Japan and life at the imperial court during the rule of the Fujiwara Clan. At the same time, it is a work of Fiction. It is known as the first novel ever written in Japanese, and is possibly the first novel ever written in the world. Despite having been presented a new form – a fictional narrative in chapters with a plot in successive stages – it was instantly successful and remains an important work to this day, because Murasaki was a talented and skillful writer. For her time, she was quite extraordinary.

Murasaki’s protagonist, “Prince Genji” (born Hikaru Genji), also called “The Shining Prince”, was an inspired invention. He is a romantic, heroic, handsome figure, a combination of artist and warrior, a skillful seducer, and the son of an emperor. He has hardly any flaws and all the talents and virtues any man can wish for, and any woman he wants succumbs to his charms. She wrote about the Prince, his lovers, battles, wives, children, and rise to power. She produced one chapter at a time, over a period of about ten years.

Initially, she wrote it for the amusement of the Empress and her retinue at the court, but copies quickly spread throughout Japan. It is non-fictional in many respects, though the characters are fictional, being thinly disguised portraits of real people of the time. It is a magnum opus in world literature, not only for its size, but also for its impact.

One in a series of woodblock print illustrations of The Tale of Genji. Each print illustrates a different scene from the Genji monogatari. This illustration is of Chapter 10, “The Green Branch” (Sakaki”). (Method: woodblock (nishiki-e); artist Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III) (1786-1865); published c.1851; publisher: Izumi-ichi; series: Sono sugata yukari no utsushi-e: Faithful depictions of the figure of the shining Prince.)

After spending a few months consuming a couple of pages each day, I had a lot to think about, and a few observations about Japan at that time, compared to today, came to mind:

Life was nasty, brutish and short

First, though there were many beautiful things, life in Japan was still pretty primitive. The problems that plagued Europe at the same time (which is the Middle Ages) also plagued Japan – war, famine, disease, death, illiteracy, poverty and superstition. Life was nasty, brutish and short for most people. Generally, it is accepted that Murasaki herself died young, when she was about 42 years old.

Options were limited

Secondly, people actually had little individual freedom. Society was rigidly stratified into classes. People did as they were ordered or expected to do according to their class. It was rare that someone was ever alone. Being alone was something that had to be achieved through effort, and even then, it was seen as problematic behaviour.

Murasaki describes the events in the story as though she observes them from the outside, as if the characters are performers on a stage. Even the inner thoughts of the characters are not particularly self-directed, but rather related to what others are thinking or doing, for instance, the officials who are in the inner circle of the Emperor.

As for the author herself, it is known that she was anxious about being at court and did not particularly want to be there, amidst all the many people, and on public display at ceremonies. But being called to court by the Emperor was the ultimate objective or all high-born people.

Everything was said in poems

Third, all educated people communicated through poetry. Like, all the time, normally. That surprised me. It’s like saying everyone communicated by hooting like sea gulls or by strumming a guitar. They did not just write the occasional poem for the sake of art. Poetry was both a form of communication and a status symbol. Poetry that was written more than eleven centuries ago, is what sets both of these novels apart.

Compared with the rigorous standards and constraints of Japanese poetry, Fiction of the kind written by Murasaki was shocking, not up to accepted literary standards, but definitely worth getting a hold of. It was sensational – and therefore desirable. Though the form and style of her novel was something new, in The Tale of Genji almost all the dialogue is still in the form of poetic verse, The Tale of Genji contains a whopping 795 tanka poems! There is hardly a page without a poem.

In the Heian Era, people’s careers, marriages, social rank and welfare depended how well they could, without hesitation, produce a verse in perfect form, with perfect imagery, written in beautiful brush script, on the most appropriate substance. Lovers sent each other poems that functioned as conversations or repartees, members of the court conversed in poems, rivals taunted each other with poems, people were judged by how well they could come up with poems in competitions or on demand. It was a complete immersion in an art form, which today would be impracticable and unthinkable.

“In the world evoked by the tale, it was possible to speak or write a poem for oneself, but poetry was first of all a matter of social necessity. Courting required an exchange of poems, as did many other moments in life, and someone distinctly inept at it was socially disadvantaged. People learned to write by copying poems, they acquired the language of poetry by memorizing a great many examples, and they confirmed what they knew by composing more themselves. Although many poems in the tale are spoken or written spontaneously, their spontaneity actually reflects a mastery of complex rules of diction, vocabulary and form. Some poems achieved great heights of poignancy, passion, elegance or wit.”

The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shibuku, translated by Royall Tyler, Introduction by Royall Tyler, pp. xxiii to xxiv.

This use of poetry as dialogue makes reading The Tale of Genji quite difficult, at least for me. The success of translations of this book has always depended on the manner in which, and how well, the poetry was recreated in the target language. My Penguin Books translation is by Australian Royall Tyler, who enlisted the help of Japanese scholars to read and compare his version with the original.

The poems in The Tale of Genji

In Tyler’s translation, the poems are in the form of the tanka: two centred lines, one of 5-7-5 syllables and the other of 7-7. The first line has 17 syllables in total, the second line has 14 in total.

You can go and count the total number of syllables in each of the lines (not the words) in the poems, and they will meet the criteria of 17 and 14 syllables. But they were translated into English primarily to show the basic meaning, not to precisely adhere to the form.

The first poem of the two quoted below is said by “Prince Genji”, to the “Empress” who has retired to a temple and become a nun, and the second poem is the response from the Empress – the “wave” to which she refers is Prince Genji:

“Now that I perceive a nun lives here, gathering sea-tangle sorrows,
briny drops spill from my eyes upon this, the Isle of Pines.”

“Of the world I knew there remains no trace at all on this Isle of Pines,
and it is a miracle any wave should come to call.”

“Now that I perceive a nun lives here, gathering sea-tangle sorrows,
briny drops spill from my eyes upon this, the Isle of Pines.”

“Of the world I knew there remains no trace at all on this Isle of Pines,
and it is a miracle any wave should come to call.”

(The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shibuku, translated by Royall Tyler, Penguin Books, 2003 ed., p. 214)

Photo by Andrey Grushnikov on

Note that in these two tankas, the syllable counts are correct – 17 for the first line, 14 for the next.

Reading about life in Japan in such detail, with so many poems to absorb and understand, for so many pages, is like a very, very long and splashy swim in a deep pond, while it is pouring with rain, to stretch out George Saunders’ image in his book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: it is more than immersion. It is practically growing fins.

But, as all good readers know – regardless of the effort that it involves, there are some books that you actually have to read, and this is one for your Literary Bucket List. There is good reason why it has become so famous and is still being translated and studied after more than a thousand years. Read it, and you will find out.

The Tale of Murasaki

A novel about The Tale of Genji

Compared to this, Liza Dalby’s first person-style novel about The Tale of Genji, called The Tale of Murasaki, is a doddle to read. It is only 420 pages long, and the only poems in it are only those verses that are pivotal points or important conversations in the life of the fictionalized Murasaki Shikibu.

However, the poems quoted in the novel are all originally written by Murasaki, or quoted by her as responses from people with whom she corresponded (so they are the poems other people wrote back to her). Therefore, the Japanese poems are the original ones that exist, and their English versions in this novel are recreations by Dalby.

The novel, written in the first person, looks like a poetic diary, which is how people wrote diaries in those days. It falls into the genre of Anthropological Fiction. It depicts episodes in the life of Murasaki Shikibu and her closest family, and also how some of the chapters in The Tale of Genji came to be written (what motivated and influenced Murasaki), how Murasaki developed the characters in the book, and how her life was changed and eclipsed by the book.

To produce this very detailed re-imagining, Dalby studied the existing fragments of Murasaki’s diaries – and, of course, authoritative versions of The Tale of Genji, specifically the edition translated by Arthur Waley, which she mentions in the Acknowledgements. She also wrote the praise for Royall Tyler’s translation of The Tale of Genji – you can see it on the image of the cover, above. The two books were published about a year apart, The Tale of Murasaki first, in 2000, and then Tyrel’s translation of The Tale of Genji, in 2001.

The story starts with a letter from Murasaki to her daughter Katako (or Kenshi), and ends with a letter from Katako to her own daughter, about the death of her mother, Murasaki:

“In the end she had no more sorrow than does a cherry blossom at its falling.” (p. 400)

The Tale of Murasaki, by Liza Dalby (Publisher: ‎Anchor; Illustrated edition; Aug. 21, 2001; paperback; 448 pages)

When Emperor Ichijō died in 1011, his widow, Empress Akiko (also called Shōshi), retired from the Imperial Palace to live in a Fujiwara Clan mansion in Biwa, Japan, and though the facts are not clear, it may be that Murasaki, who had written The Tale of Genji primarily to amuse Empress Shōshi, followed her to Biwa. It is likely that Murasaki died there in the year 1014.

An imagined reminiscence

Creating a rounded, empathetic fictional character out of historical documents of more than a thousand years ago, would be a tall order for any author. Not only are the personal details scarce or missing, but the entire inner life of the person is non-existent. When one is writing Non-fiction it gets even harder to create a sympathetic figure while still sticking to the facts. The middle ground is Literary Non-fiction or Narrative Non-fiction.

In the case of author Murasaki Shikibu, she created a fictional tale, but the high level of realism in her novel made it more accessible and appealing to her readers, rather than less so, because they recognized that it was about them, their society, their country and their time. While reading it, I could feel the weight of centuries of tradition and incomprehensibly complicated lifestyles bearing down on me. Such a lot of gowns and clothes, such complicated etiquette, so much ignorance, so much sitting around doing nothing. Such god-awful people!

Razor-sharp observations … a woodcut of Murasaki Shikibu by Choshun Miyagawa (1602-1752).
A woodcut print depicting Murasaki Shikibu, by Choshun Miyagawa (1602-1752)

Dalby had all of the painstakingly detailed descriptions in The Tale of Genji and in Murasaki’s diaries, and in the collection of poetry that Murasaki had written, to use for inspiration when she produced The Tale of Murasaki. The settings and descriptions of people, their clothes, houses, food, landscapes, and even what they said in verse, were all there to be teased out and re-used.

What Dalby had to visualize from scratch was much, much harder. She had to take the ghost that was Murasaki Shikibu and turn her into a fully fleshed-out, feeling individual, and she had to make the poems seem to flow from Murasaki’s mind as naturally and meaningfully as if she were simply speaking normally.

Murasaki as narrator and 11th century noblewoman

Dalby’s portrayal of Murasaki is not only very engaging but also matches the historical facts: that Murasaki was an introvert, an intelligent and extremely sharp-witted and literate woman. But she was not a sociable person and she found life at court very trying. She was a better poet than any male member of her family, however, as a woman, that was not important.

Her rival in literary achievements at court was the female writer Sei Shōnagon (966 to ?). By the time Murasaki arrived at the court of Empress Shōshi, Shōnagon was already famous for having written a collection of highly popular and witty short essays, the Pillow Book (Makura no Sōshi). However, Shōnagon was older than her, not very attractive and rather eccentric.

An embedded narrative

In his Introduction to The Tale of Genji, Tyler acknowledges that it is difficult for the reader to keep up with all the names and titles of the vast group of characters. He helpfully provides a plot summary, a list of titles and personages, and glossaries in his translated work.

My copy: The Tale of Murasaki, by Liza Dalby (Publisher‏: ‎Vintage Publishing; May 18, 2000; 426 pages)

In Dalby’s novel, the reader has a similar problem with regard to who is who because it contains an embedded narrative, a novel within the novel, namely The Tale of Genji. “Murasaki” is the character of the author and the first person narrator. But the author, Murasaki Shikibu, had written herself into her own novel as two characters. One was “Lady Murasaki” – the true and lifelong love of Prince Genji, who dies of what I thought was “Beautiful Movie Disease”*see footnote (chapter 40 in The Tale of Genji), and later as a much younger girl called “Ukifune” who is also pursued by the Prince and ends up living as a nun, having taken a vow of silence. (Make no mistake, The Tale of Genji is a proper romantic drama.)

This is where things get complicated – and why the list of characters that Dalby included is helpful: The two characters from the embedded narrative are intertwined with the feelings and thoughts of the character of “Murasaki Shikibu”, which determines the fate of the characters and the development of the plot in The Tale of Genji. For instance, when Murasaki decides to leave the court and retire to a place in the country, she has to somehow kill off the character of “Lady Murasaki” in her novel.

The poems in The Tale of Murasaki

Further intertwining the historical novel into the modern work, is the device of the poems that were actually penned by Murasaki Shikibu herself.

These, like in The Tale of Genji, are core to the narrative. They are also in the form of tanka, 5-7-5, 7-7 syllables. Dalby writes the Japanese in Latin (Roman) alphabet first, and the “Japanese” lines have the correct number of syllables per part. However, the subsequent English translations of the Japanese lines do not.

Here is an example: “Murasaki” has gone into seclusion and no longer wishes to have the attentions of one particularly insistent suitor. The suitor writes this first tanka to her (my count of the syllables are in square brackets – diphthongs count as 2 separate syllables):

Oro ori ni [5] kaku to wa miete [7] sasagani no [5] ikani omoeba [7] tayuru naruramu [7]

The translation is:
“She used to spin her web from time to time [10]; so why does the spider now break her thread?” [10]

Murakami responds with this:

“Shimogare no [5] asaji ni magau [7] sasagani no [5] ikanaru ori ni [7] kaku to miyuramu [7]

This is translated as:

“The spider broods, lost among the bleak frost-tipped reeds [12], unable to foresee when she will weave her web again.”[14]

Oro ori ni kaku to wa miete sasagani no ikani omoeba tayuru naruramu

She used to spin her web from time to time; so why does the spider now break her thread?”

Shimogare no asaji ni magau sasagani no ikanaru ori ni kaku to miyuramu

The spider broods, lost among the bleak frost-tipped reeds, unable to foresee when she will weave her web again.”

(The Tale of Murasaki, by Liza Dalby, Chatto & Windus, 2000, p. 369)

Photo by Alexander Zvir on

Dalby’s translation of the Japanese poems, are, like that of Tyler, more idiomatically correct than correct in form. But I suspect that the translation of the Japanese into Roman script caused a few blips in the matrix. The first line, above, when put into Google Translate, generates the Japanese equivalent of:

Oro ori ni kaku to wa miete Hoso kani no ika ni omoeba tayu runaru ramu

This is translated as:

If you think about the following of the small crabs, you can see them in harmony with each other.

Grammatically it makes sense, and it is an animal metaphor. However, the second line makes no sense at all in Google Translate.

I can only assume that machine translation makes a fiasco of poetry, and that it is made even more undoable by the imagery and also by the Romanization of the kanji. I don’t think that the typesetting of the Romanized Japanese worked well. For one, the diacritical marks are missing, completely changing the meanings.

Another line, a few pages on, about the memory of someone who has died, is weirdly translated as “Even though it’s made into a sauce, it’s a tasteless registered mail master.” You get my drift? It really made me wish that I could read Japanese.

However, one cannot judge a novel of this complexity only by the author’s efforts to convey meaning to English readers. Dalby’s novel, which I read directly after having finished The Tale of Genji, is very close to the original tale. It is a mirror, one in which the image is reversed but very clear, because it is written in a modern idiom, from the perspective of a 21st century writer.

Don’t disparage national treasures

Like Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, The Tale of Murasaki caused a stir when it was first published. Dalby is an Anthropologist who specializes in Japanese culture, and her version of the world of Murasaki was well received, as were her other thorough and informative reference works on Japanese geisha and the kimono. Golden was sued for defamation of character by his main source after the Japanese edition of his novel was published. Conversely, Dalby, now in her 70s, went on to write more reference works – and did not get sued. A critic said of The Tale of Murasaki:

“As a work of literary archaeology or, more fittingly, anthropology, “The Tale of Murasaki” is a stunning success. The book overflows with rich descriptions of customs, scenery, rituals and nature that evoke a lost world and often rise to the level of art. Yet because she sticks so closely to her literary and historical sources, Dalby never quite manages to make the imaginative leap needed to bridge the gap between first-rate social science and compelling fiction.”

Patricia Kean, “The Tale of Murasaki” by Liza Dalby – A novel about classical Japan’s greatest writer, set amid the literary and erotic intrigue of the imperial court, in Salon Magazine, July 12, 2000, retrieved Apr. 1, 2022)

Conclusion – Read both

Perhaps it is precisely that adherence to social science and historical accuracy which saved Dalby from taking too much poetic licence with her subject, which, even in this modern age, is still highly sensitive because of its cultural importance in Japan. Certainly Murasaki Shikibu herself, when she wrote about the high courtiers in the Heian Period, the Fujiwara clan‘s fighting and backstabbing, the emperor’s harem, lovers, geishas, intrigues, and all the bad little habits at the court, experienced the antipathy of the readers who suspected that it was them that she was writing about. (And they were right, of course.)

In both books, the reader will get the impression of Japan in the eleventh century as a violent society, of a government divided by fighting clans, all hellbent on waging war and grabbing power and wealth, of leaders who regarded murdering anyone who got in their way to the top as quite normal. Racism and all the other “-isms” were rampant. Rights and freedoms for the impoverished common folk? Not a hope in hell.

While reading both books, I thought to myself how strange it is how the world turns. What goes round, comes around again. A long time ago, one nation invaded and occupied another nation’s land, and war followed. And many decades and reverses of power later, that same nation is at it again. Today’s oppressed becomes tomorrow’s oppressor – and always, “…like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children,” as the philosopher Jacques Mallet du Pan warned during the French Revolution.

“Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.”

*Footnote: “Beautiful Movie Disease” is a term invented by MAD Magazine in the 1970s when the film Love Story came out, and it means an illness that someone is dying from, that does not make them less beautiful, and has no symptoms or nasty medical interventions – rather the reverse. The closer they get to death, the more beautiful they get – which only ever happens in the movies.

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