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The Tale of Genji- A Japanese Literary Classic

If there is one classical Japanese story famous around the world today, it is almost certainly the highly celebrated masterpiece known in English as “The Tale of Genji”. It is such an important piece of literature in Japanese culture, that in the year 2000 the national Bank of Japan issued official currency bearing an excerpt of its scrolls and an image of its author. During a stay in Japan you may even be given one of these 2000 Yen notes as change at some point, as they are often given to international visitors as a special treat.

“The Tale of Genji” is documented to have been written by a woman named Murasaki Shikibu, of Japan’s Heian period, during the eleventh century. The prolific story is considered by many people in Japan, although with great international debate, to be the world’s first surviving literary work eligible to be regarded as a novel. Although it is likely difficult to give it such a title, considering its recentness relative to many other literary works, it is often settled as being the world’s first modern novel. It is an amazing 54 chapters long and the story is of such quality that a Japanese author, who won the Nobel Prize for his own work, stated in his acceptance speech that it “is the highest pinnacle of Japanese literature”and that there has not been any Japanese literary work to approach it since. This is likely an example of a rather common Japanese habit of congratulatory deference, but nonetheless, Genji is a spectacular classic of world literature. Even modern English translations weigh in at well over 1000 pages, so simply imagine how many hand-brushed scrolls Lady Murasaki must have originally composed in order to complete such a wonderful masterpiece.

The story centers on a second son of a Heian era emperor, known by the name of “Hikaru Genji”, which is translated as “Shining Genji”and is also known as “Shining Prince Genji”. His mother, a concubine of the emperor, passes away when Genji is only three years old. The emperor’s love for her was so strong that he eventually discovers a girl who looks so similar that he chooses her to be one of his wives. The young Genji falls in love with this woman, and she with him, and an elaborate plot spanning many decades unfolds. It is a story of love, romance, and the world of court politics in classical Japan. Literally hundreds of characters are introduced through the course of the story, and the author maintains such an amazing consistency and natural progression of their relationships that it is almost as though she was simply recording history as it occurred around her.

Although there is some debate as to if every last chapter was directly written by Lady Murasaki herself, most researchers seem to agree that she did author the majority of the 54 chapters of the epic. There have been many translations of the classic into English, and it is best to pick one suitable to your tastes. Do note that it is occasionally a rather promiscuous tale and is most certainly worthy of the title “World’s First Romance Novel”.