The Eternal Visitor: The Tale of Genji
Japan History

Research Report
Web Resources


The Tale of Genji was written early in the eleventh century by Murasaki Shikibu and is considered the world’s first novel.  During this time in Japan, culture was the focus of the Heian court ,and everything the court did had to be done in a certain way to avoid embarrassment.  This report portrays some of the relations between men and women as well as the superstitions that played a part in the daily lives of court. 

Historical Background

The Heian period of Japan began in 794 when Emperor Kammu moved the capital to Kyoto -- to avoid the strong Buddhist influence in Nara -- and ended in 1185. The city created at Kyoto was reminiscent of the previous capital, but only contained a single temple to prevent the Buddhists from regaining the power that they had in Nara.  During this time the Fujiwara family established the right to appoint regents to the emperor, which allowed them to have control over the country.  They could do this because the regent would take over when the emperor was too busy with other affairs or simply did not feel like ruling.  The Fujiwara could not directly take power from the emperor because the emperor was part of the sun line and a direct descendant from Amaterasu, the sun goddess.  The emperor’s power came directly from the gods and could not be challenged; therefore, the Fujiwara married female members of their family into the sun line to gain greater political power and stability.

Heian court life also began to emerge during this time with customs that are still prevalent today.  Women were educated, refined, and respected, which was uncommon for the rest of the world at this time, and contributed to the cultural developments through writing.  According to D. J. Enright, “Heian Japan was ‘a man’s world’...and it was left to the women to write about it” (166). However, they were not allowed to write in Chinese because that was reserved for men so they developed their own form of writing, kana, which was based on the vernacular, so that a sound was associated with a character.  Women’s diaries were popular at this time and men and women communicated through poems because they could not communicate face to face except in certain situations.  Women were kept behind screens and used colorful dress to attract a man’s attention.  Since the colors were what the man could see, aesthetically pleasing colors were important.  A woman’s skill in matching colors was considered a guide to her character, and was more important than the physical characteristics she was born with (Morris 204).  Customs were closely followed during this time in order to avoid embarrassment because that was the worst thing that could happen to a person.

Court life was able to flourish during this time because of the development of the shoen, large estates of land that were owned by the kuge, the court in Kyoto, but were run by managers who sent the money to the kuge.  Life in the city was very different from life on the shoen, where the days were spent farming the land.  Because the kuge did not have to run their shoen on a daily basis, they were free to do as they pleased in the city and their life became one of ceremony and culture.

Research Report

Murasaki Shikibu was a member of the Fujiwara family but part of a less powerful, though literary, branch.  Although she was a girl, she was very well educated with her brother because she was extremely intelligent and could read Chinese fluently.  This influenced her knowledge of affairs in Japan and played a part in the popularity of The Tale of Genji because women at this time did not write about politics, but daily life.  The emperor’s high praises also added to the book’s popularity because novels were supposed to be read by women and children, not men.  It was also the first work that was written almost entirely in kana, therefore, men were not expected to read it but it was “the first major work [of this type] read by men”  (Hakutani and Lewis 1). 

The Tale of Genji tells the story of a man who is extremely intelligent and beautiful, but is unable to become emperor because his mother was not of a high enough rank.  It is set about a century before Murasaki’s time when the emperor had more power because the Fujiwara family had not yet fully established its power over him.  This is important because Murasaki is writing about a time of greatness that is no longer prevalent because the emperor had lost much of his power and the ruling families were very critical of who could obtain power.  The fact that Genji’s name symbolizes the embarrassment the family feels in him is also important, because that is the name given to imperial princes reduced to commoner status (Bowring 17).  Genji, however, “is not merely good at everything that counts, he is the best at everything that counts...And of course he is the best looking of all the good-looking nobles who throng the scene” (Enright 167).  Because of this, it was hard for women to resist him and it is obvious to tell who he is just by looking at him, causing jealousy among his many female acquaintances. 

This jealousy gives an insight into what court life must have been like during the Heian period, because men had many female acquaintances besides their wives.  The fact that women could not be seen in public except for certain occasions, like festivals, meant that much of the communication between men and women had to be done through poems.  This could easily create jealousy because women might not see their husbands or lovers for long periods of time.  Men and women communicated mainly through poetry, and this can be seen when the Lady of the Evening Faces gives Genji a poem on a fan in order to catch his attention after he has been waiting outside admiring the flowers.  The poem reads: “I think I need not ask whose face it is/So bright, this evening face, in the shining dew” revealing that the woman realizes that it is Genji that she sees (Shikibu 63).  This poem entices Genji into finding out who this woman is and starting a relationship with her, all be it, a rather short one.  The Tale of Genji is filled with short poems that men and women write in correspondence and stresses the importance of education in the Heian court and the great deal of time they had in preparing these poems.  The paper, decorations, and handwriting were just as important if not more than the poem because it gave a clue into the qualities of the person and could invoke passion in the reader. 

Men, however, had to be careful of not spending too much time with one woman because the other women that he spent time with might become jealous.  For example, Genji adopts Murasaki, a young girl he has just met, after her grandmother dies, because he thinks that she is going to be beautiful and wants to mold her into the perfect companion.  Before the women even know that she is just a child they become extremely jealous because they think that Genji has found a new lover.  Genji’s wife Aoi is a prime example of this, when Murasaki Shikibu states “But since she had heard of his new lady she had become more distant than ever.  She was convinced that the other was now first among his ladies, and no doubt she was as uncomfortable as he”  (Shikibu 145).   Aoi believes that Genji will spend even less time with her and is not very friendly towards him when he comes to visit.

Genji does not like that he has to keep up appearances in order to be respected.  The fact that he can only associate with certain women from certain classes does not appeal to him because whenever he sees a beautiful woman he wants to meet her and find out who she is.  The Lady of the Evening Faces is not a lady of the court, but he goes to see her anyway and takes her to a secluded location where she strangely dies.  The jealous spirit of the Rokujo lady is seen as the culprit, because Genji believes he has seen her form next to the body. 

Genji’s relationship with Murasaki, however, is another questionable relationship that Genji starts.  When he first meets her she is just a child and Shonagon, her attendant, states: “Please, sir.  You forget yourself.  You forget yourself completely.  She is simply not old enough to understand what you have in mind”  (Shikibu 110).   Shonagon is warning Genji of what he is doing, however, Genji knows that he must wait and adopts her because he wants to have her when she will be old enough to marry.  He is also glad to have Murasaki because he does not have to worry about keeping up public appearances in her presence.  She is a child who can do as she pleases because she does not know any better, therefore, he can be with her anytime he chooses without causing a great deal of suspicion.  Because of this lack of suspicion, his other ladies might become less jealous and will not be too upset with his spending time with Murasaki.

Jealousy is also fueled by the fact that marriage during the Heian period was not a domestic relationship.  The husbands did not live with their wives, making them the eternal visitor.  Women could spend days or even months waiting for their husbands to visit, further fueling their jealousy.  In this society the women’s roles were diminished because they had to “respond to [the] passion of the male but [were] unable to initiate it” leaving them waiting until the male decided to take action (Bowring 13).  One way that women could take action was by invoking jealousy in other women because then women would turn against the favorite much like what happened to Genji’s mother who was the envy of all the emperor’s ladies.  However, women could also invoke passion in men many times when men looked through the screens that separated them.   According to Richard Bowring, men’s “fantasies centre on being seen and being spied upon; screens are there to be penetrated and a move by the male through a curtain signifies total capitulation by the woman” (13).  This is shown when during the festival of the cherry blossoms, Genji is looking for Fujitsubo, his fathers mistress whom he is captivated by, and then encounters a woman who he does not even know.  He “quickly and lightly he lifted her down to the gallery and slid the door closed” because he was slightly drunk and was looking for anyone to satisfy his desires (Shikibu 161). 

Superstitions of the time are also important in The Tale of Genji.  Early in the book, the Lady of the Evening Faces dies and Genji believes that he has seen the spirit of the Rokujo lady by her side.  While later in the book it is believed that the Rokujo lady was responsible for Aoi’s death when Murasaki writes: “‘Bind the hem of my robe, to keep it within,/The grieving should that has wandered through the skies.’  It was not Aoi’s voice nor was the manner hers.  Extraordinary-and then he knew that it was the voice of the Rokujo lady” (Shikibu 177-178).  The book presents the use exorcists to rid Aoi of the spirits that took over her and the difficulty that they had in doing so.  According to Ivan Morris:

As soon as the exorcist (genza) had detected a possible possession, he would recite spells and incantations (kaji) and attempt to transfer the evil spirit to a shamanistic medium (yorimashi), who was usually a young woman.  If this transfer was successful, the spirit would normally ‘declare’ itself, and finally the exorcist would drive it out of the medium.  (136) 
This shows the fact that the Japanese believed spirits inhabited the world and could overtake people if a person’s spirit was jealous enough or the inflicted person was weakened to the spirits. 

Many illnesses were blamed on the spirits because “people were more liable to succumb to evil influences when their spiritual resistance was low” (Morris 136).  When Genji is having attacks of malaria, he goes to visit a Buddhist monk to see if he can cure the attacks.  This shows a reliance on Buddhism to deal with an illness or to prevent something bad from happening, because it was believed that this monk could cure any epidemic. 

To prevent bad things from happening, the Heian people could only perform certain rituals, such as the cutting of fingernails or the trimming of hair, on certain days. Genji must summon a soothsayer to make sure it is the right day to cut Murasaki’s hair but then he tells the ladies to go ahead and cut it anyway (Shikibu 172).  Because of these beliefs, a highly superstitious culture evolved that was mainly concerned about when to perform the proper actions.

Historical Significance

The Tale of Genji was an important book at the time because it was the first novel ever written and was popular among the Heian court.  The fact that the emperor had read it only added to its popularity and significance at the time.  However, it still remains important today because it is a psychological novel that takes a look into what court life was like during the Heian period. 

The Tale of Genji has also influenced other areas of art such as painting and drama.  Many paintings were done based on the book both in the Heian period and today.  Also, the Noh Theatre uses The Tale of Genji for material for many of its plays because its storyline is well known among the Japanese people, and therefore, easy to express.  According to Kawazoe Fusae, “the story has been so enduringly popular that it has been adopted several times for film-including animation-and stage and TV dramatizations” (32).  Millions of copies of the book are still sold today, and it has even been adapted in the form of women’s gossip magazines, which became extremely popular with young girls in Japan (Fusae 32).


Bowring, Richard.  Landmarks of World Literature: Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

“The Heian Period.”  The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Japan.  1993 ed.

Enright, D. J.  Signs and Wonders.  Great Britain: Carcanet Press Limited, 2001.

Fusae, Kawazoe.  “Hikaru Genji’s Next Millennium.”  Japan Quarterly 47.2 (2000):   31-39).

Hakutani, Yoshinobu and Arthur O. Lewis, eds.  The World of Japanese Fiction.  New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1973.

Morris, Ivan.  The World of the Shining Prince.  New York: Kodansha International, 1994.

Shikibu, Murasaki.  The Tale of Genji (Seidensticker, Edward G.).  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc, 1992.

Web Resources  Art based on The Tale of Genji  Information about the Heian period  Summary of The Tale of Genji and information about it.   Information about Murasaki Shikibu Provides information about The Tale of Genji

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