Saturday 10 October 2020

Tips for reading The Tale of Genji

Are you curious about The Tale of Genji, Japan’s greatest literary achievement, from the 11th century? Are you thinking about tackling it, because of its reputation as the world’s first psychological novel, but intimidated by its length and unfamiliar culture? 

Or perhaps you’re curious but uncertain about whether it’s worth it. It is. I read The Tale of Genji earlier and enjoyed it thoroughly (it is in fact in my top 10 favourite novels).  

Let me quote the Nobel lecture of Yasunari Kawabata, the Japanese writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968: 

The Tale of Genji in particular is the highest pinnacle of Japanese literature. Even down to our day there has not been a piece of fiction to compare with it. That such a modern work should have been written in the eleventh century is a miracle, and as a miracle the work is widely known abroad. Although my grasp of classical Japanese was uncertain, the Heian classics were my principal boyhood reading, and it is the Genji, I think, that has meant the most to me.” 

Here are some of my tips for reading The Tale of Genji

1/ Make sure you have time and can concentrate. Don’t read during term, for instance. Don’t read another book at the same time. This is a novel that requires full immersion. It is longer than Anna Karenina, nearly as long as War and Peace, and I read it in 7 weeks. 

2/ Read about the book, the Heian era, and the cultural context before picking it up. It helps. I spent a few weeks reading essays about it and getting myself prepared. 

3/ Do some research, compare the translations, and decide which one you want. There are currently 4 English translations: Arthur Waley’s (1933), Edward G. Seidensticker’s (1976), Royall Tyler’s (2001), and Dennis Washburn’s (2015). 

From what I’ve gathered, Waley’s has a historical significance, being the first proper translation of The Tale of Genji into English and introducing Anglophone readers to the Japanese masterpiece, but it is said to be quite loose; Royall Tyler’s is said to be the closest to the original text but could be difficult because it retains Murasaki Shikibu’s way of referring to characters, i.e. he doesn’t stick to a nickname but keeps the changing nicknames and titles as in the original; Seidensticker’s is meant to be somewhere between Waley’s looseness and Tyler’s fidelity; Washburn’s is the latest but doesn’t get as much praise as Tyler’s, and he is said to spell things out often while Murasaki Shikibu tends to keep it subtle. 

I myself recommend Royall Tyler’s translation because of its reputation of being close to the original text, and because of the immense scholarship—there are annotations, footnotes, diagrams, appendices, maps, character list at the beginning of each chapter, character list at the end of the book, explanations about the world depicted and its rules and hierarchy, and so on and so forth. The character lists are particularly helpful. It’s true that he doesn’t stick to a nickname, but he often adds footnotes to help readers know who’s who. 

If you have Royall Tyler’s translation, read the entire introduction except for plot summary, before reading the book. 

4/ Make notes. Create your own character list. Draw your own family trees. Make notes of the characters’ changing titles. Make notes of the palace buildings, especially if you’re reading Royall Tyler’s translation. 

You may worry about the characters’ changing titles, but usually it happens in groups, not individually—either on Promotion Day or when a new Emperor comes into power. That makes things easier. 

Murasaki Shikibu’s characters are all distinct, so there’s little reason to get them mixed up. She could keep track of her hundreds of characters as she was writing them, so a reader can also follow them.   

My family trees were built around Genji, To no Chujo, and the Kiritsubo Emperor. 

5/ Read slowly. Take your time. Go back if you’re unsure about something. I went back a few times.

6/ Once you’re past page 100, you should be fine. If you’re not in the mood for it, leave it and read something else—the book is not going to go away. There’s no point continuing if you’re a few hundred pages in and still don’t “get” it. The Tale of Genji is longer than Anna Karenina, nearly as long as War and Peace

7/ It’s fine to read it alone, but a read-along could help, as long as you don’t feel the need to rush it. 

8/ Read with an open mind and remember that this is an 11th century Japanese novel, set in the 10th century. Go along with it. Don’t try to impose modern values on it, don’t judge the characters’ actions by modern standards. 

That being said, I do think The Tale of Genji has a female perspective and depicts women’s confined lives and the double standards in Heian society—the novel is about Genji’s women as much as it’s about Genji. 

9/ Look for the common humanity, so to speak. This is a very different time, a very different society, with its own rules and values, but human beings are not that different—the human feelings of joy, happiness, anger, resentment, worry, jealousy, bitterness, fear, guilt, shame, embarrassment, hopelessness, despair, loneliness, grief… have always been the same. 

I especially love the way Murasaki Shikibu writes about death. She and Tolstoy are the best at writing about death. 

10/ Look at my blog posts, which might be useful, at least with characters. 

Chapters 1-4


7-9, hierarchy, and relationships.   

10-11, politics, and mono no aware

12-14, women

15-17, Suetsumuhana, Genji, changes in reign


21-23, new generation, education, and the Rokujo estate

24-27, Tamakazura and To no Chujo’s children

28-31, indirectness, and Tamakazura’s suitors

32-34, Murasaki, Akashi, and Suzaku’s children

35, change in reign, refuge in religion

36-39, 2 princesses and male entitlement

40-41 and the subject of death

42-44, a new beginning

45-47, the Uji sisters, the uncertainty of life

48-49, foils, polygamy

50-51, stepchildren, lack of privacy, Niou

52, Kaoru vs Genji

53-54, patriarchy, authorship, ending

There are also other blog posts under the tag Murasaki Shikibu. 

Hope these tips are helpful. Enjoy The Tale of Genji


  1. Thanks. It was extremely helpful. Bought the Tyler one.

  2. I liked the Waley translation the most, though it is, as you say a little loose. He also leaves out things completely; sometimes I had to look at the original Japanese to see what was missing. Nevertheless, I preferred Waley’s old-fashioned language for a book written a thousand years ago.


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