‘The Tale of Genji’ Is More Than 1,000 Years Old. What Explains Its Lasting Appeal?

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Perhaps it was the fact that my daughter was in her final year of high school while I was reading “The Tale of Genji,” a 1,300-page tome written more than 1,000 years ago by a lady-in-waiting at the court of a Japanese emperor. But when I reached a pivotal scene, a few lines of poetry nearly undid me.

Hikaru Genji, the titular hero, had asked one of his many wives to give up their daughter to be raised at court by another woman. As the little girl’s mother, Lady Akashi, watched the toddler climb into a carriage waiting to spirit her away, she recited a classical waka poem:

Its future lies in the far off distance
This pine seedling being taken from me
When will I see it spread its splendid shade

“Shedding tears,” I read, “she could say no more.”

In those lines, I foresaw my own grief. Soon I would be saying goodbye to a daughter, too, when we would leave her at a university thousands of miles away.

I had picked up “Genji Monogatari,” as it is known in Japanese, out of professional interest. As the Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times, it felt like a gap in my knowledge never to have read the work by Murasaki Shikibu that is often described as the world’s first novel and a touchstone of Japanese literary history.


https://static01.nyt.com/images/2023/03/21/multimedia/00genji1-sub-pkhw/00genji1-sub-pkhw-superJumbo.jpg?quality=75&auto=webpReferences to Genji in Japanese art are one measure of its resonance over time. Here, a detail of “Murasaki Shikibu Gazing at the Moon,” a scroll by Mitsuoki Tosa held by Ishiyamadera Temple.



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