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Summary of The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji was written shortly after the year 1000 in Japan's Heian era, when the capital was situated at Heian-kyo (present-day Kyoto).

Niou serenades Nakanokimi (detail from the 12th century Genji Monogatari Emaki scroll). Genji, the hero of the Tale, is the son of the emperor and his favourite concubine, Kiritsubo. A Korean sage predicts a brilliant future for Genji but his mother suffers the jealousy of rivals at court, becomes ill and dies. The distraught emperor becomes obsessed with the tragic story of Yang Kwei-fei, but eventually finds another concubine, Fujitsubo, who reminds him of his former love. Since Genji lacks backing at court, the emperor makes him a commoner, assigning him membership of the non-royal Genji clan. The eldest son of the emperor and Lady Kokiden is made crown prince. Genji becomes an uncommonly handsome and gifted young man, admired by all but feared by Lady Kokiden and her family. The first part of the Tale follows his amorous exploits with a variety of ladies in and around Heian-kyo, his friendship with To no Chujo and arranged marriage to To no Chujo's sister Aoi, the birth of his son and his budding relationship with the young Murasaki. Meanwhile, the old emperor dies and is succeeded by Lady Kokiden's son. Genji's amorous intrigues cause a scandal at court and he is forced to leave the capital and live in Suma for several years. During this second part of the Tale, Genji meets the ex-Governor of Harima

and his daughter The Akashi Lady. Genji returns to the capital and the emperor abdicates in favour of Fujitsubo's (and secretly Genji's) son. Genji's position at court is restored and the Akashi Lady has a baby girl. Genji then goes on a pilgrimage to the Sumiyoshi Shrine to give thanks to the deity for protecting him during the storm at Suma. After his return to the capital he settles down with Murasaki and several other ladies at his Rokujo Mansion. During this long section of the Tale, Genji's influence at court increases steadily and he is preoccupied with the advancement of his children and grandchildren at court. Genji is persuaded to marry the Third Princess, who gives birth to a son and soon after becomes a Buddhist nun.

Bugaku performance on the eve of Harvest Moon at the Lower Kamo Shrine. In the last 10 chapters, the action shifts to the wild mountain area of Uji and the adventures of Genji's "son" and grandson, Kaoru and Niou, who are friends and rivals in love. The complex plot centres on the daughters of Genji's religious half-brother, the Eighth Prince, and the impetuous Ukifune.

Uji River, scene of the last ten chapters of The Tale.

Synopsis of Each Chapter


Chapter 1: The Paulownia Court The emperor's favourite lady, Kiritsubo, has no strong family backing at court and suffers greatly from the insults of jealous competitors. She bears the emperor a beautiful son, which makes matters worse as he may one day be a rival to the future crown prince, the emperor's eldest son. Kiritsubo falls ill and dies, so the child is taken in by his grandmother. The emperor is distraught and asks for the boy to be sent back. Eventually he returns to the palace and the grandmother dies shortly afterwards. Korean ambassadors arrive in the capital and predict a brilliant future for the six-year-old boy. Although of royal blood, the boy has no maternal relatives to support him as a prince at court and is instead made a member of the non-royal Genji clan, henceforth being known as "Genji." The emperor's eldest son by Lady Kokiden is made crown prince and the emperor subsequently finds a new concubine, Fujitsubo, who resembles Kiritsubo but has better family connections. By the end of the chapter, Genji is married off to the daughter of the Minister of the Left, Princess Aoi. Chapter 2: The Broom Tree The first part of this chapter is the famous "Appraisal of Women on a Rainy Night" scene. Genji and his brother-in-law To-no-Chujo meet at Genji's palace and compare notes about women. They are joined by a guards officer and other friends. The guardsman casually suggests there may be a beautiful unknown woman hidden away somewhere because her family has fallen upon hard times. Genji then falls asleep as his companions discuss several types of women, all of whom he will meet later in the Tale. After Genji wakes, Chujo tells

the story of a lover - who is later revealed to be Yugao - who bore his daughter but was discarded because of her meek and forgiving nature. Shikibu, a young man from the Ministry of Rites, tells the gathering of a lady who was too scholarly, preferring the rather masculine Chinese language to Japanese, and whose breath on one occasion had smelled of garlic. The friends decide that the perfect woman should be loyal and cultured, but passive and willing to feign ignorance when the situation requires. The scene then shifts to Sanjo, where Genji is visiting his wife Aoi, but he finds her distant and cold. Since his home lies in an unlucky direction, Genji is invited to Kii-no-kami's house. Kii-no-kami's father has married a young lady, and Genji overhears her apparently discussing himself. Genji also meets an attractive young boy, her brother, and Kii-no-kami's stepuncle. When everyone is asleep, Genji breaks into the lady's apartment and carries her off to his room. Leaving the next day, Genji employs the boy as a page and has him deliver messages to his sister, but the lady discourages any further relationship. Genji manages to visit her once more but is rebuffed, leaving him to write a poem about the inhospitable broom tree and sleep with her young brother instead.