Places: The Tale of Genji

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Genji monogatari, c. 1004 (English translation, 1925-1933; unexpurgated and annotated translation, 2001)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Romance

Time of work: Tenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Kyōto

*Kyōto Tale of Genji, The (kyoh-toh). Japanese city in west-central Hōnshu, northeast of Osaka, that was the imperial capital from 794 through 1869. Protected by forested hills and drawing its drinking water from the clear Kamo River, the city has pleasant surroundings that make it a worthy dwelling place for the imperial household during the novel’s medieval Heian period. The aesthetic pleasures of the place are deeply appreciated by the characters, foremost of whom is the refined but illegitimate son of the emperor, Prince Genji. The characters draw inspiration from Kyōto and try to build exquisite dwellings that will add to the city’s many splendid residences and grace and stimulate the lives of their magnificent inhabitants. To be fully away from the city, living in other towns or remote rural dwellings, is seen as a form of unfortunate exile.

During the time of the novel, the imperial city was laid out in a strict grid pattern expressing the imposition of human order over a natural location. In line with ancient Chinese prescriptions for an emperor’s proper dwelling place, which Japan’s aristocracy adopted for its own use, the imperial palace stands at the center of the northern edge of the city. Facing south in his great ceremonial hall, the emperor beholds a city neatly divided into two equal parts. To the east, at his left hand, and symbolized by a cherry tree in the garden outside his hall, is the Left City, Genji’s favorite haunting place. At his right hand, to the west and symbolized by an orange tree, is the Right City.

This geographical division extended into society. The imperial government is divided into Left (eastern) and Right (western) factions, and Genji’s strongest opponent is the minister of the Right, who manages to have Genji temporarily exiled. The two geographically aligned factions primarily serve the interests of their aristocratic members and do not reflect differing political views.


*Suma. Desolate stretch of coastline west of Kyōto, ringed by mountains to the north and facing Japan’s Inland Sea. (Suma is now part of the city of Kobe.) The bleakness of Suma derived from its geographical distance to Kyōto, the absence of societal entertainments, and the acrid smoke from the fires of saltmakers on the shore. Historically, it was a place for exiles who ran afoul of the court, and once Genji has to follow this pattern. After a horrific storm typical of the location, Genji dreams that his dead father wants him to leave the dreadful place, and he gladly acts on this.


*Akashi. City five miles west of Suma, and with similar geographical features, that lies outside the emperor’s home provinces and is therefore in a different political world. Genji’s spirits revive at Akashi, and he falls in love with a woman who bears him a daughter after he is allowed back to Kyōto.


Rokujo. Fictional mansion of Genji’s estate, finished during his thirty-fifth year. It is symbolic of Genji’s return to good fortune and high social esteem. The elaborately described compound on the sixth street of Kyōto has always fascinated Japanese readers as the perfect example of a nobleman’s appropriate dwelling place. More beautiful and aesthetically balanced than any real surviving medieval mansion, Rokujo consists of a tastefully built and decorated main house, in two wings of which Genji puts up his primary lovers in grand style, and an exquisite garden. The garden has a fishing pavilion, artificial lake, and a brook–all inviting guests and inhabitants to dwell on the splendid yet transitory beauty of nature and human life, a topic essential to medieval Japanese literature.


*Uji. Typical Japanese provincial town, located south of Kyōto, from which it is reached by a bridge over the Uji River. Provincial towns such as Uji always appear somewhat forlorn and isolated in the intensely metropolitan The Tale of Genji, where any place beyond a day trip from Kyōto inspires feelings of loneliness. The fact that the primary romantic activities of Genji’s son Niou and his rival Kaoru revolve around three sisters in this town, rather than taking place in the capital, indicates how mundane the world has become with the passing of Genji’s generation.

BibliographyBowring, Richard. Murasaki Shikibu: “The Tale of Genji.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. This slim volume provides readable information on cultural background, including Heian politics, the author’s background and her fictionalization of history, and religions that influenced the novel. Also discusses the novel’s style, language, influence, and reception.Caddeau, Patrick W. Appraising “Genji”: Literary Criticism and Cultural Anxiety in the Age of the Last Samurai. New York: State University of New York, 2006. An examination of the analysis of Genji by nineteenth century critic Hagiwara Hiromichi. Especially useful to the general reader for its introduction, which surveys the critical reception of the work since medieval times.Field, Norma. The Splendor of Longing in “The Tale of Genji.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987. Concentrates on the relationships between the hero and his women in the novel.Kamens, Edward, ed. Approaches to Teaching Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji.” New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1993. Following a section on materials and recommended reading, six essays suggest ways of studying The Tale of Genji. Other authors treat problems of reading the text and compare it with other literary works.Keene, Donald. Japanese Literature. New York: Grove Press, 1955. The definitive commentator on Japanese literature, Keene discusses the Japanese novel’s indebtedness to The Tale of Genji and its sad obsession with mutability.McCullough, Wilt. “Japanese Marriage Institutions in the Heian Period.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 27 (1967): 103-167. A closely annotated translation of Eiga monogatari, a fictionalized history of the Fujiwara clan. Borrows techniques of The Tale of Genji; its introduction, notes, and appendices are a gold mine of information on Heian customs.Miner, Earl, ed. Principles of Classical Japanese Literature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985. Seven essays combine Japanese and North American viewpoints in discussing Japanese literature. Includes a discussion of whether The Tale of Genji is a collection rather than a single unified work and an examination of the work’s structure and narrative.Morris, Ivan. “Aspects of The Tale of Genji.” In The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972. A classic treatment of various aspects of the Heian period. Chapter 10 discusses The Tale of Genji. Also includes valuable appendices.Morris, Ivan. The World of the Shining Prince. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1964. An entertaining discussion of the Heian court’s cultural milieu, with much information taken from literary sources. Includes helpful appendices, charts of relationships, genealogical information, a glossary, a bibliography, and an index.Puette, William J. Guide to “The Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu. Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle, 1983. Discusses essential aspects of the world of Genji, provides chapter summaries, and examines the novel’s structure. Also includes an appendix with helpful maps, charts, and indexes.Takehiko, Noguchi. “The Substratum Constituting Monogatari: Prose Structure and Narrative in the Genji monogatari.” In Principles of Classical Japanese Literature, edited by Earl Miner. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985. Describes how Murasaki’s novel is structured by pairing, foreshadowing, cause and effect, generational correspondences, contrasts, and ellipses. These categories create depths in the monogatari’s narrative structure, with the deepest substratum consisting of the narrator’s voice.
Categories: Places