Lessons From The Tale of Genji

I am currently reading the classic 11th century Japanese novel The Tale of Genji. It was written in 11th century Japan, the Heian era. This was a time of relative domestic tranquility in Japan, but also a time when the wealthy aristocracy lived a rareified existence very isolated from the common people. The retainers of the Emperor lived in the capital city, dressed elaborately, passionately pursued arts, poetry, and music with their abundant free time, and highly valued the culture of China. While studying ancient Chinese poetry was a revered pursuit reserved for men, the craft of using Japan’s own unique writing system to craft original contemporary fiction was an emergent phenomenon that was

  1. Looked down on, and 
  2. Mostly taken up by female writers like Sei Shonagon and the author of The Tale of Genji, Lady Murasaki Shikibu.

Lady Murasaki and the Shining Prince

We do not know Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s real name. We know that she was most likely the daughter of a mid-ranking imperial official from the powerful and influential Fujiwara family. Unusual at a time when women lived cloistered lives and had very little education, even in the upper classes, she was well-read and well versed in the Chinese classics. She was a lady-in-waiting to the Empress, at which time she became known at court for her fascinating storytelling abilities. She began recording stories of the life of Genji, a fictional prince who represents the ideals of Heian era aristocrats. The fictional Genji lives much as his real-life counterparts in the upper echelons of Heian society did, excelling at aesthetic pursuits and engaging in many love affairs and plural marriage. However, his outstanding style and beauty, and the captivating charisma he exerts on others, is purely romantic fiction. 

Lessons From Genji’s Exile

At first, I was shocked at some of the social norms and mores of the Heian period in Japanese history which the book was written in, and depicts. However, I had to accept that “The past is different, and they do things differently there.”  What was acceptable in the 1100s is definitey not what would be acceptable now! With that in mind, I kept reading. In my own amateur, hobbyist scholarship of Japanese history and culture, I have heard about the beauty of the book’s Suma chapter. It is named after the desolate seaside region where the lead character, Imperial official Genji, has been banished after falling out of favor with a new regime. 

Genji prays for forgiveness for whatever failing or sin, in the present life or in another incarnation, has brought about his exile from the court. Shortly after the ritual in which Geni asks for forgiveness, a great rainstorm strikes the coast. The storm destroys property, and the calamity frightens Genji and everyone around him. However, Genji did not know that there was another man praying to the same storm god, and that his life is about to change


In nearby Akashi, there lives a character called The Novice. He is a minor official who has tken vows to live a rustic religious life, but he nurses ambitions that his only daughter will one day marry into the aristocracy and live in the capital, where Genji has just been banished from. The Novice prays for this frequently, to the same deity of storms and rain to which Genji asked for pardon from his sins. The novice and his daughter, whom the narrative calls Akashi after where she resides, take a boat to Genji’s residence and introduce themselves to him. It is an unusual occurrence, because ordinarily in the very strict castes of Heian society Genji would not have met them. Later on, Genji has a romance and a child with Akashi. Their daughter goes on to become Empress, fulfilling the Novice’s hopes that his family would move up in Heian society. 

The Blessings After the Storm

A modern reader could probably argue that Genji had done plenty to deserve his exile, even if all he had done to directly offend the people who orchestrated his downfall was to be brilliant and admired, so much that it was feared he could usurp the throne. However, Genji prayed for forgiveness for his mistakes. What he didn’t realize at first, is that his exile had a purpose. If it hadn’t happened, he wouldn’t have met the mother of his daughter The Young Lady Akashi. Young Lady Akashi’s life fulfills the change for the better in her father’s fortunes. Genji is later given great honors by the next emperor, who is secretly his son. His daughter marries another emperor, becoming Empress. Although he went through the shame of exile, Genji and his family ascend great heights.


We all go through storms in our life, seasons of hardship and confusion. My family rang in the year 2023 optimistically, feeling blessed to still have my great-grandmother, who was 91, in our lives. We looked forward not only to another year with her, but her health had been so steady even at an advanced age that we had hoped she would live to be 100, like other relatives in our family. It was unforeseen that she did not. Now, like Genji, we seem to be living on an unfamiliar and bleak shore, and striving to survive a storm. That storm is one that lives on the inside of all of us, our grief. I didn’t expect to find much that was inspirational about my situation, my grief, in The Tale of Genji. The Suma chapter is renowned for how it shows off Lady Murasaki’s extensive knowledge of Chinese poetry. While I was impressed by the erudite composition of the chapter, its pathos hit home. Genji had the blessings of Lady Akashi’s love, the birth of his daughter, and his own return to favor in his home, the capital, to look forward to, although he did not know that during the storm. His prayers for forgiveness were answered, and his happiness in life returned.

While my great-grandmother is gone, I received new hope from Lady Murasaki’s writing that my family, like her shining prince Genji, has good things waiting for us in the future, too. 

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