Education About Asia: Online Archives

The Heart of History: The Tale of Genji

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The defensible claims that The Tale of Genji is history’s first novel and the first major literary work written by a woman have won it international recognition and accordingly inclusion in many survey courses of world literature. Within Japan today, The Tale of Genji commands a space in the canon of the national literature roughly equivalent to all the works of Shakespeare in the English canon, while in popular culture, the tale continues to provide infinite inspiration for animated and print cartoon artists, filmmakers, and illustrators. That a work written a thousand years ago for a tiny in-group audience consisting mainly of royal consorts, princesses, and the women who served them should have such an enduring ability to communicate across time and culture is nothing short of extraordinary. Its success in this respect owes much to the way it can draw the reader of any time and background into a world of convincing reality, peopled by characters with believable and intriguing emotions. The work’s capacity to deliver this experience makes it an exceptionally clear window into many aspects of Japanese history and culture, as well as providing material for cross-cultural comparison on such varied themes as courtship, marriage, roles of women, communication modes, and aesthetic perception.