The First Novel: Japan’s literary legacy
Cat Stone overviews the very first novel, The Tale of Genji, and it’s cultural impact.
As The Tale of Genji is commonly thought to be the world’s first novel, originally written by noblewomen Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century, the continuing cultural significance of the story in Japanese culture is astounding. Arguably, what was given the story its power, more than elevated literary status, is the countless adaptions that give it continuing relevance. Written in prose expertly combined with over 800 poems, the story weaves through 70 years of Japanese courtly life in the Heian period, following central characters who have sharply defined characterisation and arcs. As it is handed down through the ages, successive generations of readers have engaged with the work’s timeless understanding of human nature. The first reference to Genji is Murasaki’s diary entry of 1 November 1008, and in modern Japan this date was designated Japanese Classics Day, a striking example of the pre-eminence of the work in Japanese thought.
The story follows Genji, ‘the Shining Prince’: his complicated romantic involvements and political downfalls and ascendancy – from exile to the highest levels of court. The 54 chapters give readers a comprehensive picture of his inherently flawed character. Murasaki based the story on her acute observations of court politics and etiquette rules, and the decadent vanity of the imperial court. Until the early 20th century, when Akiko Yosano translated it into modern Japanese, the complex, inflected courtly language could only be read by scholars. Since the 12th century, versions had extensive annotations and illustrations, the oldest scrolls being the Genji Monogatari Emaki, Japanese national treasures. The first complete English translation published in the 1920-30’s was followed by numerous subsequent attempts to improve on the adaption. The Tyler version in 2001 mimics the original style and has extensive footnotes to explain poetical allusion and cultural aspects.
The continuing cultural significance of the story in Japanese culture is astounding.
Genji has had a strong influence on Japanese culture, helping shape classical aesthetics such as miyabi (refined elegance) and a strong emphasis on the seasons, as well as the importance of style and etiquette. The New York Metropolitan of Art put on an extensive exhibition in 2019, ‘The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated’, featuring many cultural artifacts that depict scenes from Genji, to showcase the art and culture it has inspired that have become part of the mythology of the story. The text has been extensively reworked and incorporated into contemporary culture, from 15th century lewd parody plays to 19th century opera. Films, in 1951, 1966, 1987, 2001 and 2011, have imagined and reimaged the story in a multitude of settings. Even anime films and series have been produced, as well as 5 manga series that chart the story in differing levels of depth. Some are relatively highbrow, such as the 1989 Tsuboi Koh version which was supervised by a Heian scholar, and the Egawa Tatsuya version, which includes the original text alongside. The Yamoto Waki series is a shoojo manga, focusing heavily on the romance and aimed at girls. The 2015 theatre adaption saw the actress Asumi Rio play a gender bent version of Genji. Adaption has ensured the longevity of the work as it has been continually popularized to reflect changing Japanese cultural identity, relevant themes and sensibilities