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Gender Relations in Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji” Essay

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Updated: Oct 11th, 2021

The focal point of the paper is to discuss four female characters in The Tale of Genji and focus on women’s social role, level of education, how much independence they enjoyed, their emotions, their love and marriage, how they functioned in the society, and their relationships with the male characters in the book. I will discuss Genji’s most loved one -Murasaki, Genji’s ideal love- Fujistubo, Genji’s unforgettable one – Yugao and Genji’s wife- Aoi.

Murasaki Shikibu, a female aristocrat, wrote The Tale of Genji between 1001 and 1010 AD. Her real name is unknown, and it is believed that she was called Murasaki after the protagonist in her novel. This tale is considered the world’s first true novel, and hence occupies a significant role in world literature. It is universally acknowledged as the finest example of Japanese literature, down the ages. This national classic of Japan is acclaimed for its realistic and psychologically perfect and detailed portrayal of the Heian court life during the tenth century. This work is highly dramatic, true to life, and has many animated descriptions of love, jealousy, human frailties, and even spiritual possessions. Prince Genji is the hero of this tale. Genji is a complex personality and a sensitive lover. He forms a liaison with various women and responds to each of them through passionate empathy (Hirota, pp. 29-68).


When he was about seventeen years old, Genji discovered ten-year-old Murasaki. The niece of Fujitsubo, she too resembled Genji’s mother. However, Genji found it very difficult to get her. Her guardian was her grandmother since her stepmother disliked her and her father was fearful of taking her home. Murasaki’s grandmother refused to give her away to Genji since she was not of the nubile age and harbored suspicion of Genji’s intentions. In the meantime, her father decided to bring her back home. When he realized that, he would have to wait for years for Murasaki he found the idea unbearable and in a desperate bid of passionate longing, abducted her.

Murasaki virtually vanished with a trace.

Genji became devoted to her and took up the complete responsibility of looking after her well being and education, particularly the suave social atonements and the art of calligraphy It is fascinating to unravel the curious complexity of a filial bond (as revealed in the following quotes), later blossoming into a full-fledged romance.

“She was by now extremely fond of her new father. She would be the first to run out and greet him when he came home, and she would climb on his lap, and they would talk happily together, without the least constraint or embarrassment. He was delighted with her. … Murasaki was the perfect companion, a toy for him to play with. He could not have been so free and uninhibited with a daughter of his own.” (Shikibu, 1)

Gradually, the relationship matured and both of them became passionately devoted to each other, which is very eloquently driven home by the following:

“This moping, he decided, did no good. He went to the west wing in search of the company. Rumpled and wild-haired, he played a soft strain on a flute as he came into Murasaki’s room. She was leaning against an armrest, demure and pretty, like a wild carnation, he thought, with the dew fresh upon it. She was charming. Annoyed that he had not come immediately, she turned away” (Shikibu, p. 1).

Genji would often find that his absence would make her deeply sullen with her face “ hidden in a pillow” At times, Genji would admire her dress, fondly caress her, stroking her lustrous tresses and trimming them lest they did not turn out to be untidy.

Their relationship matured further with the death of Aoi, Genji’s wife and the deep mutual craving can be well understood in this quote: “Even when they were separated for a day or two Genji was beside himself with worry and Murasaki’s gloom was beyond describing” (Shikibu, p.1).

However, as Murasaki entered into her adulthood, she found herself to be barren and incapable of bearing a child. In the meantime, situations become such that Genji had to leave the palace and move to the refuge of another of his lovers, Akasi, and this affected Murasaki quite deeply.

The longing that she felt finds deep resonance in her letter, “The terrifying deluge goes on without a break, day after day. Even the skies are closed off, and I am denied the comfort of gazing in your direction” (Shikibu, p.1).

Although in Akashi Genji discovered another fulfilling relationship, which gave him his only daughter, he could not put Murasaki out of his mind, and in an almost guilt-torn emotion, he ventured to speak of his relationship with Akashi, even coaxing her to adopt the former’s child.

However, Murasaki was quite accepting and understanding and even adopted her husband’s child by a mistress, a phenomenon, not unheard of in the Heian era.

Though it is often fabled that he became jealous of the Akashi woman, the fact remains that she reared her foster-daughter in a befitting manner and even had the pious magnanimity of forsaking her maternal claims when her biological mother demanded so. The story has it that the daughter, who was betrothed to the crown prince was none-too-happy at this denouement and the discord between Akashi and her daughter was eventually resolved by the most caring and empathetic intervention of Murasaki.

Though some of the critics had interpreted this over-generosity and sacrifice on the part of Murasaki as symbolic of the Machiavellian way of drawing admiration from people at large, this in no way under-estimates her genuine sympathy for the child and the mother.

Later, of course, Murasaki developed a very close relationship with Yugiri, Genji s son by his wife, Aoi.

Lady Fujitsubo

In a further unfolding relationship of passionate love is Genjii’s intimate association with Lady Fujitsubo, an imperial princess and a woman of aristocratic lineage. Incidentally, she was the stepmother of Genji and is related to his mother, who resembled her closely. She finds herself at the age of 16, in the service of Emperor Kiritsubo because of her striking similarity with the deceased consort.

“The resemblance to the dead lady was indeed astonishing. Because she was of such high birth (it may have been that people were imagining things) she seemed even more graceful and delicate than the other” (Shikibu, p. 1).

However, Genji was strongly enamored by her and they were locked in an illicit relationship, the outcome of which was the birth of Reizei, whom everyone believed to be a descendant of royal lineage, but for these two lovers. The peculiar circumstances of their relationship compelled them to conceal the fatherhood of the child, despite the baby’s striking resemblance with Genji.

With the elevation to the rank of Empress and the death of the Emperor and having anointed her son as the ‘heir apparent, Lady Fujitsubo suffered from an acute torment of guilt and shame and a mortal fear of her secret having been exposed. Her desperation and the quiet remorse are well captured in the following lines:

“Lamenting the burden of sin that seemed to be hers, Fujitsubo was more and more unwell, and could not bestir herself, despite repeated messages summoning her back to court.” “Fujitsubo was assailed by innumerable conflicting thoughts.” (Shikibu, 1)

In order to stave off Gejii’s further sexual advances and being inwardly uncomfortable with the increasing demands of the Emperor, she gradually made herself inaccessible. Later, to altogether rule out the possibility of her secret ever becoming known and fuelled by a determined resolve to renounce any claims of royal power and prestige, she chose the life of a nun (‘Sakaki’s). After her return from the forced exile, she formed a political alliance with Genji and they both led the life of ordinary ‘siblings’, devoid of any romantic misadventure.

Fujitsubo’s significance in the tale lies beyond her apparent contribution to the plot, as performing the role of an “original substitute”. As we know, she made her maiden appearance as a surrogate for Kiritsubo, though, in a bitter twist of irony, later, Genji, looked for her substitutes, in such women, as Utsusemi, the Third Princess, but most importantly, in Murasaki.


One of the fascinating stories of blossoming pure love is that between Genji and his “unforgettable” Yugao, whom the former met at the age of 17, on his way to visit his other betrothed, Rokujo no Miyasudokoro. Though Yuga was temperamentally coyish and rather withdrawn, Genji instantly fell for her and was captivated by her disarming demeanor and both became passionate lovers. However, Rokujo, who was a smart woman to whom Genji was also amorously inclined, could not tolerate, Yugao, having emerged from a relatively lowly caste. It is fabled that in a vengeful reproach, her evil spirit killed Yugao, which resulted in an acute mental turmoil to Ganjee. Unable to bear the deep loss, Genji felt extremely tormented and felt suicidal. Struck by remorse, he rushed to her graveyard, raised incantations in Buddhist ‘sloka’ (hymns), and provided refuge to Yugao’s young daughter, Tamakazura.

This instance very eloquently brings to sharp relief, the soft, romantic, feminine nature of Genji. In fact, despite Genjii’s political image, his was a spirit attuned to literary engagements and expression of artistic sensibility of the highest kind. His unique proficiency in letters, painting, music,

poetry etc, cast him in a unique mold that passionately endeared him to his contemporary womenfolk.


Interestingly, AOI, the only daughter of Princess Omiya, was formally married to Genji, but the relationship was more of a political one and reflected courtly obligations rather than born or even bred out of genuine love. Aoi, the elder to her husband and more practical in her ways, found him unsuitable, immature, and gradually drifted apart. Genji, disaffected by Aoi, pursued other womanly interests with gusto, which were a subject of Aoi’s jealousy.

It was through palace rumors and the like that Aoi became aware of the existence of Murasaki, which immensely disturbed her. Though Aoi was Genji’s wife of legal primacy, she had a turbulent relationship; being almost pitchforked in a triangular affair that Genji simultaneously enjoyed with her and Rokujo. Her frustration and desolation are captivatingly borne out in the following lines:

“And rumors of the young Murasaki were out. Certain of the women at Sanjo let it be known that a new lady had been taken in at Nijo. Genji’s wife was intensely displeased. It was most natural that she should be, for she did not of course know that the “lady” was a mere child. If she had complained to him openly, as most women would have done, he might have told her everything, and no doubt eased her jealousy….” (Shikibu, p. 1).

She, however, bore him a son named Yugiri, following which she passed away, hounded by a spirit of royal Dame Rokujou.

Genji’s orbiting relationships: an Analysis

Genji’s relationships with women have been analyzed from two points of view. One, which is also the narrator’s viewpoint, though centuries old but still widely acclaimed, holds that Genji is much praised and admired in that he respects the character and as well as looks of women; and that he is very responsible and sensitive towards all of them with whom he establishes a bond. The second point of view belongs to the dissenters who hold that the relationships that Genji forged are nothing but seductions or may even be termed as rape, crimes against women.

However, whichever view, one may ascribe to, the fact remains that Genji’s curiously evolving dynamics of the relationship with women is an offshoot of his Oedipus complex- borne by an eternal quest for the mother he never had and desperately longed for. In fact, his initial enamor which later turned out to be a tempestuous affair with Fujistubo is a very strong pointer to this.

In fact, we find the Emperor encouraging Fujitsubo to lavish her attention on adolescent Genji, along these lines :

“Do not be unfriendly,” said the emperor to Fujitsubo. “Sometimes it almost seems to me too that you are his mother. Do not think him forward, be kind to him. Your eyes, your expression: you are really so uncommonly like her that you could pass for his mother” (Shikibu, p. 1).

Interestingly, his attraction towards Fujitsubo’s niece and another of his mother’s look-alikes, Murasaki is a further confirmation of this.

One of the most enduring relationships to have flowered between Genji and his womenfolk is the one between him and Murasaki as they shared much in common, having lost their mothers at a very tender age, both of them being “lesser wives” of their respective fathers and representative of the socially disadvantaged class.

We find that though Murasaki did have some problems regarding the Akashi woman, she was not jealous of the relations Genji had with various women, since Genji never really wavered from the affection and devotion he felt for Murasaki and the latter fully reciprocated his feelings. Nevertheless, later on, on Genji’s marriage to the “Third Princess”, who happened to be a rank outsider, Murasaki fell ill, never to recover.

Genji’s illicit relationship with his stepmother Fujistubo, was though, born out of a strong adoration and a definitive search for a surrogated motherhood, it grew cold and eventually fell off, being hounded by silent pangs of guilt. His affair with Yugao, though often conceived, as a substitute for the incestuous relationship with Fujistubo, did not also go far beyond an “unforgettable” one.

Position of women: an important fulcrum of the society

An underlying humane attitude, propped by sympathy and care, is the hallmark of The Tale of Genji. Physical violence against women is absent, despite the criticism that Genji’s liaisons with the women were crimes against them; a bold and modernist approach is embedded in the storyline as neither is there any unreasonable demand of virginity and purity on women. Men in this saga seem to overlook or even accept these common foibles on the part of the women. All the characters seem to grow and evolve as the story progresses, much like in the real life. The plot and its characters never seem to be contrived.

However, men are the dominant characters in this lore. The political and the intellectual worlds belonged to them. The “gentlemen” had private as well as public lives while the “gentlewomen” were confined largely to the private world, comprising their households. They were sheltered from being seen by men unrelated to her, although illegal spying on women was not unheard of. The use of the term “Tamiami” [‘peering through a crack’] in the literary work is symbolic of the confinement of women within the boundaries of the household and the curiosity of the men towards them. (Gordon-Smith, p. 76)

Ladies from good genteel and aristocratic families were expected to live by pretty high and conservative standards of morality. Women had access to education, culture, and accomplishment.

This is corroborated by the mention of Genji himself taking up the task of educating and training little Murasaki since she was ten years old.

Women had property rights and wielded much power within their households. As revealed from the position of Fujistubo, wife of the Emperor, from the following quotes:

“… Fujitsubo was made empress and the emperor wanted to name Fujitsubo’s son, the crown prince. The child had no strong backing, however. His uncles were all princes of the blood, and it was not for them to take command of public affairs. The emperor, therefore, wanted Fujitsubo to assume an unassailable position by dint of which she could promote her son’s career” (Shikibu, p. 1).

The wide acclaim that women held in the public eye can also be gauged from the following quotes which explain Murasaki’s position in the interiors of the palace “

“All the women from the other wings of the house were now in her (Muraski’s) service. They had been of the view that she was beneath their notice, but as they came to observe her gentleness, her magnanimity in household matters, her thoughtfulness, they changed their minds, and not one of them departed her service a glimpse of her was enough to make them admit that she deserved Genji’s altogether remarkable affection.” (Shikibu, 1) Women sometimes enjoyed multiple relationships, although men enjoyed more sexual license. We see Fujitsubo, wife of the emperor, getting involved with Genji and even secretly bearing him a son. However, on the other hand, we see mentioned right at the beginning of the tale

“In a certain reign, there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others. The lady “bore the emperor a beautiful son, a jewel beyond compare. …. The world assumed that with this powerful support, he would one day be named crown prince; but the new child was far more beautiful. On public occasions, the emperor continued to favor his eldest son. The new child was a private treasure, so to speak, on which to lavish uninhibited affection.” (Shikibu, 1) This child was, of course, as we know, Genji’s. Polygamy was common where a man was permitted to take two to three “lesser” wives besides the principal wife. In this polygamous situation, the social position of the women played a great role in their marital relations, more so if their husbands had such amorous inclinations as Genji.

These “hierarchically ordered wives” could bear socially recognized children although they enjoyed lesser privileges than the principal one. Sometimes there was much rivalry and animosity among these wives. For example, right at the beginning of chapter 1, we see the plight of Genji’s mother, emerging from a lowly social denomination. The situation does not change even when Genji is a grown man. He feels obliged repeatedly to remind Murasaki, that the Akashi Lady (the mother of his only daughter) is no threat to her (chapters 13 and 14, ‘Akashi’ and ‘The Pilgrimage to Sumiyoshi’)

Conclusion: A Saga of Unfolding Human Emotions

Thus, as evident, the tale is considered the world’s first true novel, and as the finest instance of Japanese literature, down the ages occupies a special position in world literature. This national classic of Japan is acclaimed for its realistic and psychologically perfect and detailed portrayal of the Heian court life during the tenth century. This work is highly dramatic, true to life, and has many animated descriptions of love, jealousy, human frailties, and even spiritual possessions. The enthralling and passionate love affairs of Genji, the show of genuine care and concern, romance and longing, buffeted, at times, by pangs of remorse and guilt, are a lively commentary on the evolving human relationships of the times, providing deep insights into their socio-cultural moorings and their larger acceptance within the society.


  1. Hirota, Akiko; The Tale of Genji: From Heian Classic to Heisei Comic; Journal of Popular Culture; Volume 31, Issue 2, Date: 1997, Pages: 29-68
  2. Gordon-Smith, Richard; Ancient Tales and Folklore of Japan; Forgotten Books, 1986
  3. Shikibu, Murasaki; ; Globusz Publishing; 2008. Web.
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