The Tale of Genji

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Date: 2017
From: Supernatural Literature(Vol. 1: The Dead. )
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay; Work overview
Length: 2,263 words

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Page 166

The Tale of Genji

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Murasaki Shikibu


Written during the first decade of the eleventh century, The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari) by Murasaki Shikibu (c. 978–c. 1031), a poet and lady-in-waiting in Japan's imperial court, provides one of the earliest and most influential scenes of spirit possession in Japanese literature. Much of the novel, widely considered the world's first, follows the romantic exploits of the beautiful and talented Genji, who has been demoted to commoner status by his father, the emperor. In many chapters Genji pursues and usually succeeds in sleeping with a new love interest. However, his frequent philandering is often a cause of consternation for his wife, his family, court society, and his many lovers. The resulting jealousy leads the spirit of one of his lovers, Lady Rokujó, to leave her own body and torment Genji's pregnant wife, Aoi, ultimately killing her. Lady Rokujó's spirit also kills or attacks several other of Genji's lovers.

The novel was widely read by aristocrats serving the emperor's court at the time it was written, and it has continued to influence Japanese culture in subsequent historical periods. While readership was initially limited to the aristocratic class and written in an archaic language used only at court, by the seventeenth century the novel was increasingly read by commoners and translated into vernacular Japanese in various Genji digests. Often the novel was encountered through visual media: illustrated scrolls, screen paintings, woodblock prints, and later films and manga comics. Although scenes of spiritual possession make up only a small part of the epic tale, the story of Aoi's possession and death became a popular subject for traditional Noh plays, which often involve a supernatural spirit that takes on human form. In the twentieth century, writers such as Japan's Mishima Yukio (1925–1970) reimagined and modernized the traditional Noh play featuring Aoi, placing her in a psychiatric ward after being diagnosed with “sexual complexes.”


The Tale of Genji provides vivid depictions of the life and rituals of the nobility in the Heian period, which lasted from 794 CE to 1185 CE. A prominent practice of this era was polygyny, in which men of the imperial court took multiple wives and lovers. Men's sexual privilege extended to other practices, such as the courtship ritual known as kaimami, the act of playing peeping tom (it literally means peeking through a hole in the fence). Genji frequently engages in this act at the outset of a romantic conquest, usually leading to seduction. Women were expected to remain silent about any discontent they might have regarding these courtship rituals and were prohibited from expressing jealousy. Being jealous of other women was considered an evil attribute that must be controlled; even traditional wedding headwear (called tsunokakushi) is worn by modern brides to cover her “horns” of jealousy. Furthermore, there was a widespread belief that a person's state of mind (such as Lady Rokujó's jealousy) rendered him or her vulnerable to attacks by evil spirits.

In writing scenes of spiritual possession, Murasaki was probably inspired by the supernatural tales of Japanese writers such as Miyoshi Kiyoyuki (847–918) and Ki no Hase (851–912), as well as by Chinese tales of the strange and the extraordinary, which flourished during China's Six Dynasties (589–222 BCE) and Tang dynasty (618–906) and were quite popular in Japan during the Heian period. Furthermore, the spirit of a jealous or ruined woman has a long history in Japanese folktales. The legend of the hone-onna tells of a jealous spirit who seduces and kills the men who have wronged her, and tales of the vengeful onryó spirits date back to the eighth century. For Murasaki's readers, evil spirits were not simply a matter for myths and folktales but were believed to actually exist. Preoccupation with supernatural spirits can be found in writings by the top minds in medicine and the natural sciences of the period.

In The Tale of Genji, Murasaki draws upon a familiar archetype of Japanese belief: that a person's spirit, if sufficiently provoked, could assume a secondary life on its own. She also incorporates aspects of Buddhism, which was gaining prominence in the imperial court. However, these two traditions are somewhat contradictory. Demons and spirits are not a part of Buddhist doctrine; instead, Buddhism teaches that the cause of one's troubles are found entirely within oneself and can be cured only by following the path of enlightenment. Nevertheless, the traditional beliefs of Shinto, Japan's ethnic religion, persisted, and Buddhist monks Page 167  |  Top of Articleperformed exorcisms, sometimes with great pomp, as seen in The Tale of Genji. While the presence of spirits is very real in the tale, Lady Rokujó's plight is often read metaphorically. Unable to let go of her own egocentric desires, she perfectly encapsulates Buddhist views on human suffering.

The legacy and influence of the supernatural elements of The Tale of Genji cannot be overstated. Along with Tales of Times Now Past (Konjaku Monogatari) and The Tale of Heike (Heike Monogatari), both of unknown authorship, The Tale of Genji is considered one of the major medieval sources for later Japanese supernatural fiction, influencing writers such as Ueda Akinari (1734–1809), Kyóka Izumi (1873–1939), Akutagawa Ryilnosuke (1892–1927), and Mishima. In Kyóka's story “One Day in Spring” (1906), a smoking character imagines exhaling a double of his spirit outside of his body, similar to how Lady Rokujó's spirit doubles itself to transcend the material limitations of her body.


A major theme of The Tale of Genji is sexual desire. Genji's seemingly endless desire continually leads him into difficult situations. After hearing about a potential lover, he becomes obsessed, unable to do anything else but pursue her. Nor is he able to give up a lover once he has had her. He muses that “among his ladies there was none who could be dismissed as completely beneath consideration and none to whom he could give his whole love.” (In fact, he later builds a house for his three favorite lovers to spare him the time it previously took to get to their accommodations.) Despite the troubles he encounters, Genji, being male, is allowed to express his sexual desires more or less unfettered. This, of course, is not the case for the female characters in the novel, including Lady Rokujó.

Just as Genji's sexual desires are the focus of his life, Lady Rokujó's spirit takes on a life of its own. While she herself wishes no harm to Aoi—and in fact treats her with great reverence—Lady Rokujó's spirit is determined to destroy Genji's wife. Both women can be seen as falling under the spell of possession. As Lady Rokujó becomes more and more angry over an embarrassing incident between her and Aoi, “her very soul seemed to jump wildly about, and at last she fell physically ill…. Sometimes in a daze she would ask herself if her soul had indeed gone wandering off.” Spirits, like unconscious desire or repressed impulses, seem to have lives of their own.

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The story of Lady Aoi in The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (c. 978–c. 1031) has long been the subject of various adaptations, from Noh plays to Kabuki theater to film and television. One of the more recent productions, Opera AOI, is a Japanese opera that incorporates digital technology to explore the theme of spiritual possession.

In Opera AOI, Aoi is a star singer who works closely with a musical composer named Hikaru (a common nickname for Genji). After an accident, Aoi finds herself in a psychiatrist's office possessed by the vengeful spirit of Midori, a “Vocaloid” character who was once made famous by Hiraku but has since been forgotten (Vocaloid is a popular software that synthesizes a singing voice, developed by Yamaha). Much like a spirit, a Vocaloid synthesized voice sounds uncanny. It sounds eerily like a human but not quite. The production of Opera AOI further incorporates strange elements through the use of Bunraku puppets and by mixing traditional and techno Japanese music. The use of a digitally enhanced voice portraying a possessive spirit evokes the anxieties of the modern age, in which technology can seem otherworldly and almost magical.

One of the most distinct features of The Tale of Genji is the frequent inclusion of poetry, both written and spoken, within the prose. The elaborate courtship rituals described in the novel often involve characters communicating by ripping off a scrap of paper or cloth and jotting down a few lines of verse to pass along. Even in the thralls of Aoi's spiritual possession, Genji remains in contact with Lady Rokujó through the written exchange of poetry. Their exchange reveals both aggression and intimacy, as they play upon the same figure of language. She begins writing, “I go down the way of love and dampen my sleeves, / And go yet further, into the muddy fields. / A pity the well is so shallow.” Genji responds in verse, continuing her metaphor of wet sleeves—a common device in Japanese poetry to represent anguish and sadness—asking, “You only dip into the shallow waters, / And I quite disappear into the slough?” Later, while speaking to his dying wife, Genji realizes that her voice and manner have changed. He is in fact speaking to the spirit of Lady Rokujó. She asks Genji in verse to “bind the hem of [her] robe, to keep it within,” a superstitious practice designed to keep wayward spirits (in this case, her) from leaving home. Both Lady Rokujó and her wandering vengeful spirit use the same poetic imagery when speaking with Genji, emphasizing poetry's unique status in the novel for conveying desire.


The Tale of Genji has generated almost a millennium's worth of critical discussion. Medieval commentaries generally focused on the work's poetry, historical references, and narrative structure, but some were concerned with the text's eroticism. Such critics were often didactic, insisting that Genji's eroticism is simply a ploy to draw the reader in, while warning against licentiousness and teaching the five Confucian virtues. But others celebrated the novel's eroticism, seeing in it an attempt to reveal the depth of human emotion.

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This statute depicts Murasaki Shikibu, the author of The Tale of Genji, a landmark eleventhcentury Japanese novel about spiritual and romantic possession. This statute depicts Murasaki Shikibu, the author of The Tale of Genji, a landmark eleventhcentury Japanese novel about spiritual and romantic possession. ZHANG PENG/GETTY IMAGES ZHANG PENG/GETTY IMAGES

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Genji played an important role in influencing modernism in Japan. Modernist writers such as Tanizaki Jun'ichiró (1886–1965) looked to Genji as a model for Japanese writing that resisted both realism (the predominant literary style at the time) and bourgeois masculinity. Influenced by the aestheticism of European writers such as Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) and Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), Tanizaki celebrated the decadent, anti-utilitarian aesthetics of Genji. Tanizaki and other male modernists self-consciously identified with what they considered to be Murasaki's “feminine” style of writing. However, later critics have read this identification as, in some ways, reinforcing traditional hegemonic gender roles.

More recently critics have begun to interpret Genji's examples of spiritual possession through the lenses of feminism and psychoanalysis. Among them, Shirane Haruo wrote in The Bridge of Dreams: A Poetics of The Tale of Genji, “In Murasaki Shikibu's hands, these evil spirits, or mono no ke, become a dramatic means of expressing a woman's repressed or unconscious emotions, particularly the jealousy and resentment caused by polygamy.” For Shirane, Murasaki is not affirming the cultural systems of her characters; she is in fact critiquing them. Doris Bargen goes a step further, suggesting that these spirits are not only an expression of women's repressed emotion but also a “weapon” that allows Lady Rokujó to be an active agent for her own empowerment. In contrast to previous studies that concentrated on the antagonism between Lady Rokujó's spirit and Aoi, Bargen viewed them as acting in an alliance against their shared oppression.



Bargen, Doris. A Woman's Weapon: Spirit Possession in The Tale of Genji. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

Barnes, Nancy J. “Lady Rokujó's Ghost: Spirit Possession, Buddhism, and Healing in Japanese Literature.” Literature and Medicine 8 (1989): 106–121.

Hugh, Henry J. “Familiarity of the Strange: Japan's Gothic Tradition.” Criticism 42, no. 1 (2000): 59–89.

Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji. Translated by Edward Seidensticker. New York: Knopf, 1976.

Shirane Haruo. The Bridge of Dreams: A Poetics of The Tale of Genji. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989.

Shirane Haruo, ed. Envisioning The Tale of Genji: Media, Gender, and Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

Ury, Marian. “A Heian Note on the Supernatural.” Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese 22, no. 2 (1988): 189–194.

Further Reading

Emmerich, Michael. The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization and World Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

Field, Norma. The Splendor of Longing in The Tale of Genji. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2001.

Goff, Janet. Noh Drama and The Tale of Genji: The Art of Allusion in Fifteen Classical Plays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Harper, Thomas, and Haruo Shirane, eds. Reading The Tale of Genji: Sources from the First Millennium. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

Kajiya, Kenji. “Reimagining the Imagined: Depictions of Dreams and Ghosts in the Early Edo Period.” Impressions 23 (2001): 86–107.

Mishima Yukio. Five Modern Nō Plays. New York: Vintage International, 2009.

Reider, Noriko T. Tales of the Supernatural in Early Modern Japan: Kaidan, Akinari, Ugetsu Monogatari. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellon, 2002.

Sugawara no Takasue no Musume. The Sarashina Diary: A Woman's Life in Eleventh-Century Japan. Translated by Sonja Arntzen and Itó Moriyuki. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

Sean Hutchison

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3662100057