I recently just finished reading Japan’s national epic, “The Tale of Genji.” As far as epics go, it’s pretty different from Western stories like those of Homer or Virgil. There are no battles, not much in the way of Gods or Goddesses, or even magic. Perhaps, most intriguing, however, the tale was written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu.
Written sometime around the year 1000, this epic reads more like a novel. Since most male authors at the time in Japan wrote in Chinese, considered the higher form of calligraphy at the time, courtly women were actually the first to write epic poetry in Japanese. As a result, “The Tale of Genji,” which centers on a man, deals mostly with concepts central to courtly women during the ancient/medieval period. Genji, a good-looking aristocrat, is something of a male Helen of Troy, around which the central female characters (who inevitably become his lovers) revolve. Much is made about his good looks, and the clothes of women at court, as well as the political and romantic intrigues.
This book isn’t for the fainthearted. Most translations run in excess of 1200 pages. Nonetheless, it has striking characters that seem as real today as they must have been a thousand years ago. Genji’s lovers, like Fujibutso (the Emperor’s Consort), Murasaki (a young beauty, but too young for marriage yet), and the Lady Akashi (a rural governor’s daughter) all provide worthy heroines in of themselves. Forbidden love and courtly values, instead of detracting from the story, only add a distinctly Japanese flavor that allows the reader to truly travel back in time and immerse themselves in the tale.