Real things in the darkness seem no realer than dreams • The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu - Heroes and legends • 3000BCE–1300CE

The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016

Real things in the darkness seem no realer than dreams • The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu
Heroes and legends • 3000BCE–1300CE




Literature of the Heian court


c.920 CE The first anthology of waka (classical Japanese poetry) is published, known as Kokinshū (A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern).

Late 10th century The fairytale The Tale of the Lady Ochikubo is written.

c.1000 Sei Shōnagon completes The Pillow Book, observations on life in the court of the Empress Consort Teishi.


Early 12th century Konjaku monogatari (Tales of Times Now Past) is compiled, containing stories from India, China, and Japan.

1187 Senzaishū (Collection of a Thousand Years), the final imperial anthology of waka (classical poetry), is completed by Fujiwara no Shunzei.

Japanese art and culture flourished in the Heian period (794—1185), when the imperial court was located in Heian-kyō (present-day Kyoto). It was during this period that classical Japanese literature began to emerge, distinct from Chinese language and culture. And although Chinese remained the language of both officialdom and the nobility, the simpler form of the Japanese kana syllabic script increasingly became the national language of literature.

Imperial patronage

Poetry was highly regarded and encouraged by the Heian emperors, who commissioned eight major anthologies of poems in Japanese. At the end of the 10th century, however, works in prose also began to appear, including histories and folktales, such as The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, and an original story, The Tale of the Lady Ochikubo, thought to have been written by a member of the Heian court.

More significantly, Murasaki Shikibu (973—1014 or 1025), a lady-in-waiting at the court, wrote what is considered to be the first Japanese novel (and what some consider the first ever novel) — The Tale of Genji. In its 54 chapters, it recounts the lives and loves of “Shining Genji” — the disinherited son of a Japanese emperor — and his descendants. Although presented as a sequence of events rather than a true plot, the character portrayals are compelling, giving not only an insight into the life of courtiers at the time, but also their thoughts and motivations, making this arguably a precursor of the modern psychological novel.

Murasaki probably intended The Tale of Genji for a readership of noblewomen, but it won a wider audience and became a classic, appearing in many editions from the 12th century onwards. Despite its status, its complex style meant it was not translated into modern Japanese until the 20th century; the text is usually annotated to explain its cultural references.

See also: The Pillow BookThe Narrow Road to the InteriorThe Love Suicides at Sonezaki