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Qwiz5 Quizbowl Essentials – The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji is one of the great classics of world literature, and arguably the world’s first novel. Written by Murasaki Shikibu in the 11th century, The Tale of Genji recounts the life of the titular “Shining Prince” and his descendants. Hikaru Genji is a passionate, romantic aristocrat in the days of Heian Japan. While Murasaki records the mores and culture of the Japanese aristocracy in exquisite detail, The Tale of Genji addresses broader themes as well: the nature of love, conflicting family loyalties, and even Buddhist philosophy. All in all, it’s a work of literature well worth exploring.

By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on The Tale of Genji.


The Tale of Genji is unique for its nuanced depictions of female characters. Lady Aoi no Ue, Genji’s first wife, is one such character. Lady Aoi is four years older than Genji and is infuriated by his many affairs. The wandering spirit of Lady Rokujō, one of Genji’s many mistresses appears to possess Lady Aoi and may lead indirectly to her untimely death. Despite their initial distance, Genji comes to love his first wife and mourns her passing.


Part of the distance between Genji and Lady Aoi is caused by the former’s love for Lady Fujitsubo. Chosen as a concubine for the Kiritsubo Emperor, Lady Fujitsubo quickly becomes an object of obsession for Genji. Genji performs a dance known as the “Waves of the Blue Ocean” for the Emperor, but directs it towards Lady Fujitsubo. Genji and Lady Fujitsubo begin an illicit affair, and Lady Fujitsubo eventually gives birth to Reizei, who will one day become an emperor.


Genji’s political fortunes change with the death of the Kiritsubo Emperor. The Emperor’s son, Genji’s half-brother Suzaku, ascends to the throne. Suzaku’s mother Lady Kokiden despises Genji, and when Genji’s affair with one of Suzaku’s concubines is discovered, Kokiden conspires to have Genji exiled. Genji is sent from the court to the rural town of Suma. Eventually, however, Suzaku pardons Genji.


Although Genji is returned to the court, his status restored thanks to the new Emperor Reizei, all is not well for the Prince. In his 40s he begins to feel himself “diminished.” Following the death of his lover Murasaki Genji comments on the transience of life in a chapter called Maboroshi (“Illusion”). The next chapter, Kumogakure, (“Vanished into the Clouds”) is left blank, suggesting Genji’s death.


Genji dies before the novel is completed, but the story goes on. Kaoru Genji is the son of Genji’s wife, The Third Princess, and Genji’s nephew Kashiwagi. This fact is concealed from the boy, but this uncertain parentage is representative of a certain irresolution that plagues Kaoru. Kaoru pursues love more uncertainly than Genji, but he does have relationships, and the indefinable sweet scent around him that gives him his nickname helps him in this regard. The Tale of Genji ends suddenly without resolution, as Kaoru wonders whether Ukifune, a woman who rejected his love, is being “held” by the imperial prince Niou.


Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:

  • The Tale of Genji inspired many beautiful works of Japanese art.

  • Lady Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji during the Heian Period, a time of relative stability and prosperity in Japanese history.

  • Shikibu wasn’t just talented in a single form of writing - The Tale of Genji is notable not just for its prose but also for the poems within it.

  • Who really was Murasaki Shikibu? Check out this video!


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