The Tale of Genji follows the titular character from the year before his birth to what most scholars believe is some point in his forties, a period thought to be set in the early to mid tenth century. This era in Japan, known as the Heian period due to the capital city's move to Heian-kyō (now Kyoto), was generally a time of great cultural production in terms of poetry, music, and literature. There were also a number of customs and norms that guided court life in the Heian period—all of which help or trap Genji in turn, depending on how he feels about a given situation. In particular, Genji explores how the Heian period’s reliance on poetry and writing conventions, the customs of court life, and the importance given to the role of the city itself help Genji decide how and why to act. The tale ultimately shows that Genji and others were working within a complex system that both helped and hindered their personal activities.
From the beginning, the novel suggests that what court culture dictates as right or correct is oftentimes in direct opposition to what individuals want to see happen. This happens even before Genji's birth: his mother, the Lady of the Paulownia Court, is the Emperor's favorite concubine, but because none of the other ladies at court like her, the Emperor feels unable to name Genji (who immediately becomes the Emperor's favorite son) crown prince upon his birth. Instead, he makes Genji a commoner and gives him important roles at the court in that capacity, as this course of action keeps other powerful individuals (namely, his wife Kokiden and her father, the Minister of the Right) happy. This shows that the Emperor's court is very much focused on keeping up appearances, something from which even the Emperor himself, ostensibly the most powerful person at court, isn't exempt.
Because the politics surrounding Genji's birth illustrate that no one, no matter how powerful, can always get their way at court, it's no surprise that Genji too is trapped by the norms of this society, much to his constant consternation. This leads Genji to conduct many of his romantic affairs in secret, as it's vital that he maintain his image as an important figure who practices proper conduct. Even though having sexual relationships with multiple women is expected of him, Genji often makes unwise decisions regarding the particular women he becomes involved with, which means he then must figure out appropriate ways to mitigate the damage.
One of the most politically egregious of Genji's sexual affairs is with Oborozukiyo, one of Kokiden's (who is, by then, a queen regent) younger sisters. When the Minister of the Right discovers the two in bed together, both he and Kokiden are extremely angry. To right the situation, Genji feels he has no choice but to exile himself to Suma, a provincial town on the coast. When the subject of Genji's exile comes up, it's important to keep in mind that court life revolves around courtiers remaining in the city and being part of daily court functions, celebrations, and communications. The provinces, on the other hand, symbolize a life that's seen as disgustingly rustic and far removed from high society, so much so that being appointed a governor of a province is actually seen as a slight. Genji's choice to exile himself to Suma, then, illustrates one of the few ways someone can attempt to atone for making a fool of oneself at court. It's also important to keep in mind, however, that Genji is a beloved figure at court by everyone but the Minister of the Right and Kokiden, who effectively run the show at that time. Because of this, when Genji’s brother (and Kokiden’s son) Suzaku becomes emperor himself, he asks Genji to return early and resume his duties.
It’s clear that even more important than keeping up appearances is actually maintaining strong relationships with those at court. This, in turn, is done primarily through writing and the exchange of poetry, which reinforces the role of text as something that can make or break one's reputation: Genji's poems are compelling enough to help him return to the capital, while in other cases, such as that of the Rokujō Lady, her decisive and forward poetry causes Genji to cast her aside and end their sexual relationship, thereby removing her from a position of power at court.
By maintaining these close relationships and using them to his advantage, Genji is able to rise to the highest position possible under the final emperor of the story, the Reizei Emperor. Taken together, this event and the constant focus on court intrigue paints a detailed picture of Heian court life and court culture for a modern reader.
Heian Court Culture ThemeTracker
Heian Court Culture Quotes in The Tale of Genji
In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others. The grand ladies with high ambitions thought her a presumptuous upstart, and lesser ladies were still more resentful.
Once more there was malicious talk; but the prince himself, as he grew up, was so superior of mien and disposition that few could find it in themselves to dislike him.
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. No one could despise her for her inferior rank, and the emperor need not feel shy about showing his love for her.
She was of an extraordinarily gentle and quiet nature. Though there was a certain vagueness about her, and indeed an almost childlike quality, it was clear that she knew something about men. She did not appear to be of very good family. What was there about her, he asked himself over and over again, that so drew him to her?
"It would be nice, I sometimes think, if you could be a little more wifely. I have been very ill, and I am hurt, but not really surprised, that you have not inquired after my health."
"Like the pain, perhaps, of awaiting a visitor who does not come?"
The hand was very immature indeed, and yet it had strength, and character. It was very much like her grandmother's. A touch of the modern and it would not be at all unacceptable.
To no Chujo was a handsome youth who carried himself well, but beside Genji he was like a nondescript mountain shrub beside a blossoming cherry.
Fujitsubo was tormented by feelings of guilt and apprehension. Surely everyone who saw the child would guess the awful truth and damn her for it. People were always happy to seek out the smallest and most trivial of misdeeds.
Naishi, though much discommoded, did not protest with great vehemence. There are those who do not dislike wrong rumors if they are about the right men.
In the Seventh Month, Fujitsubo was made empress [...] Making plans for his abdication, the emperor wanted to name Fujitsubo's son crown prince. The child had no strong backing, however [...] The emperor therefore wanted Fujitsubo in an unassailable position from which to promote her son's career.
Though avoiding display, he took great pains with her initiation ceremonies. She found the solicitude, though remarkable, very distasteful. She had trusted him, she had quite entwined herself about him. It had been inexcusably careless of her.
They lived precarious lives, completely dependent on Genji. So lonely indeed was their mansion that he could imagine the desolation awaiting it once he himself was gone...
He thought that he could hardly be expected to visit her. She had her own ideas. She knew that rustic maidens should come running at a word from a city gentleman who happened to be briefly in the vicinity. No, she did not belong to his world, and she would only be inviting grief if she pretended that she did.
Though she saw little of him, the lady was completely dependent on him; but she was not of the modern sort, given to outpourings of resentment. He knew that she would not make him uncomfortable. Long neglected, her house now wore a weirdly ruinous aspect.
Her soft voice, trailing off into silence, was very pleasing. He sighed, almost wishing it were not the case that each of his ladies had something to recommend her. It made for a most complicated life.