Niou serenades Nakanokimi (detail from the 12th century Genji Monogatari Emaki scroll).
Genji, the hero of the Tale, is the son of the emperor and his favourite concubine, Kiritsubo. A Korean sage predicts a brilliant future for Genji but his mother suffers the jealousy of rivals at court, becomes ill and dies. The distraught emperor becomes obsessed with the tragic story of Yang Kwei-fei, but eventually finds another concubine, Fujitsubo, who reminds him of his former love.
Since Genji lacks backing at court, the emperor makes him a commoner, assigning him membership of the non-royal Genji clan. The eldest son of the emperor and Lady Kokiden is made crown prince.
Genji becomes an uncommonly handsome and gifted young man, admired by all but feared by Lady Kokiden and her family. The first part of the Tale follows his amorous exploits with a variety of ladies in and around Heian-kyo, his friendship with To no Chujo and arranged marriage to To no Chujo's sister Aoi, the birth of his son and his budding relationship with the young Murasaki.
Meanwhile, the old emperor dies and is succeeded by Lady Kokiden's son. Genji's amorous intrigues cause a scandal at court and he is forced to leave the capital and live in Suma for several years. During this second part of the Tale, Genji meets the ex-Governor of Harima and his daughter The Akashi Lady.
Genji returns to the capital and the emperor abdicates in favour of Fujitsubo's (and secretly Genji's) son. Genji's position at court is restored and the Akashi Lady has a baby girl. Genji then goes on a pilgrimage to the Sumiyoshi Shrine to give thanks to the deity for protecting him during the storm at Suma. After his return to the capital he settles down with Murasaki and several other ladies at his Rokujo Mansion. During this long section of the Tale, Genji's influence at court increases steadily and he is preoccupied with the advancement of his children and grandchildren at court. Genji is persuaded to marry the Third Princess, who gives birth to a son and soon after becomes a Buddhist nun.
In the last 10 chapters, the action shifts to the wild mountain area of Uji and the adventures of Genji's "son" and grandson, Kaoru and Niou, who are friends and rivals in love. The complex plot centres on the daughters of Genji's religious half-brother, the Eighth Prince, and the impetuous Ukifune.
See the list of principal characters.
The emperor's favourite lady, Kiritsubo, has no strong family backing at court and suffers greatly from the insults of jealous competitors. She bears the emperor a beautiful son, which makes matters worse as he may one day be a rival to the future crown prince, the emperor's eldest son. Kiritsubo falls ill and dies, so the child is taken in by his grandmother. The emperor is distraught and asks for the boy to be sent back. Eventually he returns to the palace and the grandmother dies shortly afterwards. Korean ambassadors arrive in the capital and predict a brilliant future for the six-year-old boy. Although of royal blood, the boy has no maternal relatives to support him as a prince at court and is instead made a member of the non-royal Genji clan, henceforth being known as "Genji." The emperor's eldest son by Lady Kokiden is made crown prince and the emperor subsequently finds a new concubine, Fujitsubo, who resembles Kiritsubo but has better family connections. By the end of the chapter, Genji is married off to the daughter of the Minister of the Left, Princess Aoi.
The first part of this chapter is the famous "Appraisal of Women on a Rainy Night" scene. Genji and his brother-in-law To-no-Chujo meet at Genji's palace and compare notes about women. They are joined by a guards officer and other friends. The guardsman casually suggests there may be a beautiful unknown woman hidden away somewhere because her family has fallen upon hard times. Genji then falls asleep as his companions discuss several types of women, all of whom he will meet later in the Tale. After Genji wakes, Chujo tells the story of a lover - who is later revealed to be Yugao - who bore his daughter but was discarded because of her meek and forgiving nature. Shikibu, a young man from the Ministry of Rites, tells the gathering of a lady who was too scholarly, preferring the rather masculine Chinese language to Japanese, and whose breath on one occasion had smelled of garlic. The friends decide that the perfect woman should be loyal and cultured, but passive and willing to feign ignorance when the situation requires. The scene then shifts to Sanjo, where Genji is visiting his wife Aoi, but he finds her distant and cold. Since his home lies in an unlucky direction, Genji is invited to Kii-no-kami's house. Kii-no-kami's father has married a young lady, and Genji overhears her apparently discussing himself. Genji also meets an attractive young boy, her brother, and Kii-no-kami's stepuncle. When everyone is asleep, Genji breaks into the lady's apartment and carries her off to his room. Leaving the next day, Genji employs the boy as a page and has him deliver messages to his sister, but the lady discourages any further relationship. Genji manages to visit her once more but is rebuffed, leaving him to write a poem about the inhospitable broom tree and sleep with her young brother instead.
Hurt by the rejection, Genji is unwilling to give up his pursuit of Utsusemi ("the lady of the locust shell"). Her young brother sympathizes and resolves to help him try again. Wearing plain clothes, Genji sneaks into her rooms and spies her playing Go with a lively companion, Nokiba-no-ogi. After the game, Genji prepares to surprise Utsusemi but she catches the distinctive scent of his robes and flees, leaving one of her own outer robes behind. Genji mistakenly breaks in on her companion and is forced to improvise. He then returns home sulking and pens a poem comparing Utsusemi's robe to a cast-off cicada shell.
On his way to visit Lady Rokujo, Genji learns that his old nursemaid, who has since become a Buddhist nun, is sick
and may be near death, so he goes to visit her with her natural son, Koremitsu. At a nearby house, they are admiring
the beautiful flowers called yugao ("evening faces"), when a little girl comes out with a scented white fan for
Genji to take a flower on.
They then go in to visit the nun, and she shows an even greater attachment to Genji than to her own son. On his way out, Genji's curiosity is aroused by whoever might be in the house of yugao, so he sends Koremitsu to investigate, who reports back that To-no-Chujo had been there and that a lady evidently resided within. Genji cannot resist, so he disguises himself and arranges a secret meeting through her maid, Ukon.
Yugao is a very frail, submissive beauty, and Genji is reminded of To-no-Chujo's rainy night story. Unlike To-no-Chujo, however, Genji is attracted by this gentility, and resolves to take her away. Unable to resist, and very frightened, Yugao is rushed off with Ukon to a deserted mansion. That night, Genji dreams of a jealous lady resembling Lady Rokujo, and when he wakes he sees an apparition by Yugao's pillow. He tries to wake her, but she is no longer breathing. Genji panics, wakes Ukon and Koremitsu, but it is too late, she is dead. Koremitsu sends Genji back to his palace at Nijo and takes her body to a nunnery in the eastern hills for funeral rites.
At Nijo, Genji is unsettled by recent events and cannot appear at court. He sets out on horseback with Koremitsu to see Yugao's body, but on the return journey he feels ill and falls off his horse. The illness lasts for quite some time, and when he recovers he confirms with Ukon that Yugao was in fact To-no-Chujo's mistress. Genji retains Ukon and asks her to find Yugao's daughter, intending to raise her himself. The chapter end with a final poetic exchange with Utsusemi, whom Genji also loses.
Genji is sick and decides to seek help from a holy man living in a cave in the northern hills. He goes there and
receives treatment from the recluse. While recovering, his attendants tell him the story of a Governor of Akashi who became a lay priest and retired there with his daughter, for whom he had great
During his convalesence in the hills, Genji wanders to a nearby house and catches a glimse of a beautiful 10-year-old girl, who reminds him of Fujitsubo, the favourite concubine of his father, the emperor. The priest at the villa invites Genji to visit, during the course of which he discovers that the child Murasaki is in fact Fujitsubo's niece. Genji - already smitten with Fujitsubo - seeks to adopt the child but is not taken seriously.
When fully recovered from his illness, Genji asks again about adopting Murasaki, but is again refused. To-no-Chujo and some friends from court arrive to escort him back. Back at court, Genji's father-in-law arrives and takes him to meet Aoi, who turns out to be cold and unreceptive. Genji sleeps and dreams of the little girl. The next day he renews his request to adopt Murasaki, this time by letter, but without success.
Fujitsubo leaves court due to an illness and, through her maid Omyobu, Genji arranges a secret visit and stays the night. Fujitsubo becomes pregnant, but the emperor is unaware of Genji's role in this. Meanwhile, the little girl is made available for adoption because her grandmother, the nun, has died. However, Murasaki's father, Prince Hyobu, decides to take charge of her and Genji is forced to kidnap her before he does so. Back at his Nijo palace, Genji begins her education.