Murasaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji details the insular and convoluted courtly life of Heian Japan, focusing especially on familial and sexual relationships. As such, the 54-chapter novel exposes Japanese social norms, even more than it delves into the political realities of eleventh century Japan. In fact, the lack of allusions to actual administrative functions or public service indicates that the Heian court, at least as it was described by the author, served more of a symbolic purpose than an administrative one. While the court did preside over matters of state and the economy, its members were more concerned with internal affairs. The title character, whose life story comprises the bulk of the novel, was born to the Emperor and one of his favorite concubines. However, as Kiritsubo was among the lower ranks of courtly concubines, Genji received no official title within the court until much later in his life. As a young man, however, Genji enjoyed the luxury and leisure afforded to any man of the Heian court. His status is the community was bolstered significantly by his good looks and sex appeal, which earned him the affections of innumerable women. In fact, the dalliances of Genji provide the fundamental plot for the tale: his involvements with various courtly women lead to tricky political alliances, power struggles, and of course, offspring. Genji's children with various women play key roles in the novel, illustrating how even with successive generations courtly life remains essentially unchanged, unaffected by the outside world., As Edwin O. Reischauer suggests, the near total lack of reference to a world outside of the Heian court in Shikibu's novel underscores the relative ineffectiveness of the court to continue in a creative or productive role.
With all the musical prowess and poetry described by the author, none of the characters in Tale of Genji exhibit any real predilection for a political leadership that extends beyond courtly walls. Personal status and title are far more important issues in the court than is public policy or artistic legacy, and the only types of politics of interest for members of the Heian court involve succession to the throne or to other courtly positions. For example, the novel opens by centering on the politics surrounding Genji's birth and his father's affections for him. While the Emperor would like to make Genji the crown prince, he cannot due to proper protocol and Genji is instead made into an unofficial yet popular nobleman. Favored by the Emperor, albeit in an unofficial manner, Genji enjoys the same life of luxury as is afforded to other members of the court. Genji has lots of time on his hands and spends his days chasing after various beautiful women. The next incidence elucidating the politics surrounding right to succession in the Genji court occurs in the chapter entitled "Momiji-no-ga," or the "Atumn Excursion." Lady Fujitsubo gives birth to Genji's son, who the Emperor believes is his own. Favoring this boy as crown prince and Lady Fujitsubo as Empress, the Emperor snubs Princess Kokiden and her son: Princess Kokiden was supposed to be Empress, and her son crown prince. However, the appointments turn out to be functionally meaningless: later on in chapter "Aoi," or "Heartvine," Princess Kokiden becomes Empress Dowager, as her son Prince Suzaku succeeded Emperor Kiritsubo. Genji's son to Lady Fujitsubo remains first crown prince and earns a title as of Head of the Togu Court. These examples illustrate the frivolous nature of titular lineage in the Heian court: the various titles mean nothing as far as public service is concerned. Moreover, titles are conferred almost willy-nilly, according to the whims and wishes of officials.
In fact, one of the only times that Genji suffers a significant blow to his status and reputation is when, due to the vindictive whims of Empress Kokiden, he flees to Suma. However, just as Kokiden received the title she coveted, so too does Genji eventually have his reputation restored in the chapter entitled "Miotsukushi." Occasionally the political maneuvering is good-natured, based on friendship and respect. For example, the Emperor Reizi offers to abdicate the throne to install Genji, who refuses the appointment. The decision displays Genji's nobility and strength of character; however, this example illustrates how frivolous and even irrelevant courtly titles are, even the highest rank of Emperor. Nowhere in Tale of Genji is the Emperor's political reputation outside courtly walls referred to, as if the peasants in the countryside have no opinion. More likely, the court officials do not feel that the opinions of the common people matter at all. Like a modern-day country club, the Heian court lends insight into the leisurely lives of the rich and famous.
Another key way in which Tale of Genji exposes the effete of the court is through the self-centered pursuit of the arts. All court officials in Tale of Genji are educated in the arts. Poetry and music play especially important roles in the novel, but never are they used as a means to enlighten the general public or to offer the rich cultural beauty of Heian Japan to the outside world. Instead, these artistic and creative endeavors are on display by and for court members alone. Moreover, art provides another means through which court members can compete in trivial games that serve mainly to bolster their egos: poetry is often employed as a way to seduce women, and painting is used in a direct and deliberate contest in the chapter entitled "Eawase," or "Picture Contest." In that episode, Lady Umbetsubo charms Emperor Reizi with her painting talents. However, counselor To-nu-Chujo had hoped that his daughter would win the favor of the Emperor and thus be afforded higher status as a courtly concubine. To-nu-Chujo therefore commissioned his daughter to paint in order to impress the Emperor. To counter the threat in favor of Lady Umbetsubo, Genji introduced several paintings from an older collection of works she painted during his exile. The pomp and circumstance surrounding a simple painting contest exhibits the frivolity and triviality that accompanies all aspects of Heian court life as it is described in Tale of Genji.
As with painting, poetry also serves to increase competitive edge in interpersonal affairs. For example, in the chapter entitled "Fujibakama," referring to a flower meaning "Purple Trousers," Genji's son Yugiri displays his affections for Tamakazura by giving her a bouquet of fujibakama flowers and then reading his/her love poems. Yugiri wasn't Tamakazura's only suitor, however: several high-ranking princes vied for her love. The means by which all these men attempted to seduce Lady Tamakazura was through love poetry. At several points in the novel, suitors use poetry to convey their affections for women and try to win over their hearts. While the practice is romantic and cultured, the intense focus on love poetry in the court belies the immense amount of leisure time afforded to court officials. Instead of contemplating complex matters of state, the court officials contemplate personal gratification.
Music is another form of creative expression that exposes the insularity and self-centeredness of Heian courtly life. Many of the women in Tale of Genji are adept at various instruments and through their musical prowess impress other members of the court. Music also accompanies the ostentatious affairs and parties in the court. For instance, at Emperor Suzaku's 50th birthday celebration party, many of the women close to Genji and the Emperor put on a concert: the Third Princess, Akashi Princess, and Lady Murasaki play stringed instruments (koto), while Akashi Lady plays the lute. Several young boys accompany the women on flute. In the chapter entitled "Suzumushi," or "Bell Crickets," Genji plays the koto, showing that most court members are proficient in at least one instrument. The emphasis on the arts in the Heian court is admirable, especially as both men…