Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) by Murasaki Shikibu
And the history of Japanese writing.
The Tale of Genji is a romance story from the Heian period of ancient Japan. It consists of 54 chapters and considered to be the first true novel. It was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a woman who entered court late in life after the death of her husband. Murasaki was also well known for her poetry, she also kept a diary of her life which has some of her thoughts and poems. Being a woman of the Heian period her real name or date of birth is not know.
Genji tells the story of a young man and his adventures through his life. The people he meets (mostly woman) and his loves. He is good looking and has a skill for poetry that wins the hearts of many women. Poems were an important part of court life as well as social interaction during the Heian period. When Genji’s story ends, it is picked up by Kaoru, who is thought to be his son and Genji’s grandson Niou and their friendship/rivalry over the women they love. The story ends abruptly and it is not know where it was intentional or otherwise.
Genji was also the name given to a real clan in Japanese history.
Because of the popularity of Genji the Japanese writing system had to under go some changes so the many people would have access to the script. Previously Japanese written script was very localised, sometimes to only one household, because of this not everyone could understand or even read the characters. While Chinese characters (kanji) tended to remain the same, hiragana and katakana (know collectively as kana) were different. Kana were originally kanji that were simplified over time. In modern Japanese hiragana is used for Japanese words while katakana is used for foreign words. This is a recent development as katakana used to be for official and court documents and because these positions were held by men it was assumed that katakana was a male script and hiragana a female script. Katakana is easier and quicker to write while hiragana is slower, and it was used mainly by women for household documents as they had time to write. To some extent hiragana was a female script and katakana a male script but it just happened to fall that way, there were no rules about it. There are words and phrases that only men use in speech but modern girls tend to use them as well (e.g. watashi wa (I) is male and female while boku wa (I) is male).
There are three styles of writing kana and kanji: Kaisho (plain), Gyōsho (semi-cursive) and Sōsho (cursive). Kaisho is an everyday script and easy to read, Gyōsho can be tricky but knowing Kaisho you can work it out but Sōsho is very different and you have to learn how to read it. Sōsho is often used on fans (sensu), screens and scrolls for decorative effect.
I have not read Genji Monogatari (though I do know that story and it’s a bit of a soap opera) but I have read the story of Murasaki which is lovely; full of poems and written in the style of the time. It is full of court mannerism and social rules that Murasaki lived by.