Murasaki Shikibu (c. 973–c. 1015)

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Murasaki Shikibu (c. 973–c. 1015)

Japanese novelist and poet whose greatest accomplishment, The Tale of Genji, is both the world's oldest known novel and an insightful portrait of the life of the imperial court of Heian Japan—the country's "golden age." Name variations: Lady Murasaki. Pronunciation: Moo-rah-SAH-kee Shee-KEE-boo. Born around 973 (some sources cite 970, 974, or 975) in Rozanji, Kamigyo-ku, Japan; died around 1015 (some sources cite 1014 or 1025), in Japan; daughter of Fujiwara no Tametoki (a court official) and an unknown mother; married Fujiwara no Nobutaka (a court official), c. 998; children: a daughter, Masako or Kenshi (sources differ as to her name), known later as Daini no Sanmi (999–after 1078).

Traditionally thought to have begun work on her novel The Tale of Genji sometime after the death of her husband Nobutaka of the plague (1001); entered imperial service as a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Shoshi (c. 1005–06); compiled her Diary and composed poems (c. 1008–10).

The first known novel in Asian literature—perhaps the first novel in world literature—was produced by a woman who spent most of her life in the highly refined and isolated atmosphere of Heian Japan's imperial court. Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji is widely considered the greatest masterpiece that Japanese literature has ever produced. "Very good critics have commented upon the astonishing 'modernity' of the tale," writes Edward G. Seidensticker in the introduction to his translation of The Tale of Genji, "and have called it the first great novel in the literature of the world." Reviewers assert that in complexity and psychological power it rivals Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past). "In other respects the two are far apart," Seidensticker continues, "and the Genji reveals its Japanese origins. It is a happy combination of what can seem 'modern' and immediate to the reader from a far-distant land and century, and what must necessarily seem alien and exotic."

Very little is actually known about the author of The Tale of Genji. Murasaki Shikibu may not in fact be the author's name. Murasaki, the term for a plant used to produce a purple dye, is the name of Genji's second wife—the most important female character in the novel. Shikibu was one of her father's offices. Though her mother's name is unknown (it was considered disgraceful for women of good breeding to allow their personal names to be discovered), her father was Fujiwara no Tametoki, a junior member of the Fujiwara clan that dominated the imperial offices from about 967 until the 12th century. Lady Murasaki had at least two brothers who served the Heian court in different capacities: Fujiwara no Nobunori as a secretary, Josun as a priest. She also had several sisters and half-sisters who made political marriages to the advantage of the family.

The aristocratic society in which Murasaki Shikibu flourished was centered on the imperial court at Heian-kyo (present-day Kyoto) from 794 to 1185. The Japanese emperor, although honored as the descendant of the Sun Goddess, was nonetheless mostly a powerless symbol. After 967, political power was wielded by the heads of the Fujiwara family, who controlled the emperorship by marrying their daughters to the current incumbent. After the marriage produced a child, the emperor would be induced to resign and the young child would be proclaimed the new emperor. The head of the Fujiwara family then took the title of regent—exercising the true governing power—and the process would repeat itself. The system could result in complicated family ties between the regent and the emperor. Fujiwara no Michinaga, Murasaki's contemporary, had two sisters marry emperors. He was also uncle to two, father-in-law to one, and grandfather of two others.

Murasaki was probably born in Kamigyoku, but she spent most of her early life in her father's house in Heian-kyo. "When my brother, Secretary at the Ministry of Ceremonial, was a young boy learning the Chinese classics," she revealed in her Diary, "I was in the habit of listening to him and I became unusually proficient at understanding those passages which he found too difficult to grasp. Father, a most learned man, was always regretting the fact: 'Just my luck!' he would say. 'What a pity she was not born a man!'" Soon, however, she realized that such studiousness could be a disadvantage for a woman in the highly stratified Heian society. "Gradually I realized that people were saying, 'It's bad enough when a man flaunts his learning; she will come to no good,'" Murasaki concluded, "and ever since then I have avoided writing even the simplest character."

Writing among Heian women was not so rare as Murasaki suggested. Heian aristocrats lived lives of rarified pleasure far removed from the lives of common folk. "Their civilization was, to a quite remarkable extent, based on aesthetic discrimination," writes Ivan Morris, "and, with the rarest of exceptions, every gentleman and lady was an amateur performer in one or more of the arts." Social graces—the ability to paint a picture or knowing when to wear the proper clothes or perform intricate ceremonies—helped define an individual's standing. Perhaps most important, however, was the ability to compose poetry. Since much of Heian culture was adopted from classical Chinese culture, Heian men studied Tang Chinese poetry. Only women studied and wrote in Japanese.

As a result, many Heian women became accomplished poets and prose writers. "During the period of about one hundred years that spans the world of The Tale of Genji," Morris declares, "almost every noteworthy author who wrote in Japanese was a woman." Murasaki's distinguished contemporaries included Sei Shonagon , author of the anecdotal Pillow Book, Izumi Shikibu , Koshikibu no Naishi, and Uma no Naishi . Each was an accomplished poet in her own right, and their works appeared in imperial anthologies of poetry, such as the Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets). Although women writers continued to surface in Japanese literature through modern times, Morris concludes, "It was only during the century of the world of the shining prince that women had a virtual monopoly of famous names in Japanese prose and poetry."

More important, the female writers were responsible for the establishment of Japanese as a literary language. This was in part because they enjoyed a great deal of free time. Upper-class women "were allowed a share of inheritance and had their own houses under polygamy," notes Kazuo Oka in Murasaki Shikibu: The Greatest Lady Writer in Japanese Literature. In addition, female writers had an advantage over their male counterparts because of their familiarity with phonetic kana characters. Male courtiers were pressured to use Chinese characters, which are not ideally suited for writing Japanese. Poets such as Murasaki, Sei Shonagon, and Izumi Shikibu seized on the kana to write their works in Japanese. The female writers also introduced a new wave of realism into their native literature. "The prose writings, which were [formerly] full of ideological flowery words," writes Kazuo Oka, "became free and flexible enough to stand the description of the writer's own sensitive impressions and psychological analysis."

Despite her promising beginnings, Murasaki began her adult life like most other upper-class Heian women. In the year 996, her father Tametoki was appointed governor of the province of Echizen, north of Heian-kyo on the Sea of Japan. The appointment was not an honor. So closely did Heian gentlemen associate goodness with life in Heian-kyo that any post that took a noble away from the capital was regarded as a punishment. Scholars conclude that Murasaki accompanied him to the post on the evidence of some of her surviving poetry. Kazuo Oka, drawing on the poetry in Murasaki Shikibu shu, an anthology of her works, uses references within the poems to trace her itinerary in the journey from her father's house to his new post at Echizen, where she lived until she married in 988.

Uma no Naishi (fl. 10th c.)

Japanese poet. Probably born around the mid-10th century.

A contemporary of Sei Shonagon , Uma no Naishi also served women at court. Near the close of her life, she took Buddhist vows and withdrew to a temple.

Daini no Sanmi (999–after 1078)

Japanese poet. Name variations: Echigo no Benin. Born Kenshi or Masako in 999; still alive in 1078; daughter ofMurasaki Shikibu (c. 973–c. 1015) and Fujiwara no Nobutaka (a court official).

Thirty-seven of Daini no Sanmi's poems can be found in imperial anthologies. In one, she consoles a courtier who has just lost his wife. Alluding to death, she writes: "Comfort yourself/ With the fact that it conquers/ Sorrow just as well."

Murasaki's marriage to Fujiwara no Nobutaka, a minor official and distant relative, was typical of Heian alliances. The groom was, like her father, a provincial governor. Nobutaka was also her father's age—46 or 47 to her own 26—and he had already outlived several wives and concubines. His oldest son Takamitsu was the same age as his bride. "He had a large fortune for a provincial official. Moreover, now that he was restored to a prominent post in the Capital," Kazuo Oka explains, "he might have wished to regain his lost youth by getting married once more." Despite the difference in their ages, the couple seemed content. Kazuo Oka notes that Murasaki's poems "convey us a smell as sweet as their honey-moon and make us feel for their happy married life." Their daughter, Masako or Kenshi (sources differ as to her name) was born in the winter of 999. She would win fame as a poet under the name Daini no Sanmi .

Their happiness did not last. Plague swept through Japan from the winter of 1000 through the summer of 1001. A contemporary source, the Nihon Kiryaku, claims that "thousands of people died of the epidemic one after another, and there were innumerable dead bodies left on the roads, not to mention tens of thousands of cremated bodies." On April 25, 1001, Nobutaka died of unspecified complications at the age of 50. Murasaki wrote in the Murasaki Shikibu shu: "In the Palace too / Spring brings mourning; / The sky itself / Is dark, dyed black / With the sadness of it all."

If only my appetites were more mundane, I might find more joy in life, regain perhaps a little youth, and face this mortal world with equanimity.

—Murasaki Shikibu

"For the next four or five years," writes Richard Bowring, "Murasaki seems to have led a lonely widow's existence, during which she began the work of fiction that was to bring her fame and secure her a place at court." Writing The Tale of Genji not only gave Murasaki an occupation during the period of mourning, it offered her a way into court life as companion and teacher to the Empress Shoshi . Shoshi's father, Fujiwara no Michinaga, was also the head of the Fujiwara family and a distant cousin of Murasaki's. Critics suggest that Michinaga read some of the early chapters of Genji and decided that the author would make a suitable companion and instructor for his daughter.

Murasaki probably started The Tale of Genji between 1002 and 1005; the novel covers about 75 years of life in the Heian court. In it, she reveals much information about the methods and values of aristocratic Japan. Genji, the title character born in the first chapter of the book, is the son of the reigning emperor, but, since his mother is a commoner, he is reduced in rank and raised as a commoner. Throughout Genji's life, he is universally admired for his many talents—music, poetry, painting, the ability to make perfumes—as well as for his natural beauty. Murasaki gives him the title "the shining one" (Hikaru) and presents him as the epitome of what an aristocratic Heian gentleman should be. Probably on the basis of the novel's early chapters, Murasaki was summoned to court and assumed her duties early in 1005 or 1006.

Michinaga may have had personal reasons for summoning Murasaki. A genealogy known as Sonpi bunmyaku, compiled about 300 years after her death, claims that Murasaki was Michinaga's concubine. Her Diary and poems, however, suggest otherwise. Both works are full of references to a desire to withdraw from the world and become a nun. "I care little for what others say," she wrote in the Diary. "I have decided to put my trust in Amitabha [Buddha] and immerse myself in reading sutras." Yet, she added, she hesitated from taking the final steps. Some critics read this passage as meaning that Murasaki wanted to stay with Michinaga. "While it is true that Murasaki was almost totally in Michinaga's power and could hardly have withstood his demands for long," Bowring writes, "there seems to be as little foundation for the belief that she was a permanent concubine as there is for the view that she had a strongly puritanical streak in her make-up."

Murasaki's own statements in her Diary suggest that she was anxious to avoid romantic entanglements and leave the court. She gives a short character sketch of herself: "No one liked her. They all said she was pretentious, awkward, difficult to approach, prickly, too fond of her tales, haughty, prone to versifying, disdainful, cantankerous, and scornful. But when you meet her, she is strangely meek, a completely different kind of person altogether!" She abhorred the petty jealousies and gossip that filled court life:

I hesitate to do even those things a woman in my position should allow herself to do.… I do have many things I wish to say but always think better of it. There would be no point, I tell myself, in explaining to people who would never understand, and as it would only be causing trouble with women who think of nothing but themselves and are always carping, I just keep my thoughts to myself. It is very rare that one finds people of true understanding; for the most part they judge everything by their own standards and ignore everyone else's opinion.

Shoshi (fl. 990–1010)

Japanese empress. Name variations: Shöshi. Flourished from 990 to 1010; daughter of Fujiwara no Michinaga (966–1028, head of the famous Fujiwara family during their period of greatest power and influence) and Rinshi ; had sisters Kenshi, Ishi, and Kishi, and brother Yorimichi (who became emperor); married Emperor Ichijo (died in autumn of 1011); children: two sons born between 1008 and 1010.

"On such occasions," she concludes, "I have tried to avoid their petty criticisms, not because I am particularly shy but because I consider it all so distasteful; as a result I am now known as somewhat of a dullard."

The author used her fictional characters in Genji to comment on what she believed to be wrong with Heian society: though Genji is a paragon of Heian values, he nonetheless breaks some of the society's greatest taboos. He has a child with one of his father's secondary wives—a child who later becomes emperor in turn. He is later cuckolded himself by the son of one of his best friends. Murasaki also used The Tale of Genji to criticize the petty jealousies that bothered her so much. Early in the novel, Genji rejects the advances of a court woman (known as the Rokujo Lady). She broods so much over his rejection that after her death her spirit returns to bring sickness—and, in one instance, death—to two of Genji's favorite wives.

Murasaki Shikibu's diary covers about two years of court life, from the autumn of 1008 to early in 1010, the period in which Empress Shoshi gave birth to two sons, heirs to the throne. This is the last dateable reference in Murasaki's life. Critics disagree strongly about the nature of her final years and the date of her death. The traditional view—long since discredited—held that she left Shoshi's service in 1015, became a nun, and died in 1031. Most modern scholars place the date of her death sometime between 1014 and 1031. Their reasoning rests on the fact that Shoshi's husband, the Emperor Ichijo, died in the autumn of 1011. After a period of mourning, Shoshi moved from the palace to one of her father's houses, taking Murasaki with her. In 1014, Murasaki's father Tametoki suddenly resigned his offices—perhaps, some critics suggest, because of his daughter's death. Other scholars place Murasaki's death in 1017 or 1025. "The end result of all this information is, as one might expect, inconclusive," declares Bowring. "The maturity of vision in the latter part of the Tale of Genji suggests the later date, but in the absence of any more facts this must remain mere speculation."

Although the details of Murasaki's life remain in doubt, her accomplishments are universally recognized. In 1987, the Japanese film director Gisaburo Sugii released an anime (animated) version of The Tale of Genji that won recognition from the Japan Film Appreciation Society as a cultural masterpiece. The Japanese Ministry of Education also honored the movie, listing it among the most significant films ever produced in Japan. The Tale of Genji is itself one of the major accomplishments of world literature, and modern critics agree that it was the work of one author's creativity. "The diaries of the tenth century may perhaps have been something of an inspiration for Murasaki Shikibu," writes Seidensticker, "but the awareness that an imagined predicament can be made more real than a real one required a great leap of the imagination, and Murasaki Shikibu made it by herself."


Bowring, Richard. Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.

de Bary, William Theodore, et al. Sources of Japanese Tradition, Volume II. NY: Columbia University Press, 1958.

Keene, Donald, ed. and comp. Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century. NY: Grove Press, 1955.

Morris, Ivan. The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964.

Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji. Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Sen'ichi Hisamatsu, et al. Murasaki Shikibu: The Greatest Lady Writer in Japanese Literature. Tokyo: Japanese National Commission for UNESCO, 1970.

suggested reading:

Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji, Part I. Translated by Arthur Waley. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1929.

related media:

The Tale of Genji (anime film), directed by Gisaburo Sugii, character artwork by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, character direction by Masahiro Maeda, score by Haruomi Hosono, Asahi Publishing/ Asahi National Broadcasting Company/ Nippon Herald Films, 1987.

Kenneth R. Shepherd , Adjunct Instructor in History, Henry Ford Community College, Dearborn, Michigan