Murasaki Shikibu: The First Lady of Japanese Literature

Murasaki Shikibu: The First Lady of Japanese Literature

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Murasaki Shikibu
How a grieving widow came to write two classics of world literature: a sprawling novel, and an 11th-century Twitter account.

The Heian Era of Japan (平安時代)

The Heian Era of Japan is the longest running era of Japanese history, spanning almost 400 years from 794 AD to 1192 (the start of the Kamakura Era). Culturally, it was an incredibly fertile era during which Japanese culture began to take on a life of its own.

Prior to the Heian, the legal, philosophical and artistic underpinnings of Japanese society were highly influenced by Chinese culture, which originally came to Japan by way of Korea. It was in the Heian era that this influence began to morph, and develop its own local variations. In sculpture, figures became thinner and more stylized than their Chinese counterparts. The Yamato-e form of painting evolved during this time. Paintings began to utilize what become known as the “blown-of-the-roof” style (不抜き屋台; funuki yatai), where the roofs of buildings were removed to give an “inside” look at the goings-on within. The art of Japanese sword-making also came to its own during this period.

Religion also underwent major changes during the Heian. Buddhism, which took root during the rule of Prince Shotoku, developed its own local variations, such as the Shingon movement of Kuukai. The syncretism of Buddhism with the local Shinto religion (神仏習合; shinbutu shuugou) continued in earnest, with figures of Shinto gods such as Hachiman, the god of war, taking on the appearance of Buddhist bodhisattvas.

It was in this atmosphere of creative change, when Japan was first becoming the “Japan” we know today, that Lady Murasaki was born.

Who Was Murasaki Shikibu?

Murasaki Shikibu statue in Uji, Kyoto.
A statue of Murasaki Shikibu in Uji, Kyoto. Uji is the backdrop for the Ujijuujou (宇治十帖), the later part of Genji Monogatari that occurs after the death of the titular hero. (Picture: jean / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

But we don’t know precisely when Murasaki Shikibu was born (most scholars place her birth around 973). More than that, we don’t even know her real name. As said in a recent article:

Her sobriquet of convenience is most likely a composite of the Genji character Murasaki and her father’s one-time position in the Ministry of Ceremonial Affairs (the Shikibu-shō). It has been used since the late Heian period (794–1185). But as with many of her contemporaries in the great flowering of literary women of the time, her real name remains a mystery.

Born the daughter of Fujiwara no Tametoki, Murasaki displayed a great gift for letters and the arts at an early age. Her father was little accomplished in the world, but appeared to pass onto his daughter his love of literature. His daughter so surpassed her brother in the arts that her father often lamented she hadn’t been born a boy.

Murasaki married in her 20s, but was widowed just two years later, in 1001. After mourning her husband for half a year, she began to author The Tale of Genji. Whatever her motives for throwing herself into her writing – grief, love of the arts, fear over her position in the court – Murasaki’s intense devotion to this massive project earned her a spot in the service of the Empress Shouji. While many people at court were opposed to the idea of women even reading, let alone writing, Shouji was keen to read the Chinese classics, and Murasaki would teach her how to read in secret.


What happened to Murasaki is lost to history. Brought back to court to assist the Empress Shouji in a battle between two warring court factions, Murasaki ended up on the winning side, but no records exist of her beyond the diary she kept of her time at court. She is believed to have died around 1014, not even living to see her 50s.

The Tale of Genji (源氏物語)

The Tale of Genji spans 54 parts. Of those, 41 center on Hikaru Genji, a young court noble, and his womanizing adventures.

Yuugiri (夕霧) - Evening Mist - Tale of Genji
Yuugiri (夕霧), or “Evening Mist”. A scene from a 12the century scroll depicting scenes from The Tale of Genji. (Source: Wikipedia)

When his mother dies at an early age, Genji ends up having an affair with his stepmother, Fujitsubo no Miya (藤壺の宮). Frustrated by this forbidden love, Genji finds a young girl, Murasaki no Ue, who greatly resembles Fujitsubo, and whom he kidnaps and raises to be his ideal mate. But when Genji ends up fathering a song with Fujitsubo, things start to go to hell. The illegitimate child is raised by another minister as his own; however, when the minister abdicates, and the new minister discovers Genji’s clandestine meetings with his own daughter, Genji is forced to leave the capital.

Genji’s fortunes reverse when he’s welcomed back to the capital after a series of disasters, and his son through his relationship with Fujitsubo no Miya becomes emperor. Genji earns the status of a retired emperor, and lives in a large house with several of his lovers. But the consequences of Genji’s past actions come back to haunt him. Genji’s third wife, Onna-san-no-miya, has an affair, and fathers a child, Kaoru, who everyone treats as Genji’s actual son. A series of reversals ends with the death of Genji’s greatest love, Murasaki no Ue. Distraught, Genji leaves court life to become a monk. His death is implied in the book, but never detailed. The remainder of Genji, known as ujijuujou (宇治十帖), chronicles events in the life of Kaoru after the passing of the infamous noble.

Genji is more than a sordid tale of court intrigue. As one writer notes, seven of the chapters of the story (34 to 41) focus, not on Genji’s adventures, but on the repercussions of his actions. The story is heavily influenced by Buddhism, and demonstrates the Buddhist concept of cause and effect – for example, the betrayal by Onna-san-no-miya, who does to Genji what he had done to so many women before her. Additionally, Kaoru continues to suffer through his life as a consequence of his birth. As historian Kawai Atsushi puts it:


Even in modern Japan, this way of thinking about cause and effect [因果応報] lingers strongly; it’s thought that performing bad actions will likewise rebound on you. It’s thought that bad actions performed as a child can bring about negative consequences when one becomes an adult.

(JP) Link: Introducing the Outline of the 1000-Year-Old Full-Length Novel Genji Monogatari! (Note – link no longer active)

Genji famously has no ending. Some experts in Japanese literature argued that this was natural to the way Murasaki wrote, and that, had she been able, she would have continued writing her sprawling narrative for as long as she could.

The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部日記) – a.k.a. Murasaki’s 11th Century Twitter Account

Painting of Murasaki Shikibu
A depiction of Murasaki Shikibu by Edo-era painter Tosa Mitsuoki.

It’s fitting that one of Japan’s earliest authors followed a writing maxim often told to young writers even in the modern era: “Write what you know.” Murasaki, whose life was spent among the Heian nobility, is said to have modeled the protagonist of her masterpiece, Hikaru Genji, after legendary male nobles of earlier eras – young men who lacked inheritance rights to the throne, and chose to spend their days as playboys.

But Genji wasn’t Murasaki’s only literary contribution.

For Murasaki, moving back to imperial court as an attendant lady was a decision chock full of stress. She hadn’t been born into the imperial court, like many of the other ladies in waiting. Her time alone following the death of her husband divorced her from that highly formalized, intensely public environment even further. Moreover, by this time, Murasaki was well known in court circles at the author of The Tale of Genji. Rumors and idle talk about her circulated wildly. She detested it.

Murasaki appeared to deal with this stress in the same way that people do today: she blogged about it. Her Diary of Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部日記) provides a more personalized account that’s chock full of amusing anecdotes, bits of gossip, and nasty smack-talk about Murasaki’s court rivals, including fellow female literati Sei Shonagon.

Japanese history site argues that the Diary is the more fascinating of Murasaki’s works:


In this work, Murasaki’s way of thinking about things and her relations with others are recorded in detail, and I think being able to feel this historical background is extremely valuable.

For example, one key anecdote hints at the origin of Murasaki’s historic name. A would-be suitor, Fujihara no Kintou, called out to Murasaki one night, “Where’s Young Murasaki?” – a reference to Murasaki no Ue, the wife of Hikaru Genji. Murasaki reports that she shot back, “There aren’t any men like Hikaru Genji here, so why would she be here?!” Other anecdotes – such as the time when Michinaga, the father of Shouji, expressed delight after the newly-born prince peed on him – demonstrate a relatable, human side to history that’s often squeezed out of the strictly factual recounting of history texts.
(JP) Link: Murasaki Shikibu? Never Mind Genji Monogatari – Reading The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu Reveals Her True Face

And yes, Murasaki had nothing good to say about her contemporary, Sei Shonagon, whom she saw as conceited. But she also used her diary to lavish praise on other ladies in the court, and to talk honestly about her own struggles with depression. Murasaki’s diary was her own private Twitter account, scrolled up and tucked away for prosperity.

The Legacy of Murasaki

It’s perhaps unfair to pick out Murasaki for special attention, as she is one of several Heian era woman – including Shonagon, Izumi Shikibu, The Mother of Michitsuna, and Takasue’s Daughter – whose works form the bedrock of classical Japanese literature, and continue to be studied to this day. Additionally, there is some dispute over which parts of Genji were actually written by Murasaki, with many arguing that the later chapters differ greatly in style from the earlier ones, and may have been penned by Murasaki’s daughter.

But the weight of Murasaki’s achievements can’t be denied. Written with over 1,000,000 characters, the story spans 70 years, and contains over 500-some characters, making it epic in scope. Some scholars even argue for Genji‘s status as the world’s first novel. And Murasaki’s keen eye in observing court life in her Diary has left us an invaluable, insightful historical document.

The role of Japanese women in public life has often been strictly – and at times severely – curtailed. The world is lucky that Murasaki Shikibu was born at a time and place that allowed her unique talent to shine. It’s no exaggeration to say that Japanese literature wouldn’t have been the same without her.

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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