Murasaki Shikibu (Lady Murasaki)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Murasaki Shikibu (Lady Murasaki)

Murasaki Shikibu (Lady Murasaki) (ca. 973-ca. 1025) Japanese diarist and novelist

Revered by feminists as one of the world's earliest feminist novelists, Murasaki Shikibu recorded observations of the Heian period (794-1185) of imperial Japan. Her real name is unknown; her pen name translates as “purple ceremonial.” The motherless daughter of Fujiwara no Tametoki, who was appointed governor of Harima, Echizen, and then Echigo during the feudal period, she was a member of Fujiwara clan, a dominating faction of the period. She received an unusually fine homeschooling in Kyoto in an era that had no place for intellectual women and limited their access to learning. When she was around age 13, after the abdication of Emperor Kazan in 986, her father, a court appointee with an impressive scholarly background in Chinese literature, fell into disfavor, an event that changed her life. Scraps of information indicate that Murasaki gave birth to a daughter, Kenshi, in 999, two years before the death of her husband, Fujiwara no Nobutaka, during an epidemic. She became a lady-in-waiting to Empress Akiko around 1008, perhaps after her child began her schooling. Murasaki's brother Nobunori died in 1011. Their father worked at other civil appointments until 1016, when he became a Buddhist priest. It is not known how long Murasaki remained at court, nor exactly when she died. The last record of her is in 1013, though she may have lived as late as 1025.

The uncertainties of fortune and rapid changes in imperial patronage influenced Murasaki's writings. On scrolls in Chinese script, from 1008 to 1010, the author kept a diary, Murasaki Shikibu nikki (The Diary of the Lady Murasaki) featuring events and undercurrents in the cultured imperial court at the Tsuchimikado estate in Kyoto. From a Buddhist stance, she mocked the frivolity of the empire and the vanity and decadence of royals, whom the Japanese revered as “cloud dwellers” descended from the sun (Murasaki 1999, 59). A literary rival of the court diarist IzuMl SHIKIBU, Murasaki narrated acute vignettes of processions and entertainments, social mistakes, forbidden passions, and sexual dalliances. In her diary, she quotes the emperor's eldest son's world-weary sigh: “Ah women! Such difficult creatures at times!” (5). A woman at the whim of the self-indulgent imperial family, Murasaki scoffs, “You could imagine every Buddha in the universe flying down to respond” (8).

Murasaki turned what she saw around her into a fictional social saga, Genji-monogatari (The Tale of Genji, ca. 1008), an expose of an egotistic man and his ruination of unwary women. The work illustrates the sophistication and prosperity at the height of the Heian period and the workings of fate on the title figure. In a leisurely society, the elite adorn themselves, luxuriate in elaborate gardens, and flirt on artificial lakes under colored lanterns to the sound of harp and flute music. The more fortunate inherit their status. Because of rigid court protocol, they are out of touch with life in Japan's provinces, which they visit only on administrative business or religious pilgrimages. Murasaki characterizes the helplessness of the individual as a leaf borne aloft by the wind. At the nadir of the fortunes of the protagonist Genji, the Shining One, he undergoes two years of exile on the rainy shores of Suma near Hiroshima, sailing there at age 26 to live incommunicado. Stripped of rank and privilege “from the world he rejected, a great deal of it seemed impossible to give up” (Murasaki 2002, 229). Murasaki strips the narrative of sophisticated behaviors to reveal the prince's true hurt and yearning. The story tells of his rehabilitation through Hamlet-like dreams that reunite him with the ghost of his father, the former emperor, and through the elevation of his son Yugiri to the throne.


De Bary, William Theodora, Donald Keene, George Tanabe, and Paul Varley. Sources of Japanese Tradition from Earliest Times to 1600. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Murasaki Shikibu. The Diary of Lady Murasaki. Translated by Richard Bowring. New York: Penguin, 1999.

----- . The Tale of Genji. Translated by Royall Tyler. New York: Penguin, 2002.