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Murasaki Shikibu

[Tosa Mitsuoki. Murasaki Shikibu composing Genji Monogatari, 17th century, Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper]

With a novel such as The Tale of Genji on her roster, Murasaki Shikibu is a Japanese author whose work is still celebrated even a thousand years since her death. She was born around the year 978 in Heian-kyo, one of the many former names of what is now Kyoto. There is much about her that isn't known; even her given name remains a mystery. Shikibu, which means "Bureau of Ceremonial,” refers to a post once held by her father, and Murasaki, the name of a plant that produces purple dye, is her tale's main heroine (Tyler). Her family was a lesser branch of the Fujiwara clan. In 996, she travelled with her father, a scholar and provincial governor, to Echizen where she spent several years. It wasn't until 999 that she returned to Kyoto and married Fujiwara no Nobutaka. Her husband died after only two years of marriage leaving her behind with a daughter, Daini no Sanmi, who eventually became a poet herself.

During the Heian period, from 794 AD to 1185, women were not allowed the same privileges as men and this was no different when it came to education. Heian women were expected to be educated at home in calligraphy, playing the koto, embroidery, painting, and other feminine arts whereas men learned the Chinese classics and history in preparation for official careers (Wilson). However, Murasaki Shikibu managed to overcome this and become quite versed in Chinese. As she reveals in her diary, this skill made her father "sigh and say to me: 'If only you were a boy how proud and happy I should be (Bernard).'” It wasn’t until around 1005 that she was called upon to be a lady-in-waiting to serve the empress. During this time is when she began writing her epic work. Though it is unknown when and where Murasaki Shikibu died, one thing that's definitely certain is her legacy will live on through this work.

[Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. Murasaki Shikibu, from the series Mirror of Women, Ancient and Modern, 1876, Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper]

There is uncertainty as to when exactly Murasaki Shikibu started writing The Tale of Genji. Some legends say she drew inspiration during a stay at Ishiyama-dera at Lake Biwa while others believe it happened upon her husband’s death. Donald Keene, a notable scholar, historian, and translator of Japanese, believes that the reason Murasaki was brought to serve the empress was to write Genji in response to Sei Shōnagon's popular Pillow Book, another celebrated literary work (Keene). Murasaki’s work became incredibly popular the moment she completed it in 1021. It was obsessively hand-copied and distributed through the provinces within a decade, and hailed as a timeless classic within the century (Bernard). But what made it so popular to audiences in ancient Japan and still popular even today?

As the translator Helen McCollough puts it, the universal appeal of The Tale of Genji, "transcends both its genre and age. Its basic subject matter and setting—love at the Heian court—are those of the romance, and its cultural assumptions are those of the mid-Heian period, but Murasaki Shikibu's unique genius has made the work for many a powerful statement on human relationships, the impossibility of permanent happiness in love…and the vital importance, in a world of sorrows, of sensitivity to the feelings of others (Bernard)." Her work is still being studied by students in Japan and by Japanese scholars today. In 1991, the Murasaki Shikibu Prize for Literature was established, and is granted annually to one lucky female author who then receives a bronze statuette of Murasaki along with 2 million yen (approximately $20,000) (Bernard). The work and her legacy lives on as it continues to be adapted in various types of media for future generations.

Selected Notable Translations of The Tale of Genji

Arthur Walley (1935)

Edward Seidensticker (1976)

Royall Tyler (2001)

Dennis Washburn (2015)

Selected Notable Adaptations

The Tale of Genji, film by Kōzaburō Yoshimura (1951)

Genji Monogatari Sennikki, anime series by Osamu Dezaki (2009)

Asaki Yume Mishi, manga by Waki Yamato

Genji Monogatari, manga by Miyako Maki (1988)


Murasaki Shikibu Park in Echizen, Fukui


Works Cited

Bernard, Chelsea. “Murasaki Shikibu: Badass Women in Japanese History.” Tofugu, 26 Aug. 2014, Accessed 5 Apr. 2024.

Keene, Donald. Seeds in the Heart : Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century. New York, Columbia University Press, 1999.

Tyler, Royall. “Murasaki Shikibu | Harvard Magazine.”, 1 May 2002, Accessed 5 Apr. 2024.

Wilson, Oceana. “LibGuides: The Courtly World: Sei Shōnagon and Lady Murasaki: Murasaki Shikibu.”, Accessed 5 Apr. 2024.

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