Murasaki Shikibu

Murasaki Shikibu (ca. 976-ca. 1031) was a Japanese writer of the late Heian period. Her "The Tale of Genji," the world's first psychological novel, is one of the longest and most distinguished masterpieces of Japanese literature.

The exact dates of the life of Lady Murasaki are not known, nor is her name. Shikibu, a title, may refer to her father, who served in the Ministry of Ceremonial, or of Rites (Shikibu Shō). The name Murasaki, literally "Violet," could refer to one of the heroines of The Tale of Genji or to the first element of her maiden name, Fujiwara, one of the greatest names in Japanese history. Murasaki was born into a lesser but distinguished and cultured branch of this family in the last quarter of the 10th century. Her father, Fujiwara Tamatoki, an official and poet, was at one time a provincial governor; his grandfather was a poet.

Murasaki records in her diary her lessons in Chinese with her brother. She was so quick to learn that her father regretted that she was not a boy. Presumably Murasaki was educated in the usual Chinese and Buddhist classics as well as in Japanese literature, though this kind of learning was not stressed for young women in those days. Murasaki was married at about the age of 20, but her husband died soon after, in 1001, leaving her with a daughter. After her husband's death, Murasaki lived in retirement for some years.

In 1004 Murasaki's father was appointed governor of the province of Echizen, 80 miles from the capital, a great distance in the 11th century. Arrangements were made for Murasaki to enter the service of Akiko, the young consort of Emperor Ichijo, as lady-in-waiting. Murasaki's diary, begun in 1008 and continued for 2 years thereafter, recounts her life at court. At the death of Emperor Ichijo in 1011, the Empress, with her suite of ladies, went into retirement. At this time Murasaki's father was appointed governor of the province of Echigo; in 1016 he retired from the world to take holy orders. Little or nothing of Murasaki's life is positively known from the time she entered the service of Empress Akiko. Murasaki is thought to have died about 1031.

Her Writings

Murasaki's knowledge of the great world is amply exhibited in The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari) as well as in her Diary, and it may be assumed that she chronicled something resembling her own life, however idealized. Murasaki may have begun her novel about 1003 and continued writing it, with interruptions, until her death, at which time it might or might not have been finished.

The size and scope of The Tale of Genji are enormous. Divided into 54 books or episodes, the novel is twice as long as War and Peace. The action, covering the better part of a century, with over 400 characters and four generations, is meticulously and consistently elaborated by Murasaki. The hero, Hikaru Genji, the Shining One, pursues love and happiness impelled always by the haunting image of his dead mother, Kiritsubo, the consort of an emperor. Her early death overshadows Genji's youth. By virtue of his exuberant personality Genji becomes supremely popular at court, indulges in a series of amorous encounters, and wins the admiration of his peers when he dances the "Waves of the Blue Sea."

The character of Genji may be based in part on the personality of Fujiwara Korechika (975-1010), a nephew of Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1027), a great statesman and distant relative of Lady Murasaki. Genji, as a result of his numerous love affairs, incurs the jealousy and wrath of powerful rivals who bring about his disgrace and exile. But this ill luck is of short duration, and Genji is pardoned, is recalled to the capital, and regains his prominence. An encounter with the girl Murasaki Ue had led Genji to undertake her education so that she could be molded into the perfect wife. He builds his sumptuous villa in the capital and installs his several wives in their apartments with Murasaki in the place of honor. But excess of passion takes its toll, and Genji suffers emotional agony because of unhappiness in love. Murasaki, his favorite wife, dies childless, leaving Genji in a world of memories.

Soon, Genji too passes from the Realm of Maya, and the center of attention is turned to his descendants, Kaoru, his supposed son, and Niou, his grandson. Both have aspects of Genji's personality but cannot take his place. This portion of the novel, called the "Uji Chapters" because much of the action takes place at the small village of Uji, depicts the confrontation of Kaoru and Niou for the affections of the girl Ukifune. Kaoru, sensitive, retiring, obsessed by the mystery of his paternity, would sacrifice his high position for Ukifune. But she is confused by her feelings for him and for the high-spirited and charming Niou, who in so many ways resembles Genji.

Having yielded to Niou's blandishments, Ukifune can resolve her dilemma only by an attempt at suicide and, when that fails, by retirement from the world to live out her life as a nun. Kaoru is left in grief, bewilderment, and uncertainty, for although he comes to suspect that Ukifune may still be alive, he is never able to learn the truth. Thus, the lengthy novel, which began with the enchanting atmosphere of a fairy tale, ends in the most complex psychological analysis of unhappy people shrouded in blackest gloom.

Further Reading on Murasaki Shikibu

Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji was translated by Arthur Waley in 1926. Useful background studies are George B. Sansom, Japan: A Short Cultural History (1938; rev. ed. 1962); Annie Shepley Omori, trans., Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan, with an introduction by Amy Lowell (1961); and Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince (1964).

Additional Biography Sources

Murasaki Shikibu, Murasaki Shikibu, her diary and poetic memoirs: a translation and study, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982.