Last reviewed: June 2018
Japanese novelist and courtier
Lady Murasaki Shikubu, foremost writer of the Heian period (794-1185) in Japan, had every advantage of birth and education. A member of a family that had produced emperors and diplomats, she was the granddaughter of Fujiwara no Kanesuki, a celebrated Japanese poet. As a teenager she was considered something of a prodigy of learning, even in an age when Japanese women of noble birth were generally much better educated than their European contemporaries. While still in her teens Murasaki was well read in Chinese and Japanese literature and had already written both prose and verse. Widowed early, after a brief marriage to an officer in the Imperial Guard, she was called to the court by the empress-consort Akiko as chief maid of honor. Portrait of Murasaki Shikibu.
Portrait of Murasaki Shikibu.
Murasaki’s long association with the imperial court provided her with the leisure to continue her writing, which included many short poems and a diary, still extant. It also gave her a personal familiarity with the customs and character types so important in her best-known work, The Tale of Genji. The tale—a prose narrative in fifty-four books dealing with the loves and adventures of a fictional character, Genji, and his son, Kaoru—represents a higher achievement in Japanese literature than had been produced in any earlier period, and the work is considered by many to be the finest Japanese novel. With a keen eye for character and manners, Murasaki describes realistically, but in a formal style, the upper-class world of the age just preceding her own. Although it is filled with charm and humor, the dominant tone of The Tale of Genji is one of sadness at the declining splendor of a sophisticated and aristocratic society.