Murasaki Shikibu Writes

Written at the height of the Heian period by Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji was the first novel ever written.

Summary of Event

Murasaki Shikibu was a member of the politically powerful Fujiwara family, famous in the tenth and eleventh centuries in Japan, although her particular branch of the family did not enjoy the power held by those in the upper echelon of the clan. She was the daughter of Fujiwara Tametoki Fujiwara Tametoki , a scholar of Chinese. Although 978 is usually given as the year of her birth, she could have been born as early as 973. She had an elder sister and a younger brother, Nobunori; her mother died the same year in which her brother was born, possibly in childbirth. [kw]Murasaki Shikibu Writes The Tale of Genji (c. 1004)
[kw]Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu Writes The (c. 1004)
[kw]Genji, Murasaki Shikibu Writes The Tale of (c. 1004)
Murasaki Shikibu
Tale of Genji, The (Murasaki Shikibu)
Japan;c. 1004: Murasaki Shikibu Writes The Tale of Genji[1470]
Literature;c. 1004: Murasaki Shikibu Writes The Tale of Genji[1470]
Cultural and intellectual history;c. 1004: Murasaki Shikibu Writes The Tale of Genji[1470]
Murasaki Shikibu
Fujiwara Akiko

Her given name is not known. Murasaki, which means“purple,” was the name of a heroine in her novel; this may be why her contemporaries called her Murasaki. Shikibu is composed of two Japanese characters, shiki, signifying the imposition of something of a ceremonial nature, and bu, indicating a class or division. Thus, shikibu is not actually a name. There is some evidence that she was also known as Tō no Shikibu; is another reading of the character fuji, part of the family name Fujiwara.

Although her family may have lacked political power, Murasaki Shikibu came from a line of well-known literary figures: Her great-grandfather and her grandfather were noted poets, her father was best known as a great scholar and writer of Chinese poetry, and her elder brother was also a recognized poet. In her diary Murasaki Shikibu nikki (eleventh century; Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs, Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs (Murasaki Shikibu) 1982), Murasaki Shikibu mentions that, although women were not expected to be literate in Chinese, her father allowed her to learn to read, but she often feigned ignorance so as to not be disliked by those around her. Women;Japan She enjoyed advantages beyond those afforded many of her acquaintances and friends at court in that she often accompanied her father when he traveled to Senshu no Tomai and Echizen. In 999, Murasaki Shikibu married Fujiwara Nobutaka Fujiwara Nobutaka , a man twenty-five years her senior, who served as secretary to the emperor. The marriage was apparently a happy one. Her husband died in 1001, the year after a daughter was born.

Murasaki Shikibu entered the service of Fujiwara Akiko Fujiwara Akiko in 1007 when she was about thirty years old and apparently remained at court for the rest of her life.

Whether Murasaki Shikibu wrote the earliest parts of Genji monogatari (c. 1004; The Tale of Genji, 1925-1933) away from court and completed it after she began her court service is not clear. Whatever the case, the author had direct personal experience with what went on at court and used that experience to provide scrupulously accurate scenes in the novel.

The Tale of Genji is set in a period about one century earlier than the time in which Murasaki Shikibu is writing, during the Heian period Heian period , from 794, when the site of the capital was moved to Heian-kyō, to 1185, when the Taira family was defeated by the Minamoto clan. The author’s deliberate vagueness is evident in the opening words of Arthur Waley’s translation of the novel: “At the Court of an Emperor (he lived it matters not when).”

The story follows the life of the idealized Prince Genji, sometimes called “the shining prince,” from his birth to his death, but then continues with accounts of his descendants, covering seventy-five years. Western scholars have attempted to break down the fifty-four chapters into logical divisions, and doing so is helpful for the Western reader, but it is very doubtful that Murasaki Shikibu herself did so; she followed no model and invented her structure as she went along, drawing from her personal experience as a lady-in-waiting at court.

With that disclaimer, one possible breakdown would postulate five parts. Part 1 consists of chapters 2 through 11 (chapter 1 was added later to serve as an introduction), which cover the birth of Genji and follow his growth and his amorous escapades with various women to his adolescence and young adulthood at age twenty-six. When Genji is twelve, he participates in a coming-of-age ceremony and is married off soon thereafter to Aoi, the daughter of one of the ministers. Older than he and overbearing, Aoi disappoints Genji. She produces a son, Yūguri, but dies soon afterward. He meets young Murasaki, whom he truly loves, and formalizes their relationship; marriages to concubines were the norm. Life becomes more and more difficult for Genji, and he is finally exiled to Suma.

Part 2 follows Genji’s exile at age twenty-six and his return to the capital about two years later. Once restored at court, Genji is promoted and continues to rise in status. He puts a daughter by the Lady Akashi in the care of his wife, Murasaki. Genji’s son Yūgiri is now of age (twelve) and enters court, but Genji elects not to confer rank on him until he has completed his university work.

Part 3, covering Genji’s life from about age thirty-four to thirty-eight, focuses in particular on Tamakazura, whom many think is Genji’s daughter, but who is actually the daughter of Tō no Chūjō, Genji’s principal friend and often rival in things amorous and artistic.

Part 4 (chapters 32-41) may be thought of as Genji’s gradual decline. Now thirty-nine, Genji has numerous wives and children, and many of the adults in the novel are aging and dying. Genji’s son Yūgiri has numerous children. Murasaki has been begging permission of Genji to become a nun, but he has refused. Her health declines, and when Genji is fifty-one, she suddenly dies. Genji is so grief-stricken that he cannot take charge of her funeral arrangements and must depend on his son Yūgiri to do so. After the customary year of mourning, he plans to renounce the world and take holy orders, but near the end of his fifty-second year, he dies.

The final sections of The Tale of Genji move to the third generation after noting that “Genji was dead, and there was no one to take his place” (Arthur Waley’s translation). Prince Genji’s son Yūgiri takes over one of Genji’s principal residences, but the story focuses on Niou and Kaoru, two young men who are under pressure to marry. In at least one instance, the young men become friendly rivals in pursuit of the same woman, Ukifuni. She first encourages Niou but realizes later that Kaoru is of greater worth and renounces the world to become a nun. As the long novel ends, Kaoru tries to visit Ukifuni but is allowed only to send in a note.


The product of an aristocratic culture in eleventh century Japan, The Tale of Genji is credited with being the greatest achievement of Japanese literature Literature;Japan
Japan;literature . Chinese forms and ideas had dominated Japanese writing for a long time, but conditions were optimal for the emergence of an indigenous literature in Japan. The Tale of Genji is more than just a novel, however; it is seen by many Japanese scholars as an important resoure for information about the Heian period. Murasaki Shikibu’s being in service at court was obviously one reason for her being able fo relate experiences that mirror that life, but her genius lay in her ability to observe keenly and report that life with meticulous accuracy.

Another reason for the novel’s importance that Murasaki Shikibu is able to convey her theory of the novel through the character Genji. She believes that the art of the novel does not lie in just telling a story about someone, but rather, it happens because novelists have been so moved by their own experiences of the world and of people that they cannot bear to keep their experiences shut up and have them pass into oblivion.

The novel became the object of scholarly interest in the twelfth century, when Fujiwara Shunzei Fujiwara Shunzei (1114-1204) and his son Fujiwara Teika Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241) declared that it was a “scandal” that not all poets had read The Tale of Genji. From then on, it became essential reading. In the Tokugawa period (1603-1867), Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) produced the first work that can truly be called literary criticism. He rejected the view that literature must be didactic and focused on the merits of The Tale of Genji as a masterpiece of literature.

For the Western world, except for a few scattered comments in the late nineteenth century, The Tale of Genji did not exist until the completion of Arthur Waley’s translation in 1933. The novel’s psychological insight and sophistication was considered a remarkable phenomenon.

Further Reading

  • Bowering, Richard. Landmarks of World Literature: Murasaki Shikibu, “The Tale of Genji.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Includes a genealogical chart and discusses the novel and its cultural background. Examines the impact, influence, and reception of the novel.
  • Keene, Donald. Seeds in the Heart. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. The first volume of Donald Keene’s history of Japanese literature, this work discusses The Tale of Genji as well as many other works.
  • Morris, Ivan. The World of the Shining Prince. 1964. Reprint. New York: Kodansha International, 1994. Discusses court life in ancient Japan; helps the reader understand the world of Genji. This version contains a new introduction by Barbara Ruch.
  • Murasaki Shikibu. The Diary of Lady Murasaki. Translated by Richard Bowring. New York: Penguin, 1996. A good translation of Muraskai’s other writings. Includes poetry, nonfiction, and a personal look into Lady Murasaki’s life. Includes bibliographical references.
  • Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji. Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. 1976. Reprint. New York: Knopf, 1992. In the second major English translation of The Tale of Genji, Seidensticker produced a translation that more closely reflected the original than did Arthur Waley’s translation.
  • Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji. Translated by Royall Tyler. 2 vols. New York: Viking, 2001. A detailed yet poetic translation of the famous tale by a modern scholar.
  • Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki. Translated by Arthur Waley. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1925-1933. 6 vols. Waley’s translation of The Tale of Genji, a relatively poetic, “free” translation, introduced the work to a Western audience.
  • Puette, William J. “The Tale of Genji”: A Reader’s Guide. Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle, 1983. Provides a synopsis of each chapter of the novel, the cultural background, biographical data concerning Murasaki Shikibu, and a comparison of the English translations.
  • Waithe, Mary Ellen, ed. “Murasaki Shikibu.” A History of Women Philosophers: Medieval, Renaissance, and Enlightenment. Vol. 2. Boston: Klewer Academic Press, 1989. Identifies Genji Monogatari as a work of philosophy written in the form of an epic novel. Argues that Murasaki Shikibu used the novel to trace the effects of eleventh century philosophies on Japanese society and to present her criticism of those philosophies.