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Lady Murasaki, Poet, Novelist, and Diarist Extraordinaire

Andrew Madigan By Andrew Madigan Published on January 2, 2017
This article was updated on July 24, 2017

There are only a handful of writers who are equally, and justifiably, regarded for both fiction and poetry. I can only think of four: Raymond Carver, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Bukowski, and Richard Brautigan. And even this short list is highly debatable.

But then there’s Lady Murasaki, towering far above the others. Poet, novelist, diarist, lady-in-waiting; not even Shakespeare gets more than one out of four. In honor of Women’s History Month, let’s commemorate the Japanese woman who wrote extraordinary poetry, invented the novel, and wrote fiction with more psychological depth than anyone could equal for the next 800 years.

Lady Murasaki Shikibu was born c. 973 in Heian-kyō, (later renamed Kyoto), seat of Japan’s Imperial Court. She was a Fujiwara, an elite family even within the aristocracy, though by the time she was born they had fallen to the lower branches of the nobility. Nonetheless, the Fujiwaras continued to be regarded for their cultural and aesthetic talents. Murasaki’s father and grandfather, for example, were both well-respected poets. It’s not uncommon, in some Asian cultures, for nobility and leaders to be artists. Chairman Mao, for example, wasn’t merely a dictator, military strategist and genocide-enthusiast—he was also a poet.

Murasaki Shikibu was a nickname. Her given name is unknown, as women’s names were not officially documented during the Heian period, but she is thought to have been Fujiwara no Takako, mentioned in a court diary. What is unusual about Murasaki is her character, education and linguistic acumen. During this era, men wrote in Chinese while women used the burgeoning Japanese script, kana. According to Japanese historian Louis Perez, women were considered “incapable of real intelligence and therefore were not educated in Chinese.” However, Murasaki became fluent in the language, which naturally led her contemporaries to regard her as “pretentious, awkward...prickly...haughty...cantankerous.”

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At the incredibly advanced age of 25 or so, Murasaki was persuaded to marry an older relative, Fujiwara no Nobutaka. They had a daughter, Kenji, but Nobutaka died two years later. Shortly afterward, she became a lady-in-waiting to the teenage empress Shōshi. This was during the apex of the Heian court, and Murasaki was undoubtedly prized for her writing ability. Successful courtiers had to cultivate the arts and graces, such as calligraphy, court etiquette for dress, flower arranging and poetry.

Court life was rigid and unyielding. Ladies-in-waiting were expected to have hair you could trip over, blackened teeth and ghostly skin. They had messy love affairs and perpetually schemed for royal favor. The clamor, strict etiquette and petty rivalries didn’t appeal to Murasaki, but it did give her the time and space to write, as well as the expensive paper, ink and calligraphers. She completed at least three works during her lifetime: The Tale of Genji; The Diary of Lady Murasaki; and a collection of 128 poems.

When the Emperor died in 1011, Shōshi retired to the countryside, taking Murasaki with her. She spent the remainder of her life here, dedicated to writing and religion. The year of her death is unknown, but many scholars agree on 1014. Murasaki’s daughter also joined the court and became a well-known poet—she, too, used a pseudonym.

Murasaki’s poetry is spare, restrained, allusive:

This life of ours would not cause you sorrow
if you thought of it like
the mountain cherry blossoms
which bloom and fade in a day

She was recognized as a distinguished poet and her work was included in the elite Imperial Anthology during the 13th century. Her diary, too, is a poignant, vivid chronicle of the Heian court, a woman’s interior world, and life during 10th-century Japan.

Murasaki’s greatest achievement is the 1,100-page novel, The Tale of Genji (c. 1001-1010). The main character, Hikaru Genji, is the offspring of a Japanese Emperor and his favorite courtesan, Lady Kiritsubo. Although Genji is a handsome, remarkable and beloved young man, he is, like Oedipus, forced to live as a commoner because it is advantageous to the Emperor. Genji is a sociological portrait of court life—its manners, morals and hierarchy. The novel also examines Genji’s development, career and love life, a classic bildungsroman. European writers wouldn’t pursue this genre for another 750 years.

What’s extraordinary about Genji is the substance and gravity of Murasaki’s writing. It would be 800 years before we saw this level of sophistication in the West, or anywhere else. Edgar Allan Poe, Honoré de Balzac, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Henry James, Edith Wharton and others would offer a bridge between realism and modernism; their fiction not only accurately depicted the external realties of human life but also explored the interior landscape of the psyche. Murasaki accomplished the same thing. Her characters are unusually vivid and three-dimensional, especially considering the time period. They grew and changed over time. Their actions were guided by compelling motivation. Their representation had psychological weight and insight. Genji covers a lot of ground—many years and over 400 characters—yet the story always feels real and the characters fully developed. The novel is, in many respects, a precursor to War and Peace: epic, panoramic, complex and captivating. 

Compare Murasaki’s work to 1001 Nights (date unknown, pre-947), The Decameron (1349-52) or The Canterbury Tales (c. 1343-1400). These were collections of sketches with no real central plot, character development, dramatic arc, interiority or complexity. For several hundred years afterward, romances and picaresques such as Don Quixote (1605) weren’t proper 'novels' in the modern sense of the word. They failed to portray life in a naturalistic manner or focus on everyday existence; they didn’t have realistic plots, believable characters or convincing dialogue. Even Jane Austen, straddling the 18th and 19th centuries and writing so astutely of life’s surface, didn’t plumb the emotional and spiritual depths of Murasaki. Many scholars have pointed out that Genji is a forerunner of Marcel Proust, Henry James and other modernist writers. Somehow, long before anyone else, she leaped straight from the Medieval Era to Modernity.

Genji prefigures the school of naturalism that would flourish at the turn of the 20th century. Her novel presents a world in which aging; death, injustice and inequality are inescapable and inviolable. We might experience love and joy, but we don’t have the power to summon or control such things. Nature is in charge, and humans have no true will. Murasaki uses the phrase “mono no aware”—the sorrow of human existence—more than 1,000 times in Genji. The novel’s tone is primarily mournful. Murasaki sees the passage of time, and the inevitability of death, in all things. She explores the dynamics, intricacies and interconnectedness of human relationships—between individuals, within social circles, and among society as a whole. Her novel is not only poignant, shrewd and a joy to read, but somehow manages to encapsulate nearly every literary movement that would emerge over the next 900 years. What’s particularly intriguing, astounding even, is that Murakami did this without help. She wasn’t inspired by other writers and literary traditions so much as she created a whole new way of writing and designed the architecture of fiction for the next millennium.

Within 10 years of publication, Genji was popular throughout Japan and after 100 was considered a classic. During the 12th century her work became mandatory reading for court poets, and by the 1800s there was a market for “genji-e,” Genji-related products. The trousseau of a noblewomen would include screens and scrolls decorated with scenes from Genji because female virtue and status was, in part, related to cultural awareness. Murasaki was, in particular, an important symbol of marriage because she was considered to be, accurately or not, a model of virtue.

Lady Murasaki and her novel are still icons in Japan. There’s manga, candy, sake, even robots based on Genji. The 2,000-yen note honors Murasaki and her work. In 2008, Kyoto celebrated—for the entire year—Genji’s millenial anniversary with poetry competitions and special exhibits at the Tale of Genji Museum. There are also pilgrimages to Ishiyama-dera, a Buddhist temple where Murasaki purportedly began writing the novel; a life-size statue of Murasaki is displayed in its Genji Room.

Genji is also beloved by critics and fans outside of Japan. The first English translation was completed by Arthur Waley in the 1920s-30s followed by Edward Seidensticker's in 1976. Royall Tyler followed in 2001 with a more literal-minded, if slightly less readable, version. A new English translation of Genji by Dennis Washburn appeared in 2015, and the novel has been translated into many other languages as well, ensuring the Lady Murasaki’s reputation will endure, wherever there are readers.

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Scenes from The Tale of Genji, Tosa Mitsuyoshi, Fletcher Fund, 1955

Freelance writer (food, drinks, books, travel, music, film) and former professor (creative writing, literature, Islamic studies, US history) and magazine editor who's lived in the UK, New York, ... Show More