Full Name: Murasaki Shikibu
Birth Date: c. 978
Death Date : c. 1016
Location: Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan
Monument Type: Historic/Residence
Murasaki Shikibu is known as the author of what is believed to be the first complete novel in the world, The Tale of Genji. While her novel is well-known, much about her own life is a mystery. For example, while she is known as Murasaki Shikibu, her true name is unknown. Murasaki is the name of the main character of her novel, and Shikibu reflects her father’s position at the Japanese Bureau of Rites. She is believed to have been born in Japan in 978. Murasaki was a member of the noble Fujiwara family, although her immediate family was not as powerful as the rest of their family. Nevertheless, her father worked as a governor and a scholar in different locations around the country. Being raised in a powerful family allowed Murasaki to be educated in subjects that were only available to boys, such as the Chinese language. However, Murasaki allegedly said that she learned the language through eavesdropping on her brother’s lessons, proof that girls were still not well educated regardless of their status.
Around 998 and 999 at the age of 20, Murasaki married her cousin Fujiwara Nobutaka. The couple had one daughter who grew up to become a poet. Only two years after their wedding, Nobutaka died, leaving Murasaki a young widow. Around 1006, when Murasaki would have been 28, she was called to serve at the court of Empress Jōtō mon’in. It is believed that she was called to serve due to her writing skills, including her ability to write Chinese. She taught the empress Chinese poetry.
The Tale of Genji focuses mainly on court life, obviously influenced by Murasaki’s life at court. It details the life of Prince Genji and the many women he loved in his life. The court in the novel is seen as full of culture and civility, acting as a sort of perfect court the real court could look up to. The exact dates she began writing the novel are unknown. Some believe she wrote the novel in the time between her husband’s death and her being called to the imperial court. Others believe that the novel was worked on for a longer period of time, as it is a very long, detailed book. There is also a story detailed in a book written in the 1300s which analyzes the novel. The author of this book claims the empress told Murasaki to write a new story after a princess asked the empress if she knew of any original stories. The legend goes on to explain that Murasaki went to the temple Ishiyama-dera to be inspired for her novel. The moon on the temple’s lake gave her a vision of a hero named Genji living in exile, allegedly based on the exile of one of her childhood friends. This vision became the eleventh and twelfth chapters in her fifty-four chapter book.
The rest of Murasaki’s life is not very well known. She is last mentioned in a record from 1013, and some suggest she passed away in 1016. Some of the later chapters of her novel may not have been written by her, as the tone of the novel becomes much darker. A diary she kept confirms that the chapters written by 1007 to 1008 were hers. She also left behind poems. The first English translation of The Tale of Genji was translated by Arthur Waley and published in 1935. Her diary was also translated into English by Annie Shepley Ōmori and Kōchi Doi and published in their Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan in 1935. Even though there are many questions surrounding Murasaki’s life, it is certain that her novel was an important piece of writing that not only influenced world literature but also gives a look into imperial Japan from the eyes of a young woman.