Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部)

Murasaki Shikibu (dates of birth and death unknown) was a female author and poet in the mid-Heian period. She is well known as the author of "The Tale of Genji." She is one of the Chuko Sanjurokkasen (medieval 36 Immortal Poets). Her poem, 'I met a friend after so long, who went back in a hurry before I recognized his face; like the moon goes behind a cloud at a blow' was selected for "Ogura Hyakunin isshu (One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets)."

She was from the Fujiwara clan, and her name as a court lady was 'Fuji Shikibu (Murasaki Shikibu).'
She acquired the sobriquet of 'Murasaki' from the name of the heroine 'Murasaki no Ue' of "The Tale of Genji," and 'Shikibu' refers to her father's position as Shikibutaijo (Aide of Ceremonials).


Murasaki Shikibu's real name is unknown, but it is assumed that she was the 'FUJIWARA no Kaoriko/Takako/Koshi,' who became shoji (ranked) on January 29, 1007, which was described in 'Mido Kanpakuki (FUJIWARA no Michinaga's diary).'
However this view is generally based on the other assumptions, which are said to contain errors in the process of making inferences, so it remains a matter of conjecture.

Also, her dates of birth and death are unknown, but it is suggested that she was about 30 years old in 1008, based on historical materials and her works; by counting backwards from that age, she would have been born around 979 and died around 1016.

Tradition has it that she liked sardines, which was unusual for aristocracy, but this episode is based on a story of Izumi Shikibu in 'Sarugenji no soshi (The Sarugenji Book),' so it seems to have been made up by someone at a later date.

Brief biography

She was a daughter of FUJIWARA no Tametoki, governor of Echigo Province, and her mother was a daughter of FUJIWARA no Tamenobu from Settsu Province, but she lost her mother when she was little. FUJIWARA no Nobunori was her brother by a different father, and apparently she also had an older sister. FUJIWARA no Sadakata, Sanjo Udaijin (Sanjo minister of the right), and FUJIWARA no Kanesuke, Tsutsumi Chunagon (vice-councilor of state), were her paternal great grandfathers, and she had many relatives who were known as talented writers.

There are many anecdotes stating that, since her childhood, she had had more talent for reading Chinese classics than women were required to have in those days. It is generally considered that she wrote both "The Tale of Genji," which consists of 54 chapters, and "Murasaki Shikibu Diary," which was about her days in service to the Imperial Court, as well as "Collection of Murasaki Shikibu's Works."

Her father, FUJIWARA no Tametoki, obtained employment as a reader in Togu (the palace of the Crown Prince) while in his thirties, and when the Crown Prince became Emperor Kazan he was promoted to the post of kurodo (Chamberlain) and then to Shikibutaijo; however, when the Emperor became a priest, he lost his job. Ten years later, as a consequence of dedicating a poem to Emperor Ichijo, he became a governor of Echizen Province. Murasaki Shikibu, during her childhood, spent two years in the place of her father's assignment. In about 998, she married a governor of Yamashiro Province FUJIWARA no Nobutaka, who was old enough to be her father; in 999 she bore him a daughter, FUJIWARA no Kataiko/Kenshi, but this marriage life didn't last long because Nobutaka died soon afterward. In December 29 (according to the lunar calendar) of 1005, she began serving the Empress of Emperor Ichijo FUJIWARA no Shoshi/Akiko (the oldest daughter of FUJIWARA no Michinaga, and later given the name of the Retired Emperor Jotomonin) as a court lady-cum-tutor, and she served the Empress at least until 1011.

There is a poem created by ISE no Taifu, 'Some time ago, double-flowered cherry trees bloomed in the colorful capital of Nara; today they bloom in Kuju Castle in this capital of Kyo, as they did before,' which was collected in "Shika Wakashu (Collection of Poetry)"; the poem was written in dedication to the Empress along with yaezakura (double cherry blossoms) presented to the Imperial Court; however, according to "ISE no Taifu shu (Private Collection)" it was supposed to be a duty of Murasaki Shikibu, but she delegated the duty to a newcomer, Taifu.

The last description about Murasaki Shikibu appears in "Shoyuki," the diary of FUJIWARA no Sanesuke, dated May 25 (lunar calendar) 1014, saying that 'as "a daughter of Tametoki, who was a governor of Echigo Province," she conveyed a message from the wife of the Retired Empress Shoshi to Sanesuke.'
Therefore it is widely believed that she died between 1012 and 1016, in the reign of Emperor Sanjo, but some people disagree.

Also, tradition has it that Murasaki Shikibu's grave can be found at Murasaki no Nishigoshoden-cho (Horikawa Kitaoji Kudaru, West side), Kita Ward, Kyoto City.

Today, the Bank of Japan's D-note of 2,000 yen has a portrait of Murasaki Shikibu and a part of "The Tale of Genji Emaki (picture scroll)" on its back side.

Her name appeared in the great historical figures calendar of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (=UNESCO), and she was the only Japanese to be thus enrolled.

Comment about people around her

You can read some comments about her contemporary famous court ladies.
Above all, a comment about Sei Shonagon, the author of The Pillow Book, is the most famous (the following is a free translation):

Sei Shonagon is a jerk who acts proudly. Chinese characters, she blots in a wise, have full of mistakes.'("Murasaki Diary" Kurokawabon (type of manuscript))
"Will the life of a person with such insincerity be better in the future?" (from "Murasaki Diary" Kurokawabon)
These comments are quite severe and can be said to be almost backbiting. These descriptions have been brought into conversation with various conjectures and curiosity (Murasaki Shikibu was jealous of the talent of Sei Shonagon, etc.) up until recently. However, these two people were distant in age and served the Imperial Court in different times (nearly a decade), so they seem not to have known each other. She wrote some positive comments about her contemporary female poets, Izumi Shikibu ('her behavior is not good, but her poems are excellent,' etc.), and Akazome-emon.

Otsubone (court lady) of Nihongi (Six National Histories)

Emperor Ichijo had a court lady read aloud "The Tale of Genji," at which he praised the author, saying she must have been an eager reader of Nihongi (according to "Shoku-Nihongi (Continuation of Chronicles of Japan)," whereby Nihongi refers to "Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan)"; thus some people claim that "Nihongi" in this context means "Nihonshoki"). Because of this, Murasaki Shikibu was given the nickname 'Nihongi no Otsubone,' but it is widely thought that the Emperor's words brought her into ridicule because it was felt that a woman shouldn't read Chinese classics, and she was distressed by the words.

Michinaga's mistress

Murasaki Diary and "Eiga monogatari (A Tale of Flowering Fortunes)," the latter of which has some descriptions common to the Murasaki Diary, states that Michinaga visited her chamber at night. Additionally, "Various Japanese Family Trees" ("New Compilation of Various Japanese Family Trees Analogy") says that 'a court lady of Jotomonin, a poet, Murasaki Shikibu, an author of The Tale of Genji, or Masatada's granddaughter, Tametoki's daughter, mistress of Michinaga, the chief adviser to the Emperor,' which clearly shows that she was a mistress of Michinaga, but the true relationship between them is unknown.

Major works

Murasaki Shikibu Diary Ekotoba (explanation on a picture scroll) (National treasure) Fujita Museum of Art

Academy of Murasaki Shikibu
The purpose of the Academy of Murasaki Shikibu is to promote classical literature as represented by "The Tale of Genji"; the academy was established on June 4, 1932 by Tsukuru FUJIMURA (president), who was the head of the Department of Japanese Literature, Faculty of Letters at Tokyo Imperial University; Senichi HISAMATSU (vice-president), a professor of Japanese literature at Tokyo Imperial University; and Kikan IKEDA (chairperson), a junior assistant of the Japanese literature study room at Tokyo Imperial University. Since January 1964, the office has been set in Japanese Literature Department lab, School of Literature, Tsurumi University, which is located in Tsurumi-ku, Yokohama City, Kanagawa Prefecture. The current president is Ken AKIYAMA.

The academy holds lecture meetings, supports a play based on "The Tale of Genji" and publishes the following periodicals:

The bulletin "Murasaki" was published every month before World War II (August 1934 - June 1944), and has been published annually after the war era (since 1962). The collection of academic papers "Studies and Data Traditional Literature Article" has been published by Musashinoshoin annually since June 1969.

[Original Japanese]