Murasaki Shikibu glimpsed behind the screens of time

by Eriko Arita

“Genius” is one of those overused words, but few would argue that it is rightly applied to Murasaki Shikibu, whose book “The Tale of Genji” is not only the world’s first novel, but is a work that has delighted and perhaps even guided countless millions of people in the 1,000 years since she wrote it.

Although it is hard to figure out what kind of a woman she was, or how come she was able to write such a masterpiece as “The Tale of Genji,” historical records that have survived the intervening millennium do cast some light on her life, her talent and her background.

Murasaki Shikibu lived in the Imperial capital of Japan, then called Heian-kyo, now Kyoto, at the height of the unusually peaceful Heian Period (794-1185). At that time, the country was governed by aristocrats, mainly Fujiwara families, and an emperor who played a largely symbolic and spiritual role as head of the court.

It is said that Murasaki was born in the 970s, the daughter of a middle-ranking aristocrat named Tametoki Fujiwara who, as a scholar of the Chinese classics, appears to have been a great influence on her life.

In “Murasaki Shikibu Nikki,” Murasaki’s diary, she wrote that when her brother was a young boy and learning the Chinese classics from his father, she was always with them and even understood those works that her brother found too difficult.

According to the diary — translated as “The Diary of Lady Murasaki” (1996) by Richard Bowring — her father was fond of saying:

“Just my luck! What a pity she was not born a man!”

As the real names of noblewomen were not usually known publicly during the Heian Period, Murasaki Shikibu was actually the author’s nickname in court circles. However, Shikibu refers to the Shikibusho (Ministry of Ceremonials) in which her father worked, while Murasaki, which means “purple,” seems to come from the name of the heroine of “The Tale of Genji.”

Liza Dalby, an American anthropologist whose fictional account of the life of Murasaki Shikibu, titled “The Tale of Murasaki,” was published in 2000, says it is very important to be aware that Murasaki Shikibu was not from the highest class of aristocrats. That is because, in the Heian Period, female offspring of high-ranking nobleman rarely had chance to see anything of the world outside their residences in Kyoto.

“She was far enough down the rank that she could observe things,” Dalby said in a recent telephone interview. “I think it is very important that her father took her to Echizen [part of present-day Fukui Prefecture in northwestern Japan] when he was made governor there [in 996].”

After returning from Echizen to Kyoto, Murasaki married a distant relative named Nobutaka Fujiwara, with whom she had one daughter before he died in 1001.

After her bereavement, Murasaki didn’t remarry and there is no record of her having experienced many romances. So how could she write a novel that described in such detail the psychology of men and women who fall in love, or out of love, or who feel jealousy, betrayal and intense resentment?

Dalby said that her study of the waka poems penned by Murasaki leads her to believe that she did have some lovers.

“Some of her poems seem to me to be love poems — but we don’t know whom she wrote them about,” Dalby said.

However, according to Jakucho Setouchi, a novelist whose translation of “The Tale of Genji” into modern Japanese was published in 1996, Murasaki’s husband Nobutaka was quite a playboy and may well have told her about his experiences with many ladies. But Dalby said she supposes what was probably more important was that Nobutaka had access to the court.

“He could actually be in the room with the emperor, and had a higher status than Murasaki’s father. So when she married him, he went to the court during the day and my idea is that he explained a lot of things about court life to her,” Dalby said.

But then, after her husband died, Murasaki seems to have been scouted as a court lady by Michinaga Fujiwara, the most powerful politician of his day, whose daughter Shoshi became a favored consort of the emperor.

“If Shoshi bore the emperor a son, Michinaga would be able to control the politics of the court as grandfather of a future emperor,” novelist Setouchi said, explaining something of the workings of the court surrounding Murasaki.

At that time, Setouchi explained, Emperor Ichijo also had a consort named Teishi, a niece of Michinaga’s. The emperor, who liked literature, especially loved Teishi, who was beautiful and hosted a cultural salon attended by such intelligent and cultivated court ladies as Sei Shonagon, who is well known to this day for her essay titled “Makura no Soshi (The Pillow Book).”

“Michinaga was worrying about the situation. To encourage the emperor to visit his daughter Shoshi, Michinaga was looking for a woman who could write an interesting novel. Then he heard about Murasaki Shikibu and scouted her as Shoshi’s writing tutor in her salon,” Setouchi explained at a lecture in Yokohama last month.

In fact, Michinaga’s tactic appears to have worked, because in her diary Murasaki describes the emperor listening to someone reading “The Tale of Genji” aloud and being astonished by what he heard.

Though the emperor was of course the novel’s most important reader, this didn’t stop Murasaki including in it scandalous stories about the prince Genji — including his illicit love affair with Fujitsubo, a consort of his father the emperor.

It is now almost taboo in Japan to write or say publicly anything scandalous about the Imperial family — so how could Murasaki write such a revealing tale?

Dalby said it was because she set “The Tale of Genji” some centuries before her own time. In fact, according to Hisashi Oboroya, a professor at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts in Kyoto, this supreme classic appears to be set in the time of Emperor Saga (786-842), who had nearly 30 wives and gave Genji as a surname to more than half of his 40-odd children.

“In a way, she was writing a historical novel, because she didn’t want it to be too political,” Dalby said. “I think she set it in that different world so she could create stories dealing with taboo topics, and partly that is what made her writing so powerful.”