Murasaki Shikibu

Author Murasaki Shikibu is widely credited with writing the world’s first novel. The Tale of Genji (源氏物語) was first published in or around 1000. The Japanese noblewoman and lady-in-waiting to the Imperial Court was a talented poet and writer with a flair for story-telling, and her works are still studied by literary scholars and Japanese students more than a millennium later.

Background of Murasaki Shikibu, or Fujiwara no Takako

Murasaki Shikibu was born between 973-978 into a noble family descended from Fujiwara no Yoshifusa, a 9th Century aristocrat. Murasaki Shikibu is an assumed name, as was the custom in Heian society, which refers to Murasaki’s occupation and to her father’s title. Murasaki’s real name is unclear, but court records from around 1007 suggest it could be Fujiwara no Takako.

Her father, Fujiwara no Tametoki, raised Murasaki and her brother Nobunori at his home in Kyoto. Her mother died when the children were very young. As Nobunori grew and was educated, Murasaki absorbed the content of her brother’s lessons. While Nobunori struggled with his difficult Chinese tuition, the bright and eager Murasaki was soaking up knowledge not usually available to Heian women.

Fujiwara no Tametoki was a poet himself, and the descendant of a line of literary masters. No doubt this propensity for verse rubbed off on his daughter. Murasaki’s writing ability and bright mind both delighted and frustrated her father. “What a pity she was not born a man!”, Murasaki recalled her father saying on a number of occasions.

Life in Japan during Murasaki’s lifetime was highly traditional and conservative, with marriage made for money and power, and women typically rearing children in a separate home from their husband. Women were discouraged from learning, but instead engaged themselves in artistic pursuits such as writing, painting and music. Many writings from the time were created by women, and often shared amongst themselves. Poetry and journal keeping were seen as forms of expression, as were fashions and trends. However, outward expression of emotion was frowned upon and women were expect to keep themselves separate from men.

While men often used Chinese for written communication – particularly in government – noblewomen developed their own form of written Japanese, adapted from traditional Chinese, which was known as kana. Kana is most often used for poetry, essays, diaries and stories of the time, and these works were traded and shared among females of the court. Popular writings were reproduced and widely shared – and this is how Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji achieved critical acclaim locally.

Marriage and court life

In another outward rejection of expected female behaviour, Murasaki Shikibu took a long distance trip from Kyoto to Echizen Province, in the company of her father who was appointed a governorship there.

After two years in familial service, Murasaki returned to Kyoto for her marriage to Fujiwara no Nobutaka – a friend and distant relative of her father. Older and wealthier, Nobutaka already had a number of wives and children but he provided well for the young Murasaki, and she bore him a daughter. The child’s father provided servants and childcare, giving the budding author time to hone her craft and begin her masterpiece, The Tale of Genji.

Sadly, cholera claimed the life of her husband just two years after Murasaki gave birth. Though the woman would have been well provided for after being widowed, Murasaki is said to have been consumed by grief for her husband – seeking solace in her writing. During this period, she is said to have written much of The Tale of Genji, almost certainly releasing the book as periodicals with the chapters shared amongst the ladies of high society.

Unusually for a woman in her position, Murasaki made the decision to join the Imperial Court as a lady-in-waiting. She was likely chosen due to her reputation as a talented writer: Fujiwara no Michinaga had a daughter, Shōshi, whom Murasaki was engaged to accompany. The pair and other acclaimed female writers from the period formed writing circles – and often rivalries – as they honed their works and shared their compositions.

Shōshi and Murasaki retired together from court in 1011, after the death of Emperor Ichijō. Most reports suggest that the author died in 1014, though others claim she may have lived as late as 1025. Around this time, Murasaki’s daughter Katako (Daini no Sanmi) stepped into her mother’s footsteps by beginning service at the court, and she went on to become a respected and widely published poet with a flair for Japanese waka verse.

The Tale of Genji

Among her peers, Murasaki remains a unique figure for her novel writing; typical written arts centred on poetry and prose, rather than storytelling. The Tale of Genji is often described as the world’s first novel, being the first published work on record to carry all the attributes expected of a modern novel – character progression, a coherent narrative, psychological development and identifiable literary themes.

Other examples of fiction writing appear as early back as classical Rome, but The Tale of Genji shows advanced progression of literary devices far beyond anything previously demonstrated. The story follows emperor’s son Hikaru Genji (and later his descendents) as he is cast from the line of succession and pushed down the social ranks by his powerful father. From here, he moves around becoming embroiled in a series of emotional affairs.

During his travels in societal exile, Genji meets young girl Murasaki and forcibly takes her into his guardianship, unknown to her aunt Lady Fujitsubo – the wife of Genji’s father Emperor Kiritsubo. Genji also pursues the Lady Fujitsubo romantically, and they have a child together. The young man seeks solace in the now-grown Murasaki, and the pair marry, though Genji continues his many secret trysts and is ultimately disgraced within the court when caught with one of his brother Emperor Suzaku’s female companions.

Genji continues to take on wives and bear offspring as he ages, though his marriage to Murasaki goes on. Tiring of her husband’s antics, she heads to the convent for a new life – dying soon after, and leaving her husband brokenhearted. Shortly after, Genji himself is thought to meet his maker, in the somewhat ambiguous chapter “Vanished into the Clouds”.

After this, a series of additional chapters follow the story of Genji’s children and their relatives after the titular character’s death. The story focuses on youngest son Kaoru and grandson Niou, as the pair of best friends develop a bitter rivalry over the attentions of a family of imperial princesses. The book comes to an abrupt end as Kaoru is suspecting his former friend of hiding his lover away from him – prompting many to suggest the book was unfinished when Murasaki died.

Impact and legacy

There have been challenges in translating Murasaki’s work into other languages, due to the author’s use of the complex phonetic kana system of characters. Kana was the most commonly used format for writing among female high society in Heian era Japan. Though The Tale of Genji does borrow from standard Chinese for the sake of political and religious vocabulary, Murasaki – like many females of the time – did her best to mask her Chinese writing skill most of the time.

In the 1930s, The Tale of Genji was translated into English for the first time. The combination of kana and Chinese means there are some translation discrepancies where context does not give enough to meaning – so parts of modern reproductions may well contain errors. However, it is for the most part a coherent tale, with remarkable consistency throughout the storyline.

Whether or not The Tale of Genji really was the first novel published, it can certainly be called the first classic novel ever published. It has stood the test of time and can still be found on bookshelves around the world today, with a number of top authors stating it is on their personal reading list. Japanese scholars often bring themes from The Tale of Genji into their own work, and its influence can be seen on modern Asian novels.


History often records ‘firsts’ in two separate date lists: the first time a particular thing was achieved, and then the first time a woman achieved that particular thing. Publication of The Tale of Genji marks a break from this trend; arguably the first novel ever written, its author also happens to be a woman.

Murasaki Shikibu achieved enduring success as a writer which remains unmatched: more than one thousand years since her work of fiction was first published, students and scholars still analyse her words and her storytelling still inspires filmmakers and artists. Her flair for literature has captured the imagination of writers for hundreds of generations since, while her works have given historians a crucial insight into Heian culture and court life.

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