Murasaki Shikibu; An Unconventional Woman and Writer

Although women may not have had the same advantages in education that men had during the Heian period (794 – 1185 AD), in Japan, there are women who rose above their circumstances and became influential in both their work ethic, philosophies, and literature. One aristocratic woman who broke the mold in making a name for herself during one of Japan’s most culturally rich periods was Murasaki Shikibu.  

By Komatsuken [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Quick Biography on Murasaki Shikibu

Murasaki Shikibu, written in Japanese as “紫 式部”, worked at the Imperial court as a lady-in-waiting, among others. A lady-in-waiting could be described as a noblewoman or a woman who was a personal assistant. In this circumstance, she was a personal assistant of the Japanese Imperial court. 

Aside from being a lady-in-waiting, she was most famous for being a poet and Japanese novelist. Born in Kyoto (which was then known as Heian-kyo) during either the year 973 or 978 AD and died on either 1014 or 1031 AD (the exact year of her birth and death are debated about among historians), Murasaki Shikibu is most famous for her work “The Tale of Genji”. 

A Fujiwara Descendant

She was a member of a clan that was notably powerful during the Heian period, called the Fujiwara clan. Fujiwara no Kanesuke, Murasaki’s great-grandfather, was a very powerful man during his time, however by the time Shikibu was born, the grip of her branch was not as strong as towards the new century it was many years before, thus reducing their overall prestige.

The Definition of Unconventional

Murasaki Shikibu’s life was different from the conventional aristocratic women who were alive during her time. This could be seen from the very onset of her life, until well on into her more mature years. 

Because her mother passed away when she was a baby, Murasaki was taken care of by her father, Fujiwara no Tametoki. As she grew up under the guidance of her father, who was a scholar himself, Murasaki grew an appetite for knowledge, literature, and the arts. She learned literary Chinese, when the only people at that time were learning about this were men. Her father would even mention that he would have been very proud of her for mastering literary Chinese – had she been a boy.

Murasaki also did not marry until later in her life, unlike other women, who would marry very early. She did not like the men that she met at the court. Even though she was pursued by certain men such as Michinaga, and she flirted back, she did not succumb to his passes at her. When she did marry, she married Fujiwara no Nobutaka in the year 999. They had one daughter named Kenshi/Kataiko, born in the year 999. Her father – Murasaki’s husband, died 2 years after they wed from Cholera, leaving her a widow for the rest of her life. 

Around the years 1005-1006, Murasaki became a resident writer, as well as a Chinese tutor for Empress Shoshi, as she was officially beckoned to be a lady-in-waiting. Her diary gives the impression that she either was born or simply did not enjoy court life, as opposed to the rest of the ladies-in-waiting.

Unconventional is almost an understatement for Murasaki’s vast knowledge of Chinese language and literature. The fact that she knew it so well and taught it to Empress Shoshi could be almost a subservient act, according to Bowring. In fact, Murasaki would teach her in secret, as she would talk about it in her diary. Because of this, Murasaki was dubbed “Lady of the Chronicles”.

A Passion for Writing

Though most women would have been thrilled to reside at court, Murasaki was most thrilled about writing. Because she left servants to care for the house and her daughter, Murasaki was able to spend her free time reading and writing. Examples of particular novels or “Monogatari” she had access to are The Tales of Ise and The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.

It is said that she wrote her masterpiece, Tale of Genji before she had worked for the Empress She supposedly started it a little bit before her husband died, and took many years to finish it; working on it until the year 1010. 

It was the period after her husband’s death that she spent most hours in writing Tale of Genji. Some say this is because of her grief over his death. She even mentions this in her diary, where she states feeling “depressed and confused”, describing the thought of her loneliness that seemed to never end as “unbearable”.

By attributed to Tosa Mitsuyoshi (Honolulu Academy of Arts) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

All About “The Tale of Genji”

Called “Genji Monogatari” (源氏物語) in Japanese, the Tale of Genji has been considered a Japanese classic. It is written in the Early Middle Japanese language, and the style it was folded in was concertina. Nothing remains of the original manuscripts.

Though the story is of prose fiction, it depicts similarities to what like was being part of the high courts during the Heian period. Overall, the entire book has around 1,360 pages, with a word count of 414,800.

A Summary

Tale of Genji is a long tale about the son of a fictional Emperor with Kiritsubo, the concubine he liked the most. His name was Genji. It was predicted that Genji would be very successful when he grows up, though he loses his mother. Though the emperor grieves over her, he gets together with another concubine named Fujitsubo who reminds him of Genji’s mother.

As the tale goes on, Genji becomes a commoner, and thus, not royal. Instead, his oldest half-brother becomes the prince. Genji, however, grows to become talented and good-looking. Because of his overall likability, he became popular with everyone – except Lady Kokiden – who is the mother of the crown prince, and her clan. 


Genji became quite the ladies man, as he had many romantic affiliations around Kyoto (or Heian-kyo). The tale would go deeper into details about To no Chujo, his good friend. He would also marry Aoi, who was the sister of To no Chujo. His first son would be born, and he would also get to know another character by the name of Murasaki.

His oldest brother who is crown prince becomes the Emperor when their father dies. Because he is connected to the royal family, and yet is a commoner who has many relationships with women, the court finds his actions scandalous and casts him out to Suma to live. 

In Continuation

As he is cast out of his hometown, he becomes friendly with Harima’s ex-Governor – but more interestingly, The Akashi Lady, who is the ex-governor's daughter. He returns to his hometown, where his older half-brother who is the emperor decides to abdicate for his younger half-brother – the son of Fujitsubo. 

However, the emperor does not know that this boy is not his younger brother – it is his nephew, as Genji is the true father of Fujitsubo’s son. Meanwhile, Genji fixes his tarnished reputation and gets back to work in court. Also, the Akashi lady gives birth to a newborn girl. Genji continues his adventures and decides to head to Sumiyoshi Shrine to show appreciation for the protection bestowed upon him by a kami (Shinto god) while the area he was in was enduring a storm.

Nearing the End

Genji eventually gets older and decides to stay in his mansion, which is called Rokujo Mansion. This is where a large chunk of the story plays out, as he chooses Murasaki (along with a few other women) to live with him. He has many other children who grow up to take their own seats in Japanese politics. Genji marries again, this time to the Third Princess. They have a son, and she ends up turning into a Buddhist nun.

The leg of the novel entails the drama that unfolds in the lives of Genji’s son (Kaoru) and his grandson (Niou). They find themselves rivals, competing over the daughters of the Eight Prince. 

Suzuki Harunobu [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Rumors and Legends of Murasaki Shikibu: Facts or Fiction?

Rumor has it that, to write Tale of Genji, Murasaki visited Ishiyama-dera, which is a temple of the Shingon school of Buddhism, located in the Shiga Prefecture. This temple is found across Lake Biwa. She is often conveyed to be in this temple in different illustrations by Japanese artists, writing the story while gathering inspiration by looking at the moon on a clear August night.

Though she is depicted this way, there is no proof that she really did write in this temple, or look at the moon for inspiration – so it may have been romanticized. However, another possibility that some speculate, is that she drew inspiration from people she knew in real-life. Prince Genji, for example, could have been a courtier that she had met and saw exiled. She could also have been commissioned to write this story.

A Renowned Writer

Murasaki became famous because she would share her riveting work with her friends, who wanted to share the story with their own friends – and be excited enough to write copies of it themselves to send off. Through this, she was known throughout the tightly-knit high society in Kyoto, thus flourishing her reputation as a prime female author.

Her Final Years

It was in the year 1011 that Emperor Ichijo passed away, and Empress Shochi decided to move to a mansion located in Biwa instead of residing in the Imperial Palace. It is said that Murasaki went with her, as in the year 1013, it was documented that she had been seen with Shoshi. She spent the almost each day reading, writing, and focusing on her Buddhist religion. Some historians pinpoint the year 1014 as when she died, but others say she continued living a quiet life until the year 1025.

By Kunisada (1786 – January 12, 1865) (British Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Famous Poems, and Quotes of Murasaki Shikibu Found in her Diary and Work

Because of the countless poetry and pages of literature that Murasaki wrote, she has been quoted innumerable times. Some of her famous ones are paragraphs long, while others are one line. One of the lesser known ones is, “If you are scorched earth, I will be warm rain.”. 

From the Tale of Genji, one quote reads; “Why do you grieve so uselessly? Every uncertainty is the result of a certainty. There is nothing in this world really to be lamented.” Even though this quote is from a book that’s more than a thousand years old, it is still relatable. 

On a more humorous note, she is known for having written a poem saying, “You have neither read my book nor won my love.”, addressing Michinaga, when he was trying to court her. 

Buy Purple Colored Ink Named After Murasaki Shikibu

Because of her fame and connection to writing, Murasaki Shikibu’s name has been used by the Pilot brand to market one of their luxury inks. It’s a smooth purple color (Japanese beautyberry) that comes in a glass ink bottle, in 50 ml. Each bottle sells for the standard retail price of $25. According to the site, it has 4.7 out of 5 stars, from 53 reviewers. It’s great for any person who is a pen enthusiast and wants to collect different colors of good quality ink.