Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu(mur-ah-sah-kee shee-kee-boo) is credited with two other works: her diary, Murasaki Shikibu nikki (eleventh century), and a collection of her poetry, Murasaki Shikibu-sh (eleventh century). Both of these works are translated and annotated in full in Richard Bowring’s Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs (1982); a partial translation of the diary may be found in Annie Shepley Omori and Kochi Doi’s Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan (1920), excerpted in Donald Keene’s Anthology of Japanese Literature (1955).

In common with other Japanese diaries by court women of the period, Lady Murasaki’s diary is both of high literary quality and of importance as a social-historical document. It is not a daily journal, but rather a collection of entries, made erratically between the years 1008 and 1010, that record significant events in Murasaki’s life as a lady in the court of Empress Fujiwara no Shshi, consort of Emperor Ichij. Like other diaries of the period, also, this one includes poetry, both by the author and by other people in her life, and thus helps document the role of poetry composition in the daily life of the imperial court. Of greatest importance, however, is the insight the diary provides into the personality of Murasaki Shikibu; while the diary is not an intensely self-revealing, confessional work, it is helpful in understanding how The Tale of Genji came into being because it reveals the way in which Murasaki processed real life into literary art and her finely tuned sensitivity to human relationships. Murasaki’s collected poems are not regarded as being of great literary quality or consequence in themselves; rather, as in the case of her diary, the poems are looked to largely for the light they might shed on Murasaki as the author of The Tale of Genji.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Murasaki Shikibu’s premier achievement is, without question, The Tale of Genji, which stands as perhaps the greatest monument of Japanese fiction. The work followed a tradition of several generations’ standing of romances depicting life among the court nobility of Japan, most of which were written by women of rank, but in its length (more than one thousand pages in English translation), realism, psychological depth, and literary distinction, The Tale of Genji stands far above its predecessors and has subsequently been imitated but never equaled.

Prior to the advent of printing on a large scale in the seventeenth century, The Tale of Genji was circulated only in manuscript, but its influence was nevertheless immense. Its situations and the poetry exchanged by its characters quickly became a vital part of the literary canon, sources often exploited in later Japanese poetry, which was highly dependent on allusion and reference. It became an important source for dramatists of the No theater in the fifteenth and subsequent centuries. By the seventeenth century, it had become the object of scholarly commentary and analysis and was seen by Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), the foremost eighteenth century scholar of the native literature, as the locus classicus of ancient aesthetic, literary, and spiritual values.

Orthodox moralists of both the Confucian and the Buddhist schools condemned The Tale of Genji throughout the premodern period: What was fiction, after all, but a seductive tissue of lies? It was, moreover, a work steeped in carnality and moral inconsistency. Nevertheless, the work remained at the center of the Japanese literary tradition, and by the Tokugawa, or Edo, period (1603-1868), its influence was firmly embedded in popular culture as well. It was often retold and parodied, its characters were depicted in wood-block prints, it was the source of a popular card game, and the names of its characters were even taken as pseudonyms by courtesans in the urban brothel districts.

In more recent times, Murasaki and The Tale of Genji have continued to occupy a prominent place in Japanese letters. In the twentieth century, the poet Yosano Akiko and the novelists Jun’ichir Tanizaki and Fumiko Enchi produced modern Japanese translations for a public no longer able to read the language of the original, and through translations into other languages, Murasaki’s special vision of the world of the classical imperial court has shaped readers’ perceptions of Japan around the world.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Except for a few scattered works, literary productions now called “novels” do not seem to exist before the eighteenth century. How can one account for a Japanese novel by Murasaki Shikibu that is a thousand years old?

Lovers of the type Murasaki presents have had a bad reputation in Western literature. Has that situation changed? Can readers today accept lovers who are intimate with many partners?

Does the conclusion of The Tale of Genji suggest that women could not accept courtly lovers like Genji?

What can The Tale of Genji tell the modern reader about friendship?

Why would modern Japanese people continue to admire a work like The Tale of Genji, which in so many ways reflects an unfamiliar way of life?


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Bargen, Doris G. A Woman’s Weapon: Spirit Possession in “The Tale of Genji.” Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

Bowring, Richard. Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982. Chapter 1 is an up-to-date, concise summary of what Western and Japanese scholars know about Murasaki’ life. Reproduces scenes from The Tale of Genji picture scroll. Includes a bibliography, mostly of Japanese works.

Field, Norma. The Splendor of Longing in “The Tale of Genji.” Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2001.

Kamens, Edward, ed. Approaches to Teaching Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji.” New York: Modern Language Association, 1993.

Keene, Donald. Landscapes and Portraits: Appreciations of Japanese Culture. Palo Alto, Calif.: Kodansha International, 1971. Reprints Keene’s 1967 essay, “Feminine Sensibility in the Heian Era,” which explores the emergence of women writers and the kana writing system. Murasaki and The Tale of Genji are analyzed as part of this phenomenon. Includes illustrations and a bibliography.

Keene, Donald. Landscapes and Portraits: Appreciations of Japanese Culture. Palo Alto, Calif.: Kodansha...

(The entire section is 578 words.)