Many scholars translated Genji Monogatari, a thousand-year-old novel written by Murasaki Shikibu, into modern Japanese language, but Yosano Akiko was the first translator/poet/writer who completed all fifty-four chapters. Akiko also wrote an essay about Murasaki Shikibu.
According to the essay, Murasaki was the seventh generation from Fujiwara no Fuyutsugu (775-826), who was a minister of the state. He was also a poet. Fujiwara no Kaneyasu was her great-grandfather who also held a cabinet post. He was known for his great talent in creating poems, and he also wrote stories. Murasaki grew up in a literary family although most people who descended from the court members or worked with them were literate, and writing poems was their serious hobby.
Murasaki’s father, Tametoki, held a less important post than his ancestors. He wrote poems and learned Confucianism from a top scholar. He was assigned to a post outside the court, first as the head of Echizen province and later of Echigo province.
The scholars disagreed on how many brothers and sisters Murasaki had, but they seemed to agree she had an older brother whose name was Nobunori. I imagined that young Murasaki played with paper and brush in the same room while the father taught Nobunori how to read and write.
In The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu, Murasaki described that her father Tametoki said, “I wish if she were a boy.” I imagined that she hovered over her paper on the floor and succeeded in writing a phrase while her older brother struggled.
Murasaki wrote poems and short stories before she joined the royal court and started to write Genji Monogatari. Murasaki Shikibu is her nickname, which was naturally formed while she wrote the novel.
Murasaki meant purple, which was one of the characters’ names, and Shikibu meant the ceremony division relating to her father’s role at the court. She gained no formal name since the title her husband Noritaka held wasn’t high enough. Her mother’s formal name was 堅子 Kenshi.
As we can imagine, Murasaki was a lady of letters and thinker. She probably had opportunities to read and reread The Lotus Sutra as she mentioned about it time to time throughout the novel. She must have learned reading and writing by copying the sutra and Confucian and other classical Chinese and Japanese books in her house.
In the Nara period before Murasaki was born, Chinese had invented the wood-cut printing, and Japanese began using it, but to make own copy of books, brushstrokes were still the most popular way. It was a good practice to improve reading and writing by making copies, and I think copying itself has meditational value.
Murasaki’s husband Noritaka fell ill and died a year and half after they married. They produced one daughter. From Murasaki’s point of view, their relationship probably wasn’t love at first sight, but Noritaka was a lighthearted and passionate man. They quarreled through their letters, which deepened their love for each other.
In her journal, Murasaki revealed that Noritaka showed her letter/s to other people, including his first wife. Murasaki was furious. She demanded Noritaka return the letter. He complied.
After such lively exchanges followed by the birth of a daughter, Noritaka’s death devastated Murasaki. They were married only a year and half. She wrote about how sad and confused she felt. I feel her sorrows.
After Noritaka died, Michinaga zoomed in and persuaded Murasaki to join the royal court. He was already a powerful man then, serving Emperor Ichijo. She didn’t want to join, but she could no longer say no to persistent Michinaga.
Fujiwara no Michinaga (966-1028) had four daughters, whom he managed to marry off strategically in the royal court. When Murasaki arrived at the court of Emperor Ichijo, Michinaga’s oldest daughter Shoshi was about seventeen. Michinaga wanted Shoshi to produce a prince so that as the grandfather of the prince, Michinaga could strengthen his position and become the head of state as well as the Fujiwara clan.
Emperor Ichijo (980-1011) had Fujiwara-no Teishi (977-1001) as his empress, and they got along very well. Teishi was one of Michinaga’s nieces. Her father was the head of state and Michinaga’s oldest brother.
Teishi was an intelligent and fun-loving young woman. She seemed to be an exceptionally talented person who, together with Emperor Ichijo, brought their many poetry gatherings to success. Like many court documents, we can read the meeting records including the names of the attendees and their poems they produced. Her mother was a Chinese classics scholar, and her father loved drinking and musical performances.
Someone told me, “Just because her parents were talented doesn’t mean she was.” That person had a point, but imagine the situation of a thousand years ago. If parents didn’t know how to read and write, never seen mother plunged in deep thought and perhaps talked about the classical teachings, and if she wasn’t exposed to the fun-loving life style of her father, such qualities in her had to come from somewhere else.
Seishonagon, another female author of the time, worked for Empress Teishi and wrote about Teishi in Pillow Book. She was a member of the Emperor Ichijo team, so to speak, to energize the literary activity in the court. And setting up a theme and hosting the gatherings regularly required artistic ability plus intelligence to keep the interest of all the members.
To entice the emperor to his daughter, Michinaga hired Murasaki, a counterpart to Seishonagon, to help Shoshi become more attractive to the emperor and the court since physical beauty wasn’t enough to attract the emperor.
So, Michinaga’s wish became true, and Murasaki at last joined the court as I mentioned before, and about three years into Murasaki’s service, Shoshi delivered her first son. Even though Teishi had delivered the first prince, Michinaga pushed his grandson to be next emperor. Nobody could stop powerful Michinaga by this time.
Teishi’s father, Michitaka, who had been the head of state, died in 995. Michitaka was the oldest brother of Michinaga. The position of the next head of state went to Michikane who was another Michinaga’s older brother. But Michikane suddenly died, so it became Michinaga’s turn. I don’t know exact causes of their deaths, but they didn’t die from old age.
Without her father’s strong support, Teishi and Emperor Ichijo lost stability in the court. This was during the Heian period. Men in the court ruled and maneuvered all the positions while their daughters had no say in the matters. Women were used for political purposes.
Michinaga was extra ambitious. Because of fierce power struggle in the court, much pressure was put on Emperor Ichijo and Teishi, and a series of bizarre incidents followed.
Teishi’s brothers plotted against the former Emperor Kazan. One of Teishi’s brothers mistakenly thought Kazan had started to liaise with the woman who belonged to him. It turned out to be untrue. The woman the former emperor was meeting secretively was the woman’s sister. But, being shocked to find her two brothers’ crime, Teishi who was pregnant at the time jumped into a role of nun on a whim. She didn’t consult with her husband, Emperor Ichijo. In my view, she should have waited and asked Emperor Ichijo his advice. We should never rush to our decision. Think first and discuss the problem before acting is what this teaches Japanese women.
Later Emperor Ichijo resurrected her as his empress, but a nun returning to her role as empress was unheard of. She wasn’t allowed back inside the court. If you asked me, this was unjust. After all, he was the emperor at the time, and their political system wasn’t democracy.
Anyway, Teishi delivered Emperor Ichijo’s first prince and stayed in a small house outside the palace, to which the emperor commuted at night. I didn’t research on this detail, but my instinct told me his visits were most likely daily except the nights Michinaga pressured him to sleep with Shoshi. So, Emperor Ichijo left the palace after the sundown and returned before the sunrise to avoid people’s attention. They produced two more girls.
Imagine the high pressure put on the emperor. He was severely restricted from his rights and freedom as a human being. Michinaga exercised total control. Teishi died at the age of twenty-four, and Emperor Ichijo passed away when he was thirty-one, leaving a letter of dissatisfaction about Michinaga’s rule.
The imperial palace was a small community. Michinaga and Shoshi lived nearby in the same compound through those incidents and scandals. That was also the period Murasaki wrote Genji Monogatari.
Yosano Akiko wrote that Murasaki probably wrote all fifty-four chapters of Genji Monogatari in about three years while serving Shoshi at the imperial court. As I mentioned before, Murasaki’s role was to support Shoshi’s education, and later Murasaki wrote to celebrate the lives of Shoshi and her baby prince.
How did Michinaga feel about Murasaki then? We could read it in her diary. For example, she wrote that Michinaga came into her room one day while she was away and stole her hidden manuscript. He didn’t respect her property, which meant to me he didn’t respect her enough.
The following is my translation of the fifty-seventh section of The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu, with a bit of my narration and interpretation.
Showing the manuscript of Genji Monogatari, Murasaki has been teaching Shoshi, who had given birth to a prince. Shoshi asks Murasaki a few questions about the story.
Michinaga walks into the room. He doesn’t ask for Murasaki’s permission. He glances toward the manuscript and jokes around. Then he grabs a sheet of paper that had been lying on the floor with plums on it, which were left there to dry. Michinaga writes on the paper as follows and hands it to Murasaki.
You’re known to be a playgirl so you probably wouldn’t leave any man alone without making a pass at him.
Murasaki reads it and replies probably in writing on the same piece of the paper as follows.
No one has made a pass at me yet, so who spread the rumor that I’m a playgirl? How horrible! She didn’t write, “I haven't made any passes at anyone so who spread the rumor?” because, to her, making a pass was a thing only men would do, not women. I’m sure it was impossibility she would do such thing.
Murasaki’s journal continues.
When I slept in the room next to the bridge, someone knocked on my door quite persistently. I felt threatened by it so I didn’t respond throughout the night. The following morning, Michinaga wrote to me as follows.
“All through the night, like a water fowl’s cries, I knocked on your door again and again many times.”
In reply, she writes:
“You knocked on my door hard like an emergency, but as you wrote, because it was a water fowl’s cries, if I had opened my door I would have regretted it.”
Good for her! I’m completely behind Murasaki on what she wrote in the last two lines. Michinaga probably couldn’t have as interesting literary conversations with other women as well as men in the court as he could with Murasaki. Hikaru Genji, a main character of the novel Genji Monogatari, was a bit like Michinaga, so he often made visits to Murasaki and tried to find out what was happening to Genji in the progress of the story. He was a manipulative, greedy, narcissistic politician, but cute.
If he wanted to, Michinaga could write to Seishonagon, who wrote Pillow Book, or talk with passionate Izumi Shikibu, who wrote a collection of essays. But I think, from the start, Genji Monogatari captured the imagination of Michinaga and the rest of the audience.
Murasaki didn’t write about this, but I could sense her reluctance to Michinaga because he had multiple wives, and they lived nearby. It doesn’t matter what the common practice of the period or which country it happened. Polygamy is women’s enemy.
Murasaki had strong feelings for her deceased husband. Did Michinaga understand that? If he did, did he let her know that? How could she switch her precious heart for Noritaka to manipulative Michinaga just like that? Noritaka died too early before she really got to know him. I’m sure power-hungry Michinaga had multiple women to promote himself in the court. Murasaki was cautious to avoid being mixed up in a scandal with him. After all, she became the center of attention at the court as the author of Genji’s stories.
As he planned it, Michinaga’s grandsons became emperors. Teishi’s son was denied of his rights to succeed for he lost his mother-side strong support. I’ve read a passage regarding this prince issue and Teishi’s sad fate that Shoshi showed her small resistance toward her brother when he came and demanded her something, which I forgot what that was, but she clearly didn’t comply with his request.
I thought Shoshi didn’t mind her son become an emperor, but not before Teishi’s son. Both Murasaki and Shoshi couldn’t defend Teishi, but I could tell that they wanted to protect her if they could.
Michinaga became practically the kanpaku, head of the state, although not formally. He wrote his diary from age thirty-three to fifty-six. Today both Genji Monogatari and his diary are national treasures. Michinaga held many poetry readings and writer workshops at the court. He was flamboyant and his writings were said to contain many errors. In the literary skills, Murasaki was obviously superior to Michinaga in writing fiction, which takes much thinking and efforts.
Although I do not support power hungry people like Michinaga, it’s true that with his support, Genji Monogatari was commissioned and copies made. It has been translated into over twenty languages and read globally as the world’s oldest psychological novel.
Looking at Yosano Akiko’s interpretation on Murasaki’s thought in her diary, I thought Akiko was very passionate and went after her love with force. Yosano Tekkan was a married man and had children when Akiko fell in love with him, and she knew his family situation.
Murasaki wasn’t like Akiko or Izumi Shikibu who was also well known to have expressed their free unrestrictive love without consideration to others. Although Noritaka, Murasaki’s husband, was already married and with children, the marriage norm in the tenth or eleventh century was different from today. But even if Murasaki had been born in the nineteenth century like Akiko, I didn’t think Murasaki would’ve behaved as Akiko did like stealing someone’s husband.
Murasaki was compelled to write what was on her mind about her husband and herself to reflect and treasure her memories. In Genji Monogatari, she painted Genji to be an ideal man although he was a playboy.
In the chapter, Suetsumuhana, Genji falls in love with Suetsumuhana, knowing she is no longer in a good financial situation. She lost her parents, and Genji finds out she isn’t a beauty. In fact, she has a long elephant nose. They met before but it was at night, and nights are dark.
Despite Suetsumuhana’s financial difficulty and elephant nose, Genji remains loyal to his lover and takes care of her, visiting her into her old age, the narrator insinuates. Murasaki filtered the memory of her love and wrote all the tenderly emotions Genji showered on the female characters. Through the story of life and death and characterization of Genji and other characters, I think the novel influenced the ways of thinking among us. I’m sure Japan has many deadbeat husbands or dads even though we had the novel for a thousand years, but to compared with other countries, I think, the number probably is less because of the novel. I credit this to Murasaki Shikibu.