Japanese classical literature and Murasaki Shikibu

Japanese classical literature and Murasaki Shikibu

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

Murasaki Shikibu (Lady Murasaki) was born in 973. However, her exact year of death remains complex – some say 1014 while others point to 1025. Irrespective, her legacy will never be forgotten because she wrote The Tale of Genji.

This esteemed novel is internationally famous similar to Macbeth. Hence, even if people have never read The Tale of Genji or Macbeth – or only know brief areas – the names of both have become immortalized in the annals of international literature.

On The Tale of Genji website (http://www.taleofgenji.org/), it says, “Up to that point, Japanese literature had consisted mostly of collections of poetry written in the borrowed Kanji script of China. Prose was limited to fairy tales and a couple of memoirs written in the new phonetic syllabary known as kana. No one had ever written a novel, let alone a novel with character development and a complex plot.”

The Tokugawa Art Museum says, “Written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu in the latter half of the Heian period in an age before the advent of printing technology, the Tale of Genji was disseminated via hand transcription and read avidly by many people. The Tale of Genji was also illustrated shortly after its completion and numerous pictorial versions of the story continued to be produced through the medieval and early modern eras.” 

The tale became popular among the upper echelons of Japanese society. Accounts of courtly intrigues – fate, romance, tragedy, and so forth – entailed that The Tale of Genji became an immediate success that would continue to flourish and expand with each passing century.

Yasunari Kawabata (novelist), when accepting his Nobel Prize, said, “The Tale of Genji – in particular – is the highest pinnacle of Japanese literature. Even down to our day there has not been a piece of fiction to compare with it.”

The complexity of courtly language – along with not implying names directly – highlights the intricate world that Murasaki Shikibu witnessed.

Murasaki Shikibu wrote, “Even those people who have no sorrow of their own often feel melancholy from the circumstances in which they are placed.”


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