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Murasaki Shikibu and The Tale of Genji: a female writer who broke the chains

Murasaki Shikibu and The Tale of Genji: a female writer who broke the chains

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

Murasaki Shikibu (Lady Murasaki) is the most famous Japanese lady in history and many artists have depicted her because of her wisdom and knowledge. Not surprisingly, her prominence remains so strong because very few ladies in Japanese history have come to the fore because of conservative aspects of culture. Obviously, this conservatism doesn’t solely apply to Japan because in history it appears that female emancipation wasn’t on the radar in the majority of cultures. Therefore, ukiyo-e artists in Japan had little option but to focus on Murasaki Shikibu when it came to depicting a powerful lady in Japanese history.

It is known that she was born in 973 but her death is disputed because some people claim that she died in 1014 and others state 1025. However, given the discrepancy then obviously much is down to guess work and is open to many interpretations. The same applies to her final years on this earth because information is patchy but given this period of history then this isn’t so surprising.

What is known is that Murasaki Shikibu was blessed with many talents and she obtained great knowledge of Chinese classics. Yet, how she obtained this knowledge is also open to interpretation. This applies to historians claiming different things because some state that her father allowed her to study with her brother. However, others dispute this and claim that she was forbidden to study with her brother but because of her inquisitive nature and natural ability, she was able to learn by listening tentatively by the door.

Whatever the truth, it is clear that gender norms in this period meant that she faced an uphill struggle to overcome the obstacles in her way. Also, given the fact that somehow she overcame these obstacles then clearly her output would have been even greater if she had been given freedom to write.  Sadly, even in the modern period it is clear that females in many nations suffer because of gender discrimination throughout the world.

Therefore, it is abundantly clear that many female writers, artists, historians, politicians, and so forth, have suffered “a cultural female genocide” because of male dominance and elitism which deprived women of equality. This reality adds to the power of Murasaki Shikibu because so many others went silently to their grave despite having so much to give throughout the world.

Turning back to Murasaki Shikibu then even her real name is disputed because in a diary which was written in 1007 the name Fujiwara Takako was mentioned. This, according to some individuals, is the real name of Murasaki Shikibu but again nothing is conclusive. Therefore, the most famous lady in Japanese history is based on the legacy that she left and other areas will always remain in doubt unless a hidden manuscript is found – and this appears most unlikely.

What isn’t in doubt is that The Tale of Genji was written by a lady in this period and either her real name survives or a nom de plume was chosen because of cultural factors. However, because of no real clarity then it is best to stay loyal to the name Murasaki Shikibu.

The Tale of Genji is internationally famous and a rich treasure in Japan. Also, this classic highlights the importance of Chinese culture in this period of Japan and this theme remains constant before the events of the late nineteenth century. This classic was written in the Heian period and the richness of style left a lasting impression. Without a shred of doubt Murasaki Shikibu was an extremely gifted individual despite all the negative realities that she faced.

In an earlier article I stated that “Murasaki Shikibu was no normal lady because she desired to express many things and given her stature in society then clearly she had the opportunity to do so.  This lady of letters was a poet, novelist and being in the Imperial court she had certain obligations, therefore, she was a lady-in-waiting.” 

“Her novel called The Tale of Genji left a lasting legacy based on the quality of her writing and the passion that it oozes. Platitudes abound in Japan and throughout the international community and it is a major source of pride for women in Japan and for Japanese culture which is enriched by The Tale of Genji.”

“Ukiyo-e artists have depicted Murasaki Shikibu during the height of this art form in Japan and the art highlights a noble and refined lady.  The art work is based on wisdom, serenity, sophistication, and a lady who had a special aura. Therefore, ukiyo-e artists have transcended Murasaki Shikibu and entered her into a new dimensional world where certainty and an aura of inner-beauty and knowledge are rolled into this remarkable individual.”

The Tale of Genji itself leaves many questions regarding the role of women in Japan. This applies to why did this classic survive and remain unhindered? After all, if females were not allowed to write and study Chinese classics openly, then why wasn’t the book banned? Or does it signify the importance of her background and that she escaped censorship based on her status and knowing high officials? If so, then why didn’t other female writers in high positions leave a lasting legacy in Japan and the same applies to women who knew powerful individuals – therefore, why Murasaki Shikibu and not scores of other female writers?

Murasaki Shikibu entered the imperial court after her husband passed away and during this time she observed and learnt many things. The Tale of Genji became respected in a very short time and again this would indicate that you had few constraints against Japanese female writers. However, history would point in the other direction because you don’t find many famous female writers in Japan in this period.

The earliest manuscript was lost but scrolls in the 12th century were found and clearly The Tale of Genji enriches Japanese culture and highlights many aspects of high society in this period. Therefore, while many aspects of the life of Murasaki Shikibu remain unknown the same doesn’t apply to her legacy because this classic is deemed to be a national treasure.

The last years of her life are also shrouded in mystery because her work appears to cease but again the reasons remain in doubt. Could it be that she was censored after writing this classic?  Or did Murasaki Shikibu retire after achieving what she had always dreamt about?

Again, this is open to many interpretations and for this reason it is unsure about when she died. However, it would appear that her remaining years were relatively tranquil and irrespective of all the uncertainties about her life, it is abundantly clear that The Tale of Genji left a deep impression. Therefore, the legacy of Murasaki Shikibu is very powerful.

In another article I comment that “Murasaki Shikibu also wrote a volume of poetry called The Diary of Lady Murasaki and Japanese artists illuminated this lady of letters to wider society. The art work of ukiyo-e artists in the Edo period and throughout the Meiji period maintained the rich aura of Murasaki Shikibu and her novel The Tale of Genji is a classic within Japanese literature and international literature.”

However, given the lack of female writers, artists, and people in power in Japanese history, then how did Murasaki Shikibu break the chains? Also, if she was allowed to break the chains then why didn’t others follow?

IMAGE ONE: Tosa Mitsuoki

IMAGE TWO: Hiroshige (ukiyo-e)

IMAGE THREE: Kunisada (ukiyo-e)

IMAGE FOUR: Edo period illustration

IMAGE FIVE: Harunobu (ukiyo-e)

http://www.taleofgenji.org/   The Tale of Genji

http://webworld.unesco.org/genji/en/index.shtml  The Tale of Genji

http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/heroine9.html 

http://harvardmagazine.com/2002/05/murasaki-shikibu.html 

http://moderntokyotimes.com 

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2011 in Japan

 

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