Biography of Murasaki Shikibu

Author of the World's First Novel

Murasaki Shikibu, scroll on silk
Murasaki Shikibu, scroll on silk. De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

Murasaki Shikibu (c. 976-978 - c. 1026-1031) is known for writing what is considered the world's first novel, The Tale of Genji. Shikibu was a novelist and a court attendant of Empress Akiko of Japan. Also known as Lady Murasaki, her real name is not known. "Murasaki" means "violet" and may have been taken from a character in The Tale of Genji

Early Life

Murasaki Shikibu was born a member of the cultured Fujiwara family of Japan.

A paternal great-grandfather had been a poet, as was her father, Fujiwara Tamatoki. She was educated alongside her brother, including learning Chinese and writing.

Personal Life

Murasaki Shikibu was married to another member of the extensive Fujiwara family, Fujiwara Nobutaka, and they had a daughter in 999. Her husband died in 1001. She lived quietly until 1004, when her father became governor of the province of Echizen. 

The Tale of Genji

Murasaki Shikibu was brought to the Japanese imperial court, where she attended the Empress Akiko, Emperor Ichijo's consort. For two years, from about 1008, Murasaki recorded in a diary what happened at court and what she thought about what happened.

She used some of what she'd recorded in this diary to write a fictional account of a prince named Genji —and therefore the first known novel. The book, which covers four generations through Genji's grandson, was probably meant to be read aloud to her main audience, women.

Later Years

After the emperor Ichijo died in 1011, Murasaki retired, perhaps to a convent.

Legacy

The book The Tale of Genji was translated into English by Arthur Waley in 1926.