Murasaki Shikibu (973?–1014?) was an author, poet, and lady-in-waiting at court during the Heian period (794–1185). She is most famous as the author of The Tale of Genji (源氏物語), an epic narrative that offers a critical perspective on social relations. Although her writing remains tremendously popular, some key details of her biography are unclear, including the years she lived and her actual name. The name we use derives from the Genji character, Murasaki, and the author’s father’s administrative post.
“Murasaki Shikibu lived at a time when the aristocracy of Heian Japan was in its heyday and had very little inkling of the process of decay that was already underway and that was to lead eventually to its demise in the twelfth century. This society, and in particular its women, was cloistered from the world that supported it, entirely divorced from the modes of production that made it possible. […] Women had an important role to play in the politics of the time but it is difficult to determine their true position in society at large.” From Richard Bowring’s Murasaki Shikibu, pages 3-6.
Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji
“Authored in the early decades of the eleventh century by the court lady Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji is a fifty-four-chapter work of prose and 795 waka poems, centered primarily on the life of an imperial son, the “radiant Genji,” who is denied his chance to ascend the throne. The tale’s popularity began even before Murasaki had completed the work, and by the late twelfth century it had become so widely admired that would-be poets and litterateurs were advised to absorb its lessons. The Tale of Genji quickly became a fixture of the Japanese literary canon and centuries later joined the canon of world literature. With its length (over 1,300 pages in the most recent English translation), complexity, sophisticated writing style, development of character and plot, realistic representation of historical time and place, ironic distance, and subplots that extend thematically across the entire work, it meets every criterion that is generally used to distinguish novels from other forms of literature. Although steeped in the complex belief systems and moral codes of its own era, which complicate any simplistic equation of the work with modern fiction, the tale can be read as a monumental exploration of human nature.” From the introduction in The Tale of Genji: A Visual Companion by Melissa McCormick.
Who is a person if not their legacy? In the case of Murasaki Shikibu, I struggled to portray her portrait because no such reference image exists. What does exist though, are the countless pieces of artwork inspired by her story The Tale of Genji. In my piece, I decided to take inspiration from the artworks inspired by her most famous work.
Her portrait is superimposed on the images inspired by her writing, portraying how Murasaki Shikibu is The Tale of Genji. She is the characters she created in her stories, the places she imagined, and the relationships she wrote about. Through her work we can interpret who she is, something different and more rich than what she looks like. With that being said, it is a portrait: so who is in the frame? The person I have created is a culmination of historical research and of any depiction of her I could find. She also looks a little bit like my younger sister. Who does she look like to you?
Murasaki Shikibu herself has become a subjective being. Just like her work, with its morals, ideas, commentaries, also being subjective, her own self is the same. Based upon the interpretation of her work comes the interpretation of her being.
Murasaki Shikibu is a literature legend. With her work and identity now at the whims of the present day us, we find her to be a Japanese feminist and, as the first woman to write an epic text that some consider to be a novel, without a doubt she is one. Her skills as a writer, defying typical gender roles, and living in Heian imperial court life, all give us more information on the incredible woman Murasaki Shikibu was. Using mixed media, I wanted to portray piecing together who she is, sewing together postcard-sized images of the world she created in The Tale of Genji. I used watercolor as a base and built up her essence using colored pencils, still allowing the background to be seen through her skin.
For further learning
- “The Tale of Genji” on Writ Large podcast
- Reginald Jackson. 2021. A Proximate Remove: Queering Intimacy and Loss in The Tale of Genji. Berkeley: University of California Press. *Full text available through open access
- Melissa McCormick. 2018. The Tale of Genji: A Visual Companion. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Reginald Jackson. 2018. Textures of Mourning: Calligraphy, Mortality, and The Tale of Genji Scrolls. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
- Richard Bowring. 1982. Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Nami Kaneko is a current senior at the University of Michigan College of LSA studying Evolutionary Anthropology and Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience with a minor in Asian Languages and Culture. Born in the San Fransisco Bay Area Nami grew up very close with her Japanese heritage. In elementary school, she went to Japan over the summer to attend a local school in her cousin’s town, Fujisawa in Kanagawa Prefecture. There, she would live with her extended family attending elementary school for a month out of the summer break, occasionally visiting her grandparents in Ueda, Nagano. When she was home in the US, she would continue her Japanese education at Japanese schools on Saturdays. Eventually, she would become a Japanese language teacher’s assistant to elementary school students and then become a private tutor once she left for college.
After middle school, Nami moved to Boulder, Colorado with her family for high school in 2015. Since painting and drawing during elementary school, she began creating artwork for school events and clubs, continuing her hobby. Growing up, Nami started with oil painting which has provided a strong base for her art. Since then, she has expanded to watercolor, colored pencils, acrylic, gouache, and even wood burning. In Colorado, Nami taught art classes to kids aged 5-14 and helped neurodivergent kids with art therapy throughout high school.
Currently, Nami is the president of the Japan Student Association, starting out for two years as the design chair for the organization. During her time, she has participated in and actively tried to create a Japanese community and Japan-interest community on campus. She also has worked at a Japanese restaurant for all of her years as an undergraduate. Additionally, she works as a research assistant at the University of Michigan Museum of Art in the Asian Art Department under Natsu Oyobe and as a research assistant at a primate cognition lab called the Cognitive Evolution Group.