The diary of the author of The Tale of Genji

There are not a lot of thousand-plus year-old diaries. (Prior to the Norman conquest of the Anglo-Saxons, the English language did not even exist.) There are, however, some Japanese ones, even if one excludes the “Pillowbook” of Sei Shônagon. The Diary of Lady Murasaki (ca. 973 ca. 1020) is predominately the view of a lady-in-waiting of the Northern Fujiwara empress Shôshi.” Murasaki” is the name of the major female character among the hundreds of paramours of Genji, the resplendent and sensitive-to-women’s feelings son of an emperor in Genji monogatori (The Tale of Genji), the very long (1200+ pages in printed English) and episodic novel written by a lady-in-waiting whose name is unknown.


The “Diary” is less of a diary in the modern sense than ones kept by some male courtiers, who dated their entries. The first half recounts the birth of a prince (Aysuhira) to Shôshi in the tenth year of her marriage (some of the delay undoubtedly was that her marriage preceded menarche) in 1008. This consolidated the position of Shôshi and her court, including her courtier, the widowed “Murasaki.” Jockeying for position was the primary dynamic of life among rival courts, in the profusion of wives, young emperors, and abdicated emperors who were free of ritual obligations and in many cases did more in the way of ruling after they stopped reigning. Michinaga, Shôshi’s father, besides having been emperor himself was brother-in-law to two other emperors, uncle and father-in-law to another, and grandfather to two more.

Knowing how important producing a male heir was is crucial to understanding the fuss made about the birth to Murasaki’s patroness of a male baby. She did not explain the series of rites (translator Richard Bowring’s footnotes and substantial introduction do that) following that birth. The diarist records considerable detail about who was wearing what. Bowring notes that the detail is “almost suffocating,” and I’d drop the “almost.”

To understand Heian Japan, Ivan Morris’s The World of the Shining Prince is far more informative and readable than Murasaki’s diary (the “shining prince” is Genji, whose father, an emperor, made him a commoner, thus not a prince…). Having slogged through the latest (Royall  Tyler’s) translation into English of Genji monogatori (I prefer Edward Seidensticker’s), I read the slim volume out of curiosity about the author… about whom I learned very little. Many characters in her novel become nuns, but their creator realized she was still attached to the world, however annoyed she was by the vanity, jockeying for attention and position, and censoriousness of her social peers.

The most interesting part of the volume is in the form of a letter, and in that, after short descriptions of various other women, what surely is a reminder to herself as much as a communication to an unknown correspondent: “It is very easy to criticize others, but far more difficult to put one’s own principles into practice, and it is when one forgets the truth, lauds oneself to the skies, treats everyone else as worthless, and generally despises others that one’s own character is clearly revealed.” Since this is in the midst of a criticism of another courtier whose letter has fallen into her hands, one cannot exonerate “Murasaki” of not practicing what she preached. In the same “entry” she calls the other great Heian writer, Sei Shônagon, who had retired from court before Murasaki became a courtier of being “dreadfully conceited.” (There is a whole paragraph of criticism of her.)

Not that there are no women whom she praised, especially her patroness empress, but the wife of the governor of Tanba in the particular section from which I’ve quoted.


(Empress, baby, Murasaki, with Michinaga below)

And “Lady Murasaki” is modest about the poems she produces—in an elite in which extemporaneous concoction of poems was a skill recurrently tested and severely judged (as any reader of Genji knows very, very well). Being very stylized thirteen-syllable poems (usually rendered into English as couplets, but written in one vertical line in Japanese), Bowring warns against making inferences about the views, values, or personalities of the poets. Many are allusions to T’ang Dynasty Chinese poems, and though I am sure Bowring is right that the poems are not windows to the souls of the Heian poetasters, there has to be something in what someone remembered and was able to use, though je ne sais quoi!

The date of Aysuhira is established in multiple sources, and various rites occurred x days after that, but it is not certain that the descriptions were written on those days, and the other parts of the diary are not only undatable but even their order is uncertain.

I can’t imagine the book of being of interest to anyone who has not read Tales of Genji and the Pillowbook of Sei Shônagon, and, probably Gossamer Days, and is desperate for more Heian writing.

The original (Princeton University Press, 1982) edition of Bowring’s translation also included the 120 poems attributed to Lady Murasaki. Dropping them is a decision difficult to understand.


©2010, Stephen O. Murray


I think that Lisa Dalby put both the poems and diaries to great use in her novel, The Tale of Murasaki.

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