The Diary of Lady Murasaki

Of all the poets of the Hyakunin Isshu anthology, arguably the most famous, especially overseas is Lady Murasaki (poem 57), who in Japanese is called Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部). She is the author of the Tales of Genji, which epitomized life in Japanese antiquity, and is arguably the first novel in history. But another work by Lady Murasaki that’s notable here is her eponymous diary, of which an illustrated version appears centuries later.

A famous woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons), depicting a legend about Murasaki Shikibu at Ishiyama Temple. These are the 3 panels of the nishiki-e: “Eight Views of Omi Province as Seen from Ishiyama” (Ômi hakkei zenzu, Ishiyama yori miru). Notice her purple (murasaki) robes.

The diary covers the period from 1008 to 1010, and provides a first hand account of her life serving the powerful regent, Fujiwara no Michinaga, whose daughter, Empress Shōshi, gave birth to the future Emperor Go-Ichijō (Ichijō the Latter). Michinaga is not featured in the Hyakunin Isshu, but his power as regent was enough to ruin the lives of a few poets in the anthology: Fujiwara no Morechika (poem 63) and Emperor Sanjo (poem 68), and indirectly Sei Shonagon (poem 62).1

At the beginning of the diary, Lady Murasaki describes the events leading up to Empress Shōshi giving birth, the elaborate ceremonies to protect her and the unborn child from evil spirits, then the diary continues with the first weeks of the child’s birth, and further ceremonies. Michinaga spares no expense to ensure that his grandson (whom he will be the regent of and thus the true power behind the throne), is safely born.

A 13th century illustration of Empress Shōshi and her infant son, with Lady Murasaki in attendance from the Murasaki Shikibu Nikki Emaki (illustrated diary of Lady Murasaki). Tokyo National Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Lady Murasaki is one of several ladies-in-waiting recruited by Fujiwara no Michinaga to increase the status of his daughter, Empress Shōshi, against the Emperor’s first wife, Teishi. Other ladies include Lady Izumi (poem 56) and Akazome Emon (poem 59). Teishi was the daughter of a rival Fujiwara branch, so Michinaga engineered his daughter, Shoshi, to be a second wife, and eventually eclipse Teishi. Sei Shonagon was a lady-in-waiting to Teishi, by the way. Lady Murasaki herself comes from a lesser branch of the Fujiwara clan, and since her husband already died some time ago, she describes herself as “washed up”. She thus has no official appointment in the Imperial Court. And yet, through Michinaga, she becomes a trusted confidant and tutor of the Empress.

A 13th illustration of Empress Shoshi, her 50-day infant son, and her ladies in waiting in their private quarters from the Murasaki Shikibu Nikki Emaki (illustrated diary of Lady Murasaki). Attributed to Fujiwara Nobuzane (illustrations) and Kujō Yoshitsune (calligraphy), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Lady Murasaki’s diary implies that life as a lady in waiting is a lot of “hurry up, then wait”: periods of great activity and ceremony, followed by long periods of boredom. The period after the child’s birth eventually winds down and leads to a lot of free time, where Lady Murasaki reflects on many things, disparages some of the other ladies in the court:

  • Lady Izumi – “She does have a rather unsavoury side to her character but has a talent for tossing off letters with ease and seems to make the most banal statement sound special.”
  • Akazome Emon – “She may not be a genius but she has great poise and does not feel she has to compose a poem on eveyrthing she sees, merely because she is a poet.”
  • Sei Shonagon – “…was dreadfully conceited. She though herself so clever and littered her writings with Chinese characters; but if you examined them closely, they left a great deal to be desired.”

She also grapples with persistent depression. Her introverted nature often wins her few friends among other ladies of the Court, too:

And when I play my koto rather badly to myself in the cool breeze of the evening, I worry lest someone might hear me and recognize how I am just ‘adding to the sadness of it all’; how vain and sad of me. So now both of my instruments, the one with thirteen strings and the one with six, stand in a miserable, sooty little closet still ready-strung.

The diary then jumps format into a letter. The intended recipient is unknown, but is though to be her daughter Daini no Sanmi (poem 58). Here the diary includes a great deal more self-reflection, and further analysis of the other ladies in waiting, plus her grievances with another clique of ladies centered around the high priestess of the Kamo Shrine, Princess Senshi (daughter of Emperor Murakami).

Finally the diary jumps around a few more times in narrative, and then abruptly stops. Richard Bowring points to theories that other fragments of the diary once existed, possibly some in the Eiga Monagatari, or some possibly in possession by Fujiwara no Teika (poem 97, and compiler of the Hyakunin Isshu), but these are all speculation.

Although the Diary is pretty short, you can read it cover to cover in a couple of hours, it’s a fascinating blend of historical perspective, and very relatable personal reflection. Loneliness and depression affect people of today as much as it did people of her time, and yet she has to carry on through stodgy court ceremony, pressures of the insular life in the aristocracy, and constant back-biting between other ladies.

In one lengthy anecdote, she describes a prank that the other ladies in waiting decide to pull on one Lady Sakyō who apparently had retired from service, then returned to serve another nobleman. The prank was to send a luxurious “gift”, but with a lot of symbolism regarding youth, implying ironically that Lady Sakyō was an old has-been.

Then there’s the sexual harassment.

A 13th century illustration of drunken noblemen getting rowdy from the Murasaki Shikibu Nikki Emaki (illustrated diary of Lady Murasaki). Attributed to Fujiwara Nobuzane (illustrations) and Kujō Yoshitsune (calligraphy), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The diary lists several incidents where drunken nobles harass attractive servants during dinner, who are unable to really do anything about it since they owe their entire livelihood to those nobles. Alternatively, the noblemen, bored themselves, play mean pranks on the ladies, steal their robes, or pull their skirts. Because of the power imbalance (also frequently alluded to in the Gossamer Years), it was just an accepted part of life, and the ladies often had to regularly dodge that minefield.

Middle Counselor Elect Takaie, who was leaning against a corner pillar, started pulling at Lady Hyōbu’s robes and singing dreadful songs. His Excellency [Michinaga] said nothing….Realizing that it was bound to [be, sic] a terribly drunken affair this evening, Lady Saishō and I decided to retire once the formal part was over.

trans. by Richard Bowring

Michinaga himself frequently bursts in on Lady Murasaki, sometimes drunk, demanding a quick poem or versefor particular occasions. Although Michinaga never makes advances on Lady Murasaki, his overbearing demeanor exhausts her, yet she also admires his quick wit and ambition. I can imagine Michinaga being a modern-day CEO with a dubious reputation if in another time or place:

I felt depressed and went to my room for a while to rest. I had intended to go over later if I felt better, but then Kohyōe and Kohyōbu came in and same themselves down by the hibachi. ‘It’s so crowded over there, you can hardly see a thing!’ they completed. His Excellency [Michinaga] appeared.

‘What do you think you’re all doing, sitting around like this?’ he said. ‘Come along with me!’

I did not really feel up to it but went at his insistence.

trans. by Richard Bowring

Another frustration that Lady Murasaki describes is the rigid social hierarchy within the aristocracy. Lady Murasaki was from a middle-ranked family, and while not a menial servant herself, was frequently reminded of her place. This included things like being unable to wear the “forbidden colors“, where she sat during court ceremonies, and whom she was allowed to address directly. Lady Murasaki sums it like so:

The water-music that greeted the Emperor was enchanting. As the procession approach, the bearers — despite being of low rank — hosted the palanquin right up the steps and then had to kneel face down beneath it in considerable distress. ‘Are we really that different?’ I thought to myself as I watched. ‘Even those of us who mix with nobility are bound by rank. How very difficult!’

trans. by Richard Bowring

What she often describes, when reading between the lines, is that for all its pomp, culture and beauty, life in the Heian Period aristocracy was a kind golden sham:2

I returned to the Palace on the twenty-ninth of the twelfth month [after a month absence]. Now I come to think of it, it was on this very night that I first entered service at court. When I remember what a daze I was in then I find my present somewhat blasé attitude quite uncomfortable.

trans. by Richard Bowring

One other thing to note is that her diary alludes to the Tales of Genji frequently. By the time she was recruited by Michinaga, a few drafts of the work had been in circulation, and this probably helped her reputation. Even the illustrious Fujiwara no Kintō (poem 55) pays her a brief visit in the diary calling her “Murasaki” (e.g. purple) as an allusion to one of her characters in the novel. Richard Bowring implies that this moment might be how Lady Murasaki got her name.3 We saw this with Nijōin no Sanuki (poem 92) later as well. In any case, it seems that copies of the Tales of Genji are sometimes borrowed and never returned, or copied by other people, and since each copy took so long to compose, Richard Bowring implies that it is a miracle that the work survived at all.

In any case, the Diary of Lady Murasaki is probably one of the best descriptions of life in the Imperial Court and its (often oppressive) aristocracy. It is a world of beauty and also of bitterness.

1 Sei Shonagon was a lady in waiting for Empress Teishi, who was a daughter of Michinaga’s rival. When the rival is driven out by a scandal, Teishi is relegated to the background, and Sei Shonagon retires in obscurity.

2 Valkyrie in the movie Thor: Ragnarok had said much the same thing about Asgard, too.

3 Her true name is not known, but is thought to be Fujiwara no Kaoriko (藤原香子).

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