Episode 270 – A Brief and Fleeting Dream

This week, we cover the life and work of one of Japan’s most famous authors: the 11th century courtier Murasaki Shikibu. Why do we know so little about who she was? What inspired her to write Genji? Why do I dislike her work so viscerally? And how did it become so famous?


Shriane, Haruo, editor. Envisioning the Tale of Genji: Media, Gender, and Cultural Production.

Shirane, Haruo. A Bridge of Dreams: The Poetics of the Tale of Genji.

Bowring, Richard, trans. The Diary of Lady Murasaki.


For Edo period Japanese who did not want to slog through the original classical Japanese, there were emaki — illustrated versions — of the story of Genji. This scene is from Azumaya,, chapter 50 of the tale.
Another emaki of Genji, this one from the Takekawa chapter. A male courtier (bottom right) steals a glimpse of some lovely ladies.
Cover piece from Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji.
A cover from the manga edition of Genji Monogatari.
Murasaki Shikibu gazes at the moon, being inspired to write the tale of Genji.
In addition to writing Genji, Murasaki Shikibu was also an accomplished poet. One of her poems is included in the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, probably the most famous poetry collection in Japan. Her poem (no. 57), as translated by LingWiki: “Meeting on the path / but I cannot clearly know / if it was he / because the midnight moon / in a cloud had disappeared.
This illustrated version shows Murasaki, along with her poem written in phonetic kana above. No contemporary pictures of her exist; she’s labeled as Murasaki, and is wearing purple (the color Murasaki), and that’s how you can tell it’s her.

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