Murasaki Shikibu was born about 973 into the middle-level aristocracy that supplied provincial governors. She belonged to the vast and, in some other branches, supremely powerful Fujiwara family, but her given name went unrecorded, and Murasaki Shikibu is a nickname. "Shikibu" ("Bureau of Ceremonial") refers to a post once held by her father, while "Murasaki" is the name of her tale's fictional heroine. Her father, Fujiwara no Tametoki (died 1029), served as governor in the provinces of Harima, Echizen (to which she accompanied him in 996), and Echigo, and he was also a scholar of Chinese. She married in 998 or 999 and was widowed in 1001. Her daughter Katako (or Kenshi), later known as Daini no Sanmi, was probably born in 999 and may have died about 1080. In about 1006 Murasaki Shikibu was called to serve Empress Akiko (or Shoshi), no doubt because of her talent for writing fiction. The last record mentioning her is dated 1013, and she may have died the next year. Apart from The Tale of Genji she left diary fragments (Murasaki Shikibu nikki, much of which describes events at the palace in 1008) and a personal poetry collection (Murasaki Shikibu shu), which was probably compiled after her death.

Nothing indicates exactly when Murasaki Shikibu began her tale or when she finished it, but her diary suggests that the work as it existed in 1007 or 1008 was hers, and she has been recognized ever since as the author of all fifty-four chapters. However, internal evidence suggests that these chapters were not all written in their present order. The Tale of Genji contains much brilliant writing, but it also leaves an impression of brilliant editing.

Few readers or scholars have ever doubted Murasaki Shikibu's sole authorship, but the surviving evidence in favor of sole authorship is not that strong. The tale she mentioned in her diary is unlikely to have been the whole work, and she may have continued writing for years after that, perhaps with more or less long gaps, while her outlook shifted with advancing age and her intended audience changed as well. However, it is certain only that something like the present text existed in 1021, when a young girl returned from a distant province to the capital and received a complete copy of Genji from her aunt. In her mature years the Daughter of Takasue (as she is known) wrote an autobiographical memoir (Sarashina nikki) in which she described the joy of reading it. Her "over fifty chapters" suggests the present fifty-four, and she mentions Ukifune, the heroine of the last four. The evidence in favor of sole authorship is therefore suggestive but incomplete.

A fifteenth-century scholar is the first person known to have suggested that Murasaki Shikibu's daughter, rather than Murasaki Shikibu herself, wrote the last third of the book (chapters 42 to 54). The idea seems then to have been more or less forgotten until the poet Yosano Akiko (1878-1942) proposed it in a new guise. Akiko published two pioneering modern Japanese translations of Genji, and by the time she had finished the second she believed that Murasaki Shikibu had written only chapters 1 to 33. She attributed chapters 34 to 54 to Murasaki Shikibu's daughter. Others have questioned the authorship of chapters 42 to 54 or of chapters 42 to 44, and recent computer analysis has turned up statistically significant discrepancies of style between chapters 45 to 54 and the rest, as well as discrepancies among some of the earlier chapters.

If Murasaki Shikibu was not the sole author, no known evidence actually points to her daughter; however, Daini no Sanmi, a distinguished poet, is the only plausibly identifiable candidate. Some person or persons could have added new chapters by 1021, as a few people tried to do later on, and might have preferred for various reasons to remain anonymous and leave the credit to the tale's acknowledged originator. The question is unlikely ever to be settled.


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