Expand each section to read more.
Murasaki Shikibu is the author of The Tale of Genji, but that's not her real name. Like the characters in her novel, the author is known by a title rather than a proper name. Her name was not recorded when she was born in 973 CE in Japan to a minor branch of the powerful Fujiwara clan, which effectively ruled Japan at the time. Her nickname "Murasaki Shikibu" may come from the name of the heroine of The Tale of Genji (Murasaki) and a government post her father held (Shikibu—"Bureau of Ceremonial"). This pen name would not have bothered the author, because in her world people were more often addressed by a title than a personal name.
The story of Genji is full of adventure, poetry, and ritual. He is the son of the Emperor by one of his lower-ranking wives; as such, Genji cannot be made the heir-apparent because that would require him to take the place of the son of a much higher-ranking royal wife. Widely known to be a son of the emperor, and endowed with exceptional abilities and beauty, Genji is a mixture of the royal and the non-royal.
Many of the events in Genji's life seem to be driven by women. What can we make of Genji's many exploits in ladies' bedrooms? Genji the literary character can do things that a real nobleman could not. Throughout the novel, Genji himself remains the perfect gentleman, taking liberties with women that are pardonable only because of his status and his personal beauty, manners, and integrity. His flings are always carried off beautifully, and even respectfully—he never loves and leaves anyone.
His mixture of boldness and sensitivity is what made Genji so irresistible to Japanese readers, who granted him pardon for his exploits because he performed them so thoughtfully and expressed his passion so well. Modern readers might think twice about the main love relationship of the novel, between Genji and Murasaki. He meets her when she is just ten years old and falls in love with her, basically kidnapping her to be raised in his household until she is old enough to marry. A man marrying a much younger woman was a common motif in all world literature until the late nineteenth century, and should not be seen as perverted or tragic in the context of this novel.
The Tale of Genji was written by a Japanese woman in the eleventh century CE; that means it was written in phonetic Japanese. Why? Because at that time, important writing was the realm of men, who were supposed to write in Chinese. Women were not supposed to learn Chinese, let alone write in it; the genre of "serious" writing was poetry, so Murasaki would have written her novel in Japanese. Just as Journey to the West was considered low-brow hack writing in sixteenth century China, so too prose romances were thought of as entertainment rather than serious art, fit only for women to write or read or listen to. Murasaki, however, went far beyond the conventions of the romances of her day, infusing her tale with a new poetic depth and seriousness, and giving her characters unprecedented life and complexity.
The poems in the novel are prime examples of indirect speech; in a poem, you could bare the soul in oblique patterns of imagery and allusion, conveying to an astute reader exactly what you were thinking and feeling and wanting to do. There are 795 poems in the novel, and they were a chance for the author as well as her characters to shine and show their breeding, education, and good taste. The Akashi Lady is the best poet in the novel; it is fitting that her daughter by Genji will become Empress.