Can I remain indifferent to those birds on the water?

Dear Murasaki-san,

I guess you could never have imagined that your diary, like a cryptic letter left inside a bottle, would travel space and time and end up, centuries later, in the hands of a common reader like me. Not exactly the diary you wrote, but pieces of it, reorganised and filtered into a language it was certainly not meant to be read in. The meaning of a diary itself as I understand it doesn’t match the core of your book – and, if you asked me why, I would have to explain to you a concept you could not have grasped at your time: our modern idea of intimacy.

Well, I  may seem equally alien to you, I suppose. And you have the slight disadvantage of not having introductory notes and helpful appendices about me, as I had in the Penguin Classics edition of your diary. Those notes were very helpful to the understanding of your background, as well as the language, clothing styles and politics of the period in which you wrote your book.

murasaki shikibu

If my sources are not mistaken, you lived in Kyoto, then called Heian-kyo, the Imperial capital of Japan at the time, during the Heian period (794-1192). The country was governed mainly by the aristocracy formed of Fujiwara families, and the emperor played a symbolic role as head of the court. You were the daughter of a middle-ranking aristocrat, Tametoki Fujiwara, who was a scholar of the Chinese classics.

At that time, Emperor Ichijo liked literature and enjoyed taking part in cultural salons attended by  cultivated court ladies. Michinaga Fujiwara, then a powerful politician, had a daughter, Shoshi, who became a consort of the emperor. In order to encourage the emperor to visit his daughter Shoshi, Michinaga was looking for a cultivated woman who could be Shoshi’s writing tutor in her salon. When he heard about you, a well-known connaisseur of the Chinese classics whose husband had just died, he decided to scout you as a court lady.

So you began writing your diary after you entered service at Shōshi’s court. The book then covers events in 1008-1010, albeit in a brief and fragmented way: it is a collection of vignettes, poems, letters, and detailed descriptions, interspersed with personal observations and self-analysis. The book covers your relationships with the other members of the court, the birth of Shōshi’s sons, and the process of writing The Tale of Genji. 

The first half of the diary is devoted to describing the birth of Shōshi’s son. Written in a detached and solemn voice, this section comprises the many rituals and ceremonial events following the birth, as well as the visual depiction of clothing, room interiors and the positioning of the participants during the ceremony. While somewhat tedious in its detail, this section of the book holds undeniable historical value, and denotes the diary’s main purpose: your duty to honor your patrons. In fact, the birth of Shōshi’s son was of utmost importance to the Fujiwara family, and deserves its prominence in the book: if she bore the emperor a son, Shoshi would make possible for her father, Michinaga Fujiwara, to increase his power and, as grandfather of a future emperor, to control the court politics.

The book’s second section, on the other hand, assumes a different tone: it reads like a letter and is a more personal account of the court’s life, delving slightly into more private matters. It comprises remarks about the Empress and her immediate circle, your opinions on your contemporaries  – for example, that Sei Shonagon was “dreadfully conceited”; or that Izumi Shikibu had an “unsavory side to her character” – , as well as brief references to The Tale of Genji.

While, during the tenth century, women living elsewhere were generally illiterate, you belong to an era of highly cultivated Japanese female writers, who contributed to established the Japanese language. At the time, Chinese was the language of the educated men and the public affairs. Women like you, on the other hand, began to use the Japanese, their spoken language, in order to express  more personal matters. Those diaries, written in phonetic script, helped to define the native Japanese prose.

Sei Shōnagon, who wrote The Pillow Book, was another famous lady-in-waiting of Heian Period. About a decade older than you, Shonagon served Empress Teishi, and retired from service in 1000, after the Empress’ death. You, on the other hand, served as Empress Shoshi’s lady-in-waiting, from 1005 onwards. Both Shōnagon’s Pillow book and your Diary depict the courtly life at the time, but do so under different perspectives. While Sei Shōnagon included some gossip in her entries, you assume a more refrained attitude and a studious tone; while Shōnagon throws herself gladly into the affairs of her time, you seem to dislike court life; while Shōnagon indulges in poetic lists, you plunge into self-analysis; while Shōnagon depicts herself at the center of the events, you, observant but detached, seem to more quietly watch them from the fringe.

Especially in the second half of the diary, we are caught in a stream of melancholy that runs through your observations on yourself. As if you were both foreshadowing your own eminent decay, and, at the same time, praising the dignity of this decay. This was the main strenght of your writing for me: your ability to convey an uncomfortable feeling that is not quite mono no aware – the bittersweet feeling that accompanies change – nor wabi-sabi – the beauty of imperfection – but something inapprehensible that lies in between.

Yours truly,



Yoshitoshi. Murasaki. 1875
Yoshitoshi. Murasaki. 1875

“It is very easy to criticise others but far more difficult to put one’s own principles into practice, and it is when one forgets this truth, lauds oneself to the skies, treats everyone else as worthless and generally despises others that one’s own character is clearly revealed.”
― Murasaki Shikibu, The Diary of Lady Murasaki

“As day dawned, I looked outside and saw the ducks playing about on the lake as if they had not a care in the world.

Can I remain indifferent to those birds on the water?
I too am floating in a sad uncertain world.

They too looked as though they were enjoying life but must suffer greatly, I thought”

― Murasaki Shikibu, The Diary of Lady Murasaki

“It is so rare to find someone of true understanding; for the most part they judge purely by their own standards and ignore everyone else. So all they see of me is a façade. There are times when I am forced to sit with them and on such occasions I simply ignore their petty criticisms, not because I am particularly shy but because I consider it pointless. As a result, they now look down upon me as a dullard.”

― Murasaki Shikibu, The Diary of Lady Murasaki

“Well, we never expected this!” they all say. “No one liked her. They all said she was pretentious, awkward, difficult to approach, prickly, too fond of her tales, haughty, prone to versifying, disdainful, cantankerous, and scornful. But when you meet her, she is strangely meek, a completely different person altogether!”

How embarrassing! Do they really look upon me as a dull thing, I wonder? But I am what I am.”

― Murasaki Shikibu, The Diary of Lady Murasaki

About the book

  • Penguin Classics, 2005, tr. Richard Bowring, 144 p.
  • Original title: 紫式部日記 –Murasaki Shikibu Nikki
  • Publication date: 1008-1010
  • Goodreads
  • My rating: 4 stars

5 thoughts on “Can I remain indifferent to those birds on the water?

  1. All I knew of Murasaki was that she wrote The Tale of Genji. Her diary was never on my radar. I’ve always wanted to read Shonagon’s The Pillow Book and your little comparison between her and Murasaki makes me want to read Shonagon even more. She seems like a feisty lady who will be more fun to read. And yet, Murasaki’s personality seems more in tune with mine. And goodness, that quote about “birds on the water” really hit me. Now I want to read both The Pillow Book and Murasaki’s Diary. I blame you entirely for this…

    I said it before and I’ll say it again: your review are thorough, knowledgeable, and informative.


    1. For me, the personalities of Murasaki and Shonagon were somehow complementary – and so were their diaries. Personally, I find Shonagon’s poetic lists a more enjoyable read. But Murasaki’s reflections in the second part of her book surprised me a lot. 🙂


    1. Unfortunately, much of the diary was lost. But what has been preserved, especially in the second part, is quite interesting. I think you might enjoy it! 🙂


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