A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

The Shrub with the Clusters of Lustrous Purple Berries and the Grand, Literary Name- MURASAKI SHIKIKBU (ムラサキシキブ)


A Murasaki Shikibu Bush (actually a variety called KOMURASAKI) at the Fumon-Ji Temple in Tsukuba

Being  popular ornamental shrubs, they can be commonly found throughout Japan  in the gardens of private homes,in parks, or within the precincts of Buddhist temples. You can also find them growing wild in the woods, both on the plains and on the mountainsides. Still EACH TIME I catch a glimpse of them here in Tsukuba ( or farther afield) in late autumn or early winter, I am overcome by a slight wave of recognition and joy: like that felt when running into an old friend.

I was at Tsuchiura Station waiting for the bus to Ibaraki University – and right beside the bus-stop was this big KOMURASKI bush (October 2020) growing wild out of an abandoned building.

This is not  because of the shiny purple fruit these bushes bear, which remind me  of miniaturized versions of the GUMBALLS I used to enjoy (and covet) so much as a kid. It is because these plants with their distinctive berries are NAMED AFTER A PERSON – a novelist, in fact. And not just any scribbler- but a giant of world literature-  whose name ( though her real name in fact is unknown!*) evokes a world of sublime elegance and beauty, and whose writings expressed  a profound and terrible sense of longing . It is a name especially dear to anyone interested in Japanese culture- it is that by which the composer of the GENJI MONOGATARI ( Tales of Genji)** is known.

A closer look (at Tsuchiura Station)

So each time I spot one of these easily recognizable shrubs ( when they are bearing their fruit) I can’t help but call out a happy greeting to what feels like an old friend- MURASAKI SHIKIBU ( Lady Murasaki) !

I mean, how many plants do you know that are named after one of your favorite writers?!

A closer look at the KOMURASAKI`s berries (at the Fumon-Ji Temple)

Just how long these berry-bearing bushes have been called murasaki shikibu is not known for sure. Apparently, they were once known as murasaki shikimi, which means clusters of purple ( murasaki means purple), but for some reason, probably because of the similarity in sound ( murasaki shikimi- Murasaki Shikibu),they came to be called by their present name.

Murasaki Shikibu Flowers in summer

You might think that this story of the murasaki shikibu plants is going to make for a SIMPLE Tsukublog article, for a change. Well, think again. Just like so much of everything else in Japan, things can get confusing.

The problem is that the plant which can be found so commonly throughout Japan and which everyone, including me, calls muraski shikibu ( in English: Japanese beautyberry, scientific name :Callicarpa japonica) is in fact ANOTHER plant- which should correctly be called KOMURASAKI (コムラサキ), in Japanese and Purple beautyberry or Early amethyst in English ( scientific name: Callicarpa dichotoma)!

The fruit of a true murasaki shikibu plant (Callicarpa japonica), in Tsukuba

How can you tell the difference? Its easy. Even for the complete layman (like me). The murasaki shikibu`s berries hang out on the ends of long stems in open clusters numbering only a handful of fruit. The komurasaki`s berries form dense clusters which appear to weigh down the branches. There are several other physiological differences in leaf shape, flower, bark, etc., as well.

So now you can tell the difference, But, for some reason, it doesn’t really seem to matter. Here is what I mean:

Callicarpa japonica (murasaki shikibu) in Tsukuba

Callicarpa dichotoma ( komurasaki) seems to be much more abundant than  callicarpa japonica, in gardens, parks and temples.  Still, BOTH plants ( though completely different species!), are referred to as MURASAKI SHIKIBU. What can I say? It must be the irresistible attraction of the name.

So keep an eye out for these bushes- either of them! Hopefully you will spot some before the birds have finished off their fruit ( though birds seem to love them they are not edible for humans).

When you do, stop for a while and let them carry you away in your imagination to the world of MIYABI. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miyabi)

And don`t forget to say hello to my old friend- Lady Murasaki!

Komurasaki growing in Konda, Tsukuba

* Murasaki Shikibu is a pen-name. Shikibu (式部) was her father’s position at the Imperial Court and Murasaki is one of the characters in her great work, The Tale of Genji. As with the other women writers of the Heian Period, we do not know her real name! Her father, Fujiwara no Michinaga, however, left a diary the MIDO-KANPAKU KI. One theory is that the Fujiwara Takako (藤原香子) who is mentioned in it, is in fact, Lady Murasaki.

** I have translated a book, “KANGITEN – Tracing the Roots of Japan`s Embracing, Dual-Bodied, Elephant-Headed Deity of Conjugal Bliss” – in which the author (Junichi Saga) puts forth a fascinating idea (among many others!) – that the Tale of Genji, with its multi-amorous hero, is a Japanese (and very toned down) version of the Kama Sutra!

One Comment

  • Mamoru Shimizu says:

    1.Yes, in my neibough’s garden Murasaki-shikibu beautifully fruited, we enjoyed.
    2.Shikimi: ① Came from the name of another plant Shikimi(have poisonous fruits, looks like star-anise with resembling order)
    ② from the old verb SHIKIMU (meaning lie upon one another)
    3.Murasaki: Violet? Purple?
    It is very interesting Violet or Purple color was the most highly-ranked in Roman Empire also Ancient China and Japan, somehow because of difficulty to be getting resources for dyeing cloth violet. Romans (ancient Phoenicians technique) used peculiar sea shells and Japanese used root of special plant. Murasaki was special!
    4. So ”Murasaki” of Murasakishikibu and her precious heroin Murasakioue might be special meaning for Japanese even today through DNA? I have heard that it needs special courage for ladies to wear Velvet color clothes now? I would like to know whether it is true.
    Any way some very wise lady had changed from Shikimi to Shikibu! Well done! Nice propaganda.