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Found: Long-Lost Chapter of the ‘Tale of Genji,’ an Early Japanese Novel

The original 11th-century manuscript does not survive, but experts say they have identified part of the earliest-known version of the story

An illustration of Chapter. 20 – 朝顔 Asagao ("The Bluebell"), by Tosa Mitsuoki (1617–1691) (Public Domain)
smithsonian.com

At the turn of the 11th century, a Japanese woman known as Murasaki Shikibu penned what is often deemed the world’s first novel: a 54-chapter sojourn through the romantic and political exploits of a prince named Genji. The original manuscript of the Tale of Genji does not survive beyond a few fragments of text—but experts say they have identified a lost chapter from the oldest known version of the story.

As Alison Flood reports for the Guardian, this rendition of the text was compiled in the 13th century by the poet Fujiwara no Teika. Four chapters had previously been confirmed to be Teika’s transcriptions, and a fifth was recently unearthed in the home of one Motofuyu Okochi, a 72-year-old descendant of the Mikawa-Yoshida feudal domain, according to the Asahi Shimbun. Records show that the manuscript has been in the family’s possession since 1743; more recently, it was kept in a large chest in a storeroom.

Experts at Reizeike Shiguretei Bunko, a cultural heritage foundation, say that the manuscript is Teika’s, based at least in part on the handwriting and cover of the text, which match other manuscripts by the poet. The newly found chapter chronicles a crucial part of the novel, when an 18-year-old Genji meets his future wife, Murasaki, who shares her name with the book’s author.

The real woman behind The Tale of Genji remains largely enigmatic; Murasaki was a pseudonym, as Ian Burma of the New Yorker explains in detail. She belonged to the Fujiwara family, which wielded considerable influence during Japan’s Heian period, but Murasaki was born into one of the clan’s minor branches. She was married to an older man, and may have started working on her novel after he died.

“A sense of being on the fringes of society, as has been the case with so many writers since, sharpened her observations.” Burma writes. “Murasaki watched the sexual maneuverings, the social plots, the marital politics, the swirl of slights and flatteries that went on around her, with the keen, sometimes sardonic, and always worldly eyes of a medieval Jane Austen.”

The Tale of Genji’s plotlines are tangled, often provocative: Genji, for instance, has an affair with his father’s mistress, and his son later grows up to covet one of his wives. It was a prose work written in Japanese, at a time when Chinese was the scholarly language of Japan’s courtly classes—and typically the purview of men—and poetry was considered the greater literary form. But according to Encyclopedia Britannica, Murasaki’s work set itself apart “in being informed by a comprehensive knowledge of Chinese and Japanese poetry and in being a graceful work of imaginative fiction.” It features around 800 waka, or courtly poems, ascribed to the central character.

The book is long—a recent translation comprised more than 1,300 pages, Burma reports—and whether Murasaki wrote all of it is a matter of scholarly debate. But Junko Yamamoto, a professor at the Kyoto University of Advanced Science who specializes in literature of the Heian Period, tells the Asahi Shimbun that the discovery of the fifth Teika chapter is exciting because experts typically work off versions of the story that are 250 years older than the poet’s transcriptions. The long-lost chapter, in other words, may bring scholars one step closer to the mysterious Murasaki.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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