Scholars Declare A Lost Chapter of the World’s First Novel to Be Authentic

by Shirley Williams
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“The Tale of Genji” is a classic of Japanese literature that was written in the early 11th century by the noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu, who lived sometime between 973 and 1031 during the Heian period. The story is known as the world’s first novel.

The original manuscript was lost centuries ago. The poet and scholar Fujiwara no Teika (1162 – 1241) compiled the novel in a text that contained 54 chapters and was were published under the name Ao-byoshi-bon, which translates as “Blue Book Cover Version.” Unfortunately, scholars have found only four of the chapters – until very recently.

A new chapter of “Blue Book Cover Version” was recently found in an oblong chest in a storage room of the home of Motofuyu Okochi, a 72-year-old descendant of nobles. Okochi’s ancestors hailed from Toyohashi in Aichi Prefecture, which was then called the Mikawa-Yoshida feudal domain.

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According to the Okochi family records, another family gave them the manuscript back in 1743. Okochi asked a cultural foundation called Reizeike Shiguretei Bunko to examine the manuscript to determine its authenticity. In October, the foundation announced that the manuscript was indeed authentic.

While the foundation did note some differences in grammar between the newly-found text and the other Teika manuscripts, they found compelling evidence for its authenticity. For example, the handwriting is a perfect match for that in the other texts. The manuscript also has the same blue cover as the others.

The newly found chapter is called “Wakamurasaki” and describes the meeting of the titular Genji and Muraski-no-ue, who becomes both his wife and a major character.

The other four chapters are the following: “Sawarabi,” “Kashiwagi,” “Miyuki,” and “Hanachirusato.” All of them are also registered as an official cultural property of Japan. Since its authentication, “Wakamurasaki” will also probably be registered as such.

Junko Yamamoto, a professor at the Kyoto University of Advanced Science and expert on Heian literature, commented: “It is very significant that this discovery of the manuscript edited by Teika will be available for researchers.”

“The Tale of Genji,” or Genji Monogatari, recounts the life of an 18-year-old prince named Hikaru Genji who tries to juggle his personal life with the politics of the royal court. The story provides readers with a rare, albeit fictitious look, at the Japanese royal court and its sexual politics during that time. “The Tale of Genji” is also famous for its elegant writing style.

Melissa McCormick, a professor at Harvard who specializes in Japanese culture and art, called the novel “a monumental work of literature.” She noted that, ironically, Murasaki had written a type of literature that was generally dismissed. “Fiction was at the lower rung of the scales of the genre hierarchies… but she produced such an incredible tour de force of literature that it had to be taken seriously.”

“The Tale of Genji” has been translated into English several times. Daniel Washburn produced the most recent translation, which was published in 2015 and was over 1300 pages long.

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