Hand-written by a master calligrapher, the manuscript is approximately 800 years old.

The Tale of Genji is often referred to as the world’s oldest novel. Predating the modern publishing industry, it’s impossible to say exactly when it was completed, but scholars say the tale of courtly drama and intrigue was in circulation by the year 1021, and its author, Murasaki Shikibu (pictured above), is thought to have passed away by 1031 at the latest.

But while The Tale of Genji is one of the most important and studied pieces of literature ever created, Murasaki’s original manuscript no longer exists, having been lost or, more likely, destroyed through the ravages of time. Because of that, modern publishings of the book take their text from hand-made copies, and researchers have just found the oldest version ever discovered.

▼ The newly discovered, very old manuscript of The Tale of Genji

While the newly discovered manuscript wasn’t written by Murasaki’s own hand, it does still have an impressive pedigree, as it was written by another titan of Japanese literature, Fujiwara no Sadie, also known as Fujiwara no Teika. Fujiwara, who lived from 1162 to 1241, was an important poet and author of the Kamakura period, and also an accomplished calligrapher, which explains the striking and graceful brushstroke characters in the manuscript.

▼ Researchers say that the indigo ink used in the manuscript was, during Fujiwara’s era, exclusively used by members of upper-class Japanese society.

Based on the years of Fujiwara’s life, the manuscript is approximately 800 years old. 132 pages in length, it corresponds to “Wakamurasaki,” the fifth of The Tale of Genji’s 54 chapters. The Fujiwara-transcribed “Wakamurasaki” is thought to be roughly 250-300 years older than the previous oldest surviving manuscript of the chapter, and also older than the four other Fujiwara-transcribe Genji manuscripts which had already been found.

▼ The Fujiwara “Wakamurasaki” was in the possession of 72-year-old Tokyo resident Motofuyu Okouchi, a descendent of the Okouchi samurai clan that used to rule Mikawa Yoshida fief (the area around present-day Toyohashi City in Aichi Prefecture).

As the oldest surviving manuscript, researchers believe Fujiwara’s may also be the most faithful to Murasaki’s original text, and could lead to new analyses and evaluations of the tale, and by extension revisions to Japanese textbooks, as it remains a staple of classical literature courses.

While the discovery itself is good news for classical culture enthusiasts, Kyoto University of Advanced Science professor and Genji scholar Junko Yamamoto also pointed out an especially heartwarming coincidence. In the “Wakamurasaki” chapter, the father of a character named Murasaki, who has been missing, is informed of his daughter’s whereabouts, just like Fujiwara’s “Wakamurasaki” has also once again been found.

Sources: NHK News Web via Jin, Yomiuri Shimbun, Kyodo
Top image: Wikipedia/Curly Turkey
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