Tokyo, Japan

First volume of new contemporary edition of the world’s oldest novel, ‘The Tale of Genji’, by Mitsuyo Kakuta launched to critical acclaim

New modern edition of The Tale of Genji by Mitsuyo Kakuta, published 11 September 2017, on sale in major Japanese bookstore in Tokyo. Photograph: Red Circle Authors Limited.
The first volume of a three volume new edition of The Tale of Genji, often-described as the world’s first novel, adapted and translated into a modern Japanese by the Red Circle author Mitsuyo Kakuta, was published in September.  

The Tale of Genji
, written in the eleventh-century by the Japanese noble-woman Murasaki Shikibu (978-1014), is already an international publishing sensation, with translations, spin-offs and adaptations for manga, anime, film and theatre and the first volume of Kakuta’s new edition is having a similar impact in Japan.  

Kakuta is following in a long tradition of Japan’s leading author from each generation updating and publishing a new version of the seductive novel about the life of “Shinning Genji” set in Japan’s Heian Period (794-1185). A very peaceful period in Japanese history often referred to as the “first golden age of female writers”.  

This multi-generational trend has helped keep the rather long and esoteric tale, which in its original version consists of 54 scrolls or chapters; around a million words; about 430 different characters; 800 poems; as well as 8 or so love interests, fresh, and relevant to contemporary readers.  

According to the Japan expert and Editor of The New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma, The Tale of Genji, which is replete with rather promiscuous characters, is a novel all “about the art of seduction.”  The first 692-page volume of the new edition, cleverly re-crafted by Kakuta, is already seducing a new generation of readers in Japan.  

“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. Her Buddhist view of life’s fleeting nature and the vanity of human affairs added a dash of melancholy to her ornate aristocratic prose,” Buruma writes in a review, of an English language translation by Dennis Washburn published in 2015, for The New Yorker.  

What counts in the seduction scenes in the original version is art, poetry, calligraphy and style. Unsurprisingly, it took Kakuta considerable time to decide on the right style and rhythm required to make the novel readable, accessible and compelling for today’s readers.

Her careful and considered approach appears to have worked wonders. Japanese readers are posting comments on social media about how amazingly easy it is to read her version and how her first volume reads like an original Kakuta novel set over thousand years ago in Japan’s Heian Period.  

Despite some of Japan’s most highly regarded writers publishing versions for previous generations of readers, Kakuta, who says she didn’t have any special feeling or connection with The Tale of Genji when she embarked on this project, didn’t feel any particular pressure.

The first modern translation edition of The Tale of Genji is said to have been published by the feminist poet and author Akiko Yosano (1878-1942). Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) and Jakucho Setouchi are two other examples of leading authors who adapted and published editions, each reflecting their particular literary style and the times they lived in.  

Kakuta’s version is published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha, one of Japan’s leading publishers founded in 1886 who publish the quarterly journal Bungei, behind the Bungei Prize that has launched the careers of many of Japan’s authors including Amy Yamada (Bedtime Eyes), Akira Kuroda (Made In Japan) and Risa Wataya (Install). The second and third volume of the tale will be published in the spring and winter of 2018.  

Kakuta, a very prolific author who is still not well known outside Japan but often referred to in Japan as one of Japan’s best and most widely read writers, has had to put all other major writing projects on hold since 2015 to focus on this new three volume edition of The Tale of Genji.  

The publication is a part of a special project, an Anthology of Japanese Literature, supervised by Natsuki Ikezawa, one of Japan most prominent literary figures.  

More information in Japanese on Mitsuyo Kakuta’s Tale of Genji is available here.
  • RedCircle
    About Red Circle:
    Red Circle Authors Limited is a specialist publishing and communications company that conducts bespoke projects on behalf of a carefully selected and curated group of leading Japanese authors. Red Circle showcases Japan’s best creative writing. For more information on Red Circle, Japanese literature, and Red Circle authors please visit:
    • Mitsuyo Kakuta
      About Mitsuyo Kakuta:
      Mitsuyo Kakuta is a skillful and prolific author whose works instantly captivate. Her bestselling novel The Eighth Day became one of Japan’s best-known television series that no one dared miss. Her first novel Kofuku na yugi (A Blissful Pastime) written while she was still a student at university in Tokyo won the Kaien Prize for New Writers. She has gone on to win numerous Japanese literary awards and is now one of Japan’s best-known contemporary authors.