World’s oldest novel celebrates 1,000th birthday

One thousand years ago this year, a Japanese court lady put the finishing touches on what would become the world’s oldest novel. Spanning 75 years, more than 350 characters and brimming with romantic poems, “The Tale of Genji” tells the story of an emperor’s son, his quest for love and the many women he meets along the way.

On April 18, Washington University will celebrate the novel’s 1,000th birthday with two afternoon events in the Women’s Building Formal Lounge — a roundtable discussion at 1 p.m. and the annual Stanley Spector Memorial Lecture at 4 p.m.

If the mark of a great novel is its ability to stand the “test of time” — to remain captivating to readers from generation to generation — then “The Tale of Genji” more than meets this criteria, said Rebecca Copeland, Ph.D., professor of Japanese language and literature and co-organizer of the Genji celebration.

Now a central pillar of the Japanese literary canon, the book has inspired writers and artists working in every conceivable genre and medium and has been translated into more than 30 languages.

“One thing that I find remarkable about this event is that the work that we are celebrating was written by a Japanese women,” Copeland said.

“Not only is the work the oldest novel in the world (if we stretch our concept of ‘novel’) but it was written by a woman from a society that most Westerners consider chauvinistic,” Copeland said.

The roundtable brings together noted Genji scholars to discuss how this important literary work has survived the centuries, thriving well beyond Japan’s borders through a variety of adaptations that encompass medieval reworkings, early modern parodies, modern translations and even contemporary comic books.

Leading the discussion will be Jamie Newhard, Ph.D., assistant professor of Japanese in Arts & Sciences, with commentary by Haruo Shirane, Ph.D., the Shincho Professor of Japanese Literature at Columbia University.

Other participants include professors Charo d’Etcheverry Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Michael Emmerich, Ph.D., of Princeton University and Lynne Miyake, Ph.D., of Pomona College.

Shirane also presents the Stanley Spector Memorial Lecture: “Envisioning The Tale of Genji: Canonization, Popularization, and Visual Culture.” His talk reexamines the book’s influence on a broad swath of Japanese culture as both a pinnacle of high culture and as a phenomenon of popular culture, including appearances in paintings, illustrated books, ukiyo-e, theater, film, manga and other visual media.

Free and open to the public, the events are co-sponsored by the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures, the programs of East Asian studies and international and area studies, and the College of Arts & Sciences.

For more information, contact the East Asian studies department at 935-4448.