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Eating Murasaki Shikibu

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Scriptworlds, Reverse-Importation, and The Tale of Genji

The fifth-century transmission of China’s sophisticated writing system to Japan prompted a cascade of textual and literary developments on the archipelago. Retrofit to support Japanese phonetics and syntax, a hybrid script and literature evolved; from this negotiation of texts emerged Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji in eleventh century Kyoto. While Genji is celebrated today as Japan’s enduring national classic, it fell out of print for much of two centuries preceding its first translation into Victorian era English. This paper examines how interregional exchanges of translations and scripts have amplified the critical and popular success of Genji. It will be argued that English translations of Genji helped to provide a stylistic and typographic model for reintroducing the text to modern Japanese readers as a mass-market novel. In theorizing about such matters, the Japanese concept of reverse-importation will be introduced and intercultural transferences are contextualized within Oswald de Andrade’s notion of cultural cannibalism.

Affiliations: 1: University of Birmingham, UK and Temple University, Japan Campus


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