A missing part of the first novel imported from Japan found in Osaka

KYOTO–The last half of what is considered the first novel imported from Japan has been exhibited here for the first time.

The previously missing part of the fantasy story titled “You Xian Ku” (A Visit to the Hermit’s Cave), which originated in Tang Dynasty (618-907) China, was found at Kongoji Temple in Kawachi -Nagano, Osaka Prefecture.

The confirmed piece is the oldest among existing copies of the book, and its last part was spotted nearly a century after a fragment of the novel was originally identified.

The novel, written by Zhang Wencheng (c. 660-c. 740), is said to have been transported to Japan during the Nara period (710-784).

The story centers on the protagonist wandering into the cave of a supernatural being, after which he is warmly welcomed by the fairy. They spend a night reaching out to each other through poetic exchanges.

The title is marked by its elegant writing style as well as witty conversations and poetry.

Tomofusa Uesugi, a researcher at the Kyoto National Museum in the Higashiyama district of the former capital, who recently discovered the lost half, explained what the novel meant to people at the time.

“It was like a final overseas TV drama for people today,” Uesugi said. “The book was famous for its fine text and had an impact on the poetry anthology ‘Manyoshu’ (Ten Thousand Leaves) and ‘Genji Monogatari’ (The Tale of Genji). It has long been popular among readers in Japan.

Although copies of the story have been scattered and lost in China, more than one early reproduction exists in Japan.

In 1918, historian Katsumi Kuroita (1874-1946) reported that a copy was kept in Kongoji.

Half-folded glued sheets of paper originally constituting a book were found separately at the time. The efforts of many researchers subsequently resulted in the gradual discovery of a succession of pieces.

The postscript that appeared in 1986 specifies that the kana script was added in 1321, which means that it is the oldest existing reproduction.

The copied work was designated by the government as Important Cultural Property in 2014, although only 16 of its 40 pages were identified at that time.

In June 2017, 99 years after the first report of the reproduction, 22 pages of its second half were found during the museum’s investigation of the Maniin Hall of Kongoji.

The remaining two pages have not yet been found, but 38 have already been restored to their original state, so almost all of the contents of the book can be read.

“‘You Xian Ku’ was initially discovered in the main hall, but the latest find was from one of the boxes in the Maniin (small hall on the Kongoji grounds),” Uesugi said. “We didn’t expect to make such an extraordinary discovery, but we quickly realized that they were associated with ‘You Xian Ku’, because the names of the characters were written on them.”

Perhaps even more surprising was that the purpose of studying the museum’s Maniin room was simply to tick off the boxes one by one to see what was inside. Museum staff had never expected to find a missing text of “You Xian Ku”.

“This latest achievement is the result of continued research by many scholars and Kongoji’s decision to open its doors to researchers for many years,” Uesugi said.

As one of those scholars, Uesugi said he has been studying Kongoji since he was a graduate student more than two decades ago.

The book, now nearly restored to its former glory, is currently on display at the Kyoto National Museum to coincide with its special “Kanshinji and Kongoji” exhibition, its first such occasion, 700 years after the written copy was produced.

The event will continue until September 11.

Irene B. Bowles