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Japanese antiquarian books

The British Library’s collection of Japanese books printed before the Meiji period (1868-1912) amounts to 3,800 titles in 10,000 volumes. The earliest items are the Hyakumantō darani ('Million pagoda charms') printed in 764-70 CE. 637 works in our collections were printed before 1700, including rare movable type editions. The collection of illustrated books from the Edo period (1600-1867) is particularly fine.

For information on accessing these collections, see the Japanese catalogues.

Kaempfer collection

Among the first Japanese books seen in Europe were those brought back in 1693 by Engelbert Kaempfer. Kaempfer is best known for his History of Japan which first popularised Japan in the West. He collected the items in question between 1690 and 1692, while serving as the medical officer with the Dutch East India Company at Deshima, the artificial island built in Nagasaki by the Tokugawa shogunate to serve as a Dutch entrepôt for restricted trading. Sixty books and maps were listed as having been bought by Sir Hans Sloane, the founder of the British Museum, after Kaempfer's death in 1716, but so far only forty-five  have been identified. 

The printed items acquired from Kaempfer are not remarkable in themselves, being maps, travel guides, encyclopaedias, dictionaries, samurai directories, historical novels, poetry and plays. However, they are extremely rare today. In the majority of cases, either no copy survives in Japan itself, or those that do are in a poor state of preservation. 

That they were much used by Kaempfer for both study and recreation is clear from the numerous notes in his handwriting which they contain. It is in their rarity and impeccable provenance, as well as their connections with Kaempfer's own scholarship, that their research value lies today.

Siebold collection

In 1866, the purchase of the Siebold collection added 1,088 titles to the then British Museum Library's Japanese collection. This instantly elevated the collection from a repository for Japanese 'curiosities' to a sound academic resource. Whilst the subject coverage of Siebold's library is remarkably comprehensive, its special strengths lie in the areas of history, politics, geography, manners and customs and natural history.

Satow collection

The most celebrated part of the Japanese collections, however, is to be found in the rare specimens of early printing acquired from Sir Ernest Satow. His astonishing career as a book collector was favoured by two external factors: a close friendship with some discerning Japanese book dealers and bibliophiles, and the historic opportunities created by the Meiji Restoration. 

Satow's first term of service in Japan (1862-87) coincided with an era of turbulence during which traditional Japanese art treasures cascaded onto the market as western ways were adopted across the country. The rare editions he thereby amassed were to become the raw material for his pioneering study of the complex history of Japanese printing.

The works in question represent every phase of evolution in this field: from the Buddhist monopoly in woodblock printing from the 12th to 16th centuries, through the secularisation of production with the aid of movable type between the 1590s and 1640s, to the beginning of commercial publishing in the 17th century.

Movable type printing

Movable type printing was introduced into Japan around 1590 by two quite separate groups: Jesuit missionaries in Kyushu and Japanese soldiers returning from the expeditions to Korea. So significant in the history of Japanese book culture are movable type editions, even though this phase only lasted half a century, that the number held is a yardstick by which the quality of antiquarian libraries is measured. The British Library has over seventy examples in the Satow collection alone.

The oldest Japanese books

Since Satow's time, the Japanese antiquarian collection has been further augmented by the acquisition of various items of major significance. Foremost among them is a unique set of eight Hyakumantō darani (‘Million pagoda charms’) printed between 764 and 700 CE on the orders of Empress Shōtoku (718-770). They constitute the earliest printed documents with authenticated dates to have survived to the present day anywhere in the world.

The oldest Japanese printed book in the possession of the British Library was acquired in 1971. Entitled Jōyuishikiron jukki, it is a Buddhist commentary printed c.1170-80. The pre-1700 imprints were the subject of a detailed descriptive catalogue compiled by K. B. Gardner.

Illustrated books

Early books illustrated with black and white woodcuts are well represented in the Kaempfer, Siebold and Satow collections. Indeed from the mid-17th century onwards, virtually every new work contained woodblock illustrations. However, it was William Anderson who provided the impetus for a comprehensive collection of illustrated albums and books printed from multi-coloured blocks.

Our holdings now range from the 17th century prototypes to the refined Ukiyo-e, Nanga, Maruyama and Shijō schools of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Library's extensive collection of kyōkabon, anthologies of humorous poetry, contain works by many of the greatest Ukiyo-e artists, notably Hokusai and Utamaro.

For information on accessing these collections, see the Japanese catalogues.

Contact

Hamish Todd, Lead Curator, Japanese and Korean
Asian and African Studies
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7662
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7641

E-mail: hamish.todd@bl.uk

Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator, Japanese Section
Asian and African Studies
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7652
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7641

E-mail: yasuyo.ohtsuka@bl.uk