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Japanese language collections: History

The first Japanese material in the British Library collections was acquired by Sir Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum, and was enhanced by the acquisition in the 19th century of three major collections, those of Philipp Franz von Siebold, Sir Ernest Satow and William Anderson.

Courtesan reading a picture book

Courtesan reading a picture book. One of the 167 girls depicted in Ehon seirô bijin awase, 'Picture-book comparing the Beauties of the Green Houses' by Suzuki Harunobu. Five vols. (Edo, 1770). Or. 75.g.34. Copyright © The British Library Board

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The history of the Japanese collections begins in 1723-5, when Sir Hans Sloane purchased 45 Japanese works which had been collected by Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716), a German physician and traveller who had stayed in Japan from 1690 to 1692. These passed into the foundation collections of the British Museum in 1753.

With the acquisition of the books amassed by Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866) during his sojourns in Japan (1823-9 and 1859-62) came the first collection able to yield significant information on virtually every aspect of Japan. It comprises 1,088 titles in 3,441 volumes, and was purchased in 1868 from Siebold's son, Alexander. 

The collections were further augmented by 325 important examples of early Japanese printing, comprising 1,578 volumes, acquired in 1884 and 1885 from the British diplomat and bibliographer Sir Ernest Satow (1843-1928), and by a fine collection (c. 2,000 volumes) of illustrated woodcut books acquired in 1882, 1894 and 1900 from William Anderson (1842-1900), a British surgeon and early devotee of Japanese art. 

However, many Japanese books, primarily of pictorial, as opposed to textual, interest, were transferred to the Department of Oriental Antiquities of the British Museum in 1915, during the 1930s and finally in 1973, when the British Library and British Museum became separate institutions.

Following the appointment in 1955 of a full-time curator with responsibility for Japanese material in what was then called the Department of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts (later Oriental Collections), the collections began to expand rapidly. As well as modern printed works covering all branches of the humanities and social sciences, many important antiquarian items have been added. An exchange agreement with the National Diet Library in Tokyo has made it possible to build up an outstanding collection of official publications and 'grey' literature.

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