Asian and African studies blog

30 posts categorized "Japan"

06 September 2021

Sisters from the shadows - Lady Akikonomu

This occasional series of blog posts will highlight the work of Japanese women artists, whose achievements have often been overshadowed by their male contemporaries. The previous post looked at the artist Katsushika Ōi, daughter of the celebrated Katsushika Hokusai.  This time we will look at a fictional character who was also an accomplished artist.

Another female artist emerges from history in the form of a talented noblewoman in the Heian period literary classic the Tale of Genji. This story is often described as the oldest novel in the world. The author was Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部), a lady-in- waiting at the court of the Empress Shōshi (藤原彰子) in 11th-century Japan. The hero is Prince Genji and the main story line describes his life and relationships with various court ladies of the time. 

Lady Akikonomu is not as widely known as other famous female characters in the Tale of Genji, such as her mother Lady Rokujō, but she is the only one who paints and draws illustrations in the story.

Lady Rokujō is well known throughout the story for her charisma and beauty, and her tragic love affair with Genji. Her loving devotion does not bring joy to her life, but she manages to keep her dignity supported by her sophisticated intelligence and the outstanding beauty of her calligraphy.

Genji bids an emotional farewell to Lady Rokujō at Nonomiya shrine, as she prepares to set off to Ise with her daughter who has been appointed Grand Custodian of the Great Shrine
Fig. 1. Genji bids an emotional farewell to Lady Rokujō at Nonomiya shrine, as she prepares to set off to Ise with her daughter who has been appointed Grand Custodian of the Great Shrine. Chapter 10 of 'The Tale of the Genji' (Genji monogatari ekotoba源氏物語繪詞,), Manuscript, ca. 1665. British Library, Or.1287, f.11   noc

Her daughter, Lady Akikonomu is a noble but does not have a strong enough supporter to elevate her position in Heian court society when she loses her mother and becomes an orphan. At the Heian court, writing beautifully is a must-have skill. She writes gracefully but lacks the elegance of her mother who  never had any equals in calligraphy. So how does she eventually become the Empress Akikonomu? The secret to her success lies in her own special talent for drawing. 

Genji, who is a distant relative of Akikonomu, takes her under his wing and arranges for her to marry the boy-emperor Reisei. This is partially Genji’s atonement for his sin of destroying Lady Rokujo’s love for him. At the same time Genji expects Akikonomu to protect the boy emperor, who is nine years younger than her, while he still has much to learn before becoming an adult and fulfilling his duty as emperor. In the end, she is educated by her outstandingly intellectual mother, with a superb noble bloodline; in this way she becomes an ideal governess figure to him. 

A scene at the Imperial Court where an intellectual contest was held to compare illustrated stories.
Fig. 2. A scene at the Imperial Court where an intellectual contest was held to compare illustrated stories. Chapter 17 of 'The Tale of the Genji' (Genji monogatari ekotoba源氏物語繪詞), Manuscript, ca. 1665. British Library, Or.1287, f.18   noc

It must have caused Genji some surprise when she caught the attention of this boy-emperor by her skills in drawing. The boy happens to be keen on drawing and he discovers that Akikonomu is so elegant when she produces her illustrations. Initially, he is attracted by her talent and intellectually stimulating conversation. As he spends time with her drawing, he discovers her gentle nature and her beauty. Gradually, a fondness between them matures and eventually he makes her his empress. 

Akikonomu successfully reveals her own identity to overcome the disadvantage of being a daughter of a legendary mother and Genji’s expectations to be an ideal figure to guide a young boy’s upbringing. She is a woman with own talent and grace, enhanced by her creative drawing and painting skills.

In these two blogs, we have looked at two women who were very different; one was a commoner who lived in the city of Edo who refused to meet expectations of a woman’s role, the other was a fictional Kyōto court lady who personified female elegance. The similarity is that both were daughters of highly charismatic people and probably they would never have questioned that the fame of their family members forced them to stay in the shadows. Nevertheless, they managed to move into the light by their own artistic talents and gained a place where they could shine as individuals, no longer just daughters of someone famous.

By Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator of Japanese Studies  ccownwork

05 July 2021

Sisters from the shadows – Katsushika Ōi

This is the first in an occasional series of blog posts which will highlight the work of Japanese women artists, whose achievements have often been overshadowed by their male contemporaries.

What helps us to choose a good story to read? Could it be an advertising strapline?  Or the headline in a book review? Or perhaps a hash-tag on Twitter? Of course, the author’s storyline itself is the core stimulus of our curiosity and feeds our imagination. But what about illustrations? Illustrations are unlikely to be produced by the author of the text but they definitely have an influence in attracting people to take a book from the shelves. 

Traditionally in Japan stories for entertainment were accompanied with illustrations to enhance their appeal to readers, and there is no doubt that they also acted functionally as visual aids for instructional books. In the same way, we tend to add images of illustrated pages to our blog posts to assist our readers who are not always familiar with the topics.

The interplay of text and illustration. Two court ladies looking at an illustrated scroll while a third reads to them. Chapter 50 of 'The Tale of the Genji
Fig.1 The interplay of text and illustration. Two court ladies looking at an illustrated scroll while a third reads to them. Chapter 50 of 'The Tale of the Genji' (源氏物語繪詞, Genji monogatari ekotoba), Manuscript, ca. 1665. British Library, Or.1287, f.62r.  noc

The majority of known Japanese artists are male, as in other areas of the creative arts throughout history, such as playwrights, novelists, travel writers and so on. However, there are a few exceptions where we find women illustrators and artists who seem to emerge from the shadows of history.

This article will focus on Katsushika Ōi or Eijo (葛飾応為 or 栄女),  a talented artist who depicted the ‘The Floating World’ (Ukiyo) of geisha and actors, and who happened to be a woman. However, she is better known as the third daughter of the great Ukiyoe master, Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760-1849), whom she cared for in his workshop in his later years, spending most of her life in close company with him. Hokusai produced a huge quantity of Ukiyoe prints, illustrated books and paintings throughout his artistic life and Ōi is believed to have assisted his creations from her youth by adding figures in his illustrations or colouring his paintings. It was common for artists of that time to establish their own studios, collaborate with their co-workers and produce artworks under the name of famous artists.

‘Sailboats voyaging in the mist’. An illustration by Katsushika Ōi as Eijo
Fig.2. ‘Sailboats voyaging in the mist’. An illustration by Katsushika Ōi as Eijo (栄女). From Kyōka kunizukushi 狂歌国尽 , an athology of Kyōka poetry illustrated by Hokusai and his followers ca 1818. British Museum, [1979,0305,0.411] (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 

Ōi was  rather good at drawing from a very young age. As the daughter of Hokusai, her environment must have given her impetus to develop her skills and career in art.  She married once but found the artist's life far more interesting than that of a doting housewife. In fact, she did not conform to the typical image of feminine virtue that women of her time were expected to live up to within the context of domestic life. She much preferred to dedicate her time and passion to art by assisting her father’s work as well as creating her own paintings and drawings. Although she was not keen on life as an ordinary woman, she depicted attractive female figures in her works with a remarkably high level of skill.

Cover of Eiri nichiyō onna chōhōki  with text Takai Ranzan and illustrations by Katsushika Ōi.
Fig.3 Cover of Eiri nichiyō onna chōhōki  with text Takai Ranzan and illustrations by Katsushika Ōi. 1847. British Library, 16124.d.21  noc

Only two printed books have been attributed to Katsushika Ōi as the sole illustrator.  One of them is Eiri nichiyō onna chōhōki 絵入日用女重宝記, ‘An illustrated handbook on daily life for women’, with text byTakai Ranzan 高井蘭山, published in Kōwa 4 [1847].

Colophon of Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki which records Ōi Eijo
Fig.4. Colophon of Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki which records Ōi Eijo (応為栄女) as the artist. 1847. British Library, 16124.d.21  noc

Illustration by Ōi Eijo from Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki
Fig. 5. Illustration by Ōi Eijo from Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki . Women are depicted in traditional female roles, such as playing the Koto, writing, sewing, spinning, and weaving. British Library 16124.d.21  noc

Many of the details of Ōi’s life, including even her birth and death dates are unclear. The total number of works attributed solely to her, as opposed to collaborative works with her father, is a mere ten.  It is as if she was hidden behind her world-famous artist father.  However, she was certainly recognised as an independent artist during her lifetime and has recently been rediscovered by art historians, allowing her to emerge from her father’s shadow.

 

Reference:

Julie Nelson Davis, Hokusai and Ōi: art runs in the family https://blog.britishmuseum.org/hokusai-and-oi-keeping-it-in-the-family/

 

By Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator of Japanese Studies  ccownwork

16 September 2020

Unsōdō and the evolution of design book publishing in Japan

The Japanese Collection of the British Library includes around 50 Japanese pattern and design books.  Thanks to a grant from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, the Library is digitising many of these and making them available online.  This series of blog posts features some of the items in the collection, the artists who created them and the publishers who produced them.  In this post Teruko Hayamitsu, Curator at the fine art publisher Unsōdō, explains the company’s origins and its significance in the development of Japanese design.

Unsōdō is a Japanese publishing company, specialising in art books, which was founded in Kyoto in 1891 and is still in operation today.  Established in the late Meiji Period (1868-1912) when Japan was rapidly modernising, Unsōdō sought through its publication of art books to educate Japanese society on design in the new age, and to highlight the direction of art publishing and the modernisation of the textile industry.

Unsodo store front

Unsōdō’s premises in Teramachi, Kyoto c. 1929. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

Unsōdō was able to develop against a backdrop of change in Japanese society.  Key contributory factors were the rise of the textile industry, modernisation of crafts, establishment of department stores, systematisation of the art world.  The emergence of a middle class with an interest in culture and a willingness to buy created a growing market for Unsōdō’s publications. In this article I would like to give a brief outline of the history of Unsōdō, the changes in Japanese society, arts and crafts in Kyoto, and the expansion of Unsōdō’s achievements.

First, let us look at the history of Unsōdō. The firm was founded in 1891 in the Teramachi Nijō district of Kyoto by Yamada Naosaburō 山田直三郎 (1866-1932). He gained his knowledge of the workings of the book trade from Tanaka Jihei 田中治兵衛, proprietor of the Kyoto bookshop Bunkyūdō 文求堂, before setting up his own independent store specialising in art books. He asked the literati painter Tomioka Tessai 富岡鐡斎 to create a name for the new enterprise. The name he chose, Unsōdō 芸艸堂, was inspired by ‘unsō’ 芸艸, a Japanese name for the herb rue (Latin: Ruta graveolens). This strong-smelling plant, traditionally believed to be an effective insect repellant, was used to make bookmarks and was thus a fitting name for a bookshop.


Usondo founder
Yamada Naosaburō (1866-1932), founder of Unsōdō. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

 

Woodblock store_576pxls
Unsōdō’s store of over 10,000 original woodblocks, still used to produce reprints. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD.

Yamada Naosaburō was born into the Honda family, proprietors of a book-binding business. Alongside book-binding, the eldest son Honda Ichijirō 本田市次郎 (1863-1944) and third son Honda Kinnosuke 本田金之助 (1868-1930), began to publish kimono pattern books which were very much in vogue at the time. From around 1889 the company was known as Honda Unkindō本田雲錦堂. Large numbers of kimono-related books were being published in Kyoto at that time and there was intense competition between Unsōdō and Unkindō, a rivalry which stimulated the creation of a great many design books. However, as they were brothers first and foremost, Naosaburŏ, Ichijirō and Kinnosuke eventually merged the two companies in 1906 under the name Unsōdō. From then on, all three brothers worked together in the publishing business. They focussed on works for the kimono industry, producing lavish publications which used not only traditional colour woodblock printing but also cutting-edge technology of the day such as collotype-printed photographic plates and heliotype colour plates. These luxurious books were expensive but proved profitable and were published in rapid succession. This momentum continued and in 1918 Unsōdō opened a branch in Yushima in Tokyo. 

woodblock for printing Kairo (One hundred patterns of waves) by Kamisaka Sekka.1902  Kairo (One hundred patterns of waves) by Kamisaka Sekka.1902
Two woodblocks for printing Kairo (One hundred patterns of waves) by Kamisaka Sekka.1902. Left: Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD. Right: equivalent page from the British Library copy of Kairo ORB.40/838

Unsōdō also managed to acquire woodblocks for art books from other publishers in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo and to republish the works as Unsōdō imprints.

Reprint of Hokusai manga from original blocks acquired by Unsōdō.
Reprint of Hokusai manga from original blocks acquired by Unsōdō. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

Despite the occasional periods of economic depression, Japanese society continued to develop, thanks to official campaigns to encourage new industries and also to the special demands of times of war. The textile industry was one of the first to attract the attention of business entrepreneurs. Modern textile factories were set up across Japan, long-established kimono dealers became department stores, textile wholesalers and brokerage businesses were established and a skilled workforce developed. Traditional local textiles came to be distributed through kimono dealers and department stores. The successful, affluent classes became art collectors and ordinary people were able to see works of art in museums or the art galleries of department stores. 


Modern edition of Kairo from original woodblocks
Modern edition of Kairo from original woodblocks. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

Kyoto’s replacement by Tokyo as the national capital in 1869 and the resultant departure of the Emperor, Imperial Family and upper aristocracy, led to a period of uncertainty for the city. Yet this sense of crisis acted as a catalyst to the modernisation of the arts and crafts industry, taking advantage of a local population with a deep connection to traditional culture and the existence of large numbers of artisans skilled in various crafts. Descendants of court painters set up painting academies, and art schools were founded to promote the modernisation of art education. Cooperative associations were established for many industries including lacquer manufacturing, ceramics, dyeing and weaving. These organisations worked to improve standards and modernise designs in their respective industries, to stabilise distribution networks throughout Japan and to use the high levels of expertise developed over centuries to produce art objects for export. This was an important means of acquiring foreign currency for Japan at that time and was actively supported by the government.

Key reasons for the expansion of Unsōdō’s business were the appearance of “art books born from social change” and the increase in the number of “people who need art books”. An example of the former would be catalogues for displays of new works that were held in kimono dealers and department stores, or for exhibitions in the painting academies. “People who need art books” included those involved in the creation of art and craft objects as well as those selling them – artists, designers, craftspeople and teachers, and also merchants. Painting manuals, pattern books and picture albums had existed in the Edo Period (1600-1868), but in the later 19th century new publications were needed that took into account new tastes and Western influences. Art schools and industrial technology institutes across Japan needed textbooks and reference works. Then, as now, art books tended to be large format and require elaborate binding and printing techniques, resulting in higher prices. The reason these books ‘flew off the shelves’ was that they were not only bought for personal interest and pleasure but were used for work and were provided in the work place.

Orb_40!1080_hollyhock_576pxls  Orb_40!1080_wistaria_576pxls
‘Yellow hollyhock’ and ‘Wisteria’ from Jakuchu gafu, a collection of designs by Itō Jakuchū (1716-1800), published by Unsōdō in 1908. British Library ORB.40/1080

In other words, art books were an inseparable part of industrial development. As a Kyoto publisher, Unsōdō, played its part in disseminating the essence of Japanese history – the aristocratic culture with the emperor at its summit, the millennium of craftsmanship that produced ‘guides to traditional customs’ (yūsoku kojitsu), patterns and designs, cultural properties, handicrafts, collectables, and even the foreign art works and designs that were incorporated over the centuries.

In recent years, woodblock-printed design books of the late Meiji Period have been attracting growing attention. It was a time when Kyoto, the centre of Japan’s publishing culture since the Middle Ages, was full of skilled craftspeople. Although in terms of cost, print run and finish, woodblock printing was the only practical method of colour printing available, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries woodblock printing technology developed markedly. It is characterised by what can be called ‘high quality art printing’ and its ‘human touch’. Moreover, we still marvel at the creativity of the designers of the time. As well as the professional designers, artists who specialised in Japanese and Western-style painting also created designs as a side-line to their main careers. Today we cannot easily tell how many people were involved in the world of design at the time. This is because the modernisation of Japanese art has brought a division into ‘artists’, who created fine art, and ‘craftspeople’, who created practical wares. Designers themselves have not yet been appraised, and often artists’ design work has not been considered in an assessment of their careers.

Teruko Hayamitsu, Curator, UNSODO CO., LTD

(translation: Hamish Todd, Head of East Asian Collection, British Library)

 

Further reading

Hillier, Jack, The Art of the Japanese Book. London: Sotheby’s, 1987.

Johnson, Scott, “New Colours, a New Profession & a New Idea: Zuan Enrich Kyoto Design”. Andon 97, 2014.

Johnson, Scott, “Zuan Pattern Books: The Glory Years”. Andon 100, 2015.

Yokoya, Ken’ichiro, Fischbach, Becky (ed.), Zuancho in Kyoto: Textile Design Books for the Kimono Trade. Stanford: Stanford University, 2007 (exhibition catalogue)

24 August 2020

When you wish upon a star: The Celestial Weaver Maiden at the Star Festival

The Star Festival 七夕, the night when many of us in Eastern Asia wish upon a star and celebrate romance, is on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, and this year it falls on the 25th of August 2020. As we have mentioned in previous blog posts, this annual summer event has been a tradition since time immemorial. This year, we are focussing on a simple question: why do Japanese call the Star Festival 七夕 Tanabata? In China, it has been known as Qixi (qi = 七 and xi=夕), literally meaning seven evenings or the seventh evening. If Japanese followed the Chinese convention, it would become Shichiseki (shichi = 七 and seki=夕). But the Japanese have written the Star Festival as 七夕, and read it as Tanabata in this unusual way for a long time. We may see reasons for this in a key motif of the Star Festival - the weaver maidens who are called Tanabata or Tanabatatsume.

Drawing of loom with red, white, green, yellow and blue yarn next to a wicker basket and fabric sample
A depiction of a loom as used in Kureha (呉服) from the collection of theatre settings of Noh plays. (Yamaguchi Ryōshū 山口蓼州, Nōgu taikan 能具大観 (Kyōtō: Unsōdō京都 : 芸艸堂, 1924). ORB.40/1069 (Vol.3))
CC Public Domain Image

The Star lovers’ story originated in China and deals with the weaver girl and the cowherd boy, a couple who are separated by the Milky Way in the night sky. They can only see each other once a year by crossing the magpie bridge. The weaver girl’s name is written 織女 Shokujo or 織姫 Orihime both meaning ‘the weaver maiden’, and is a traditional name in modern popular Japanese culture. However, it is likely that ancient Japanese people, who were directly influenced by the arrival of Chinese fairy tales, might have not read 織女 as Shokujo as we currently do, but as Tanabata or Tanabatatsume.

This unique Japanese reading of the name of the weaver maiden appears in The Tales of Ise (伊勢物語, Ise monogatari), a very famous work of Japanese literature which is thought to have been written and collected together sometime during the Heian period (794-1185 CE). The hero of the tale is never clearly named, but all readers assume it is Ariwara no Narihira (在原業平 825-880 CE). In the real world, he was a grandson of one of previous emperors but not a member of the imperial family. He was a notable Heian courtier and left his name as a great waka poet.

Drawing of five men in traditional Japanese dress seated in semi-circle under a tree
Prince Koretaka, Ariwara no Narihira and other hunting members resting at the river bank of Amano. (Chapter 82 of The Tale of the Ise (伊勢物語圖會, Ise monogatari zue), Naraehon manuscript, mid-16th century, Or 904, f.98r)
CC Public Domain Image


In Chapter 82 of the Tale of Ise, Prince Koretaka and his followers, including Narihira, are out enjoying a day's hunting. The group come to the river bank of Amano (天野) and decide to have refreshments after their hunt. Prince Koretaka orders Narihira to compose a fitting waka for this occasion.

狩り暮らし七夕に宿からむ天の河原にわれは来にけり

Let us rest from this day’s hunt and pass the night with the Weaver maiden
as we have come to the fields of the Celestial River.

Cursive Japanese text
Above left is the page featuring the Tanabata waka composed by Narihira, which starts by the vertical yellow lines on the right-hand image. (Chapter 82 of The Tale of the Ise (伊勢物語圖會, Ise monogatari zue), Naraehon manuscript, mid-16th century, Or 904, f.97r)
CC Public Domain Image

This waka poem contains references to the motif of the star lovers. They come to the bank of the Amano River – in Japanese, it is pronounced Amanogawa (天野川), the same as the Milky Way (天の川) in Japanese. Narihira elegantly composes his waka as if they were approaching the bank of the Milky Way in the night sky, so naturally, there should also be Tanabatatsume, who is the Heavenly Weaver maiden. Interestingly, Tanabata (七夕 the seventh evening) in this waka indicates the Heavenly Weaver maiden in person. Also, his waka shows us that by the zenith of Heian court culture, the Star Lovers had already been popular among the Japanese.

The oldest anthology of Japanese waka poetry books, the Man’yōshū ( 万葉集 literally the Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves) is estimated to be have been compiled towards the end of the Nara period (710-794 CE), at a time when the court and capital was situated in Nara. Donald Keen (1922-2019), who was one of the most remarkable Japanese scholars in modern times, counted the number of the Seventh Night poems, which number more than 120 in the Man’yōshū. He commented that it was about this time that the Chinese legend was absorbed into Japanese folklore, and the number of related waka in Man’yōshū helped us to judge how deeply this romantic story was widely cherished by the Japanese people.

Waka 2027

為我登織女之其屋戸尓織白布織弖兼鴨
The waka in the Man’yōshū are notoriously difficult to interpret but basically in Waka 2027 , someone (typically a man or noble) is wondering aloud to himself when his lover will finish the garment which she has been weaving for their next meeting.

In this waka, the Heavenly Weaver maiden is written as 織女, as we do in the 21st century, but it is pronounced as Tanabatatsume, not Shokujo.

Waka 2034

棚機之五百機立而織布之秋去衣孰取見
The Heavenly Weaver maiden is working on many looms – who shall look upon and receive the cloth she is making?

Interestingly, in this waka, the Heavenly Weaver maiden is written as 棚機, and the script matches the pronunciation ‘Tanabata’. Even though there is no explicit mention of the 7th day of the 7th lunar month and she is one of the star lovers in the lines, both waka undoubtedly refer to the love of the celestial couple.

It's possible that 棚機 could represent the advanced loom brought into Japan by oversea weavers. A Noh play, ‘Kureha (呉服)’, inspired by a legend of skilled artisan weavers who were invited to Japan to train the Japanese. Among them, were two foreign sisters Kurehatori 呉服織 and Ayahatori 漢服織. They wove for the Emperor Ōjin 応神 who considered to have reigned in the late 3rd century CE.

Drawing of two actors wearing Noh masks and in traditional Japanese dress kneeling next to a loom with blue, white, red, yellow and green yarn
Kureha from the collection of 200 illustrations of characters from Noh plays. (Tsukioka, Kōgyo 月岡耕漁, and Matsuno Sōfū松野奏風, Nōga taikan : nōga nihyakuban ōzoroe 能畫大鑑 : 能畫貮百番大揃 (Tōkyō: Seibi Shoin 東京 : 精美書院, 1936). Revised edition of the work originally published in 1934.) (ORB.45/153)
CC Public Domain Image

We can find possibly the oldest Tanabatatsume motif in the Chronicles of Japan (日本書紀 Nihon Shoki), completed in 720 CE. The earlier chapters of Nihon Shoki describe a Shintō myth of how the land of Japanese islands are created by Shintō gods and goddesses and their activities as deities in their land, the Upper Heaven.

In the chapter which deals with the reign of Ashihara no Nakatsukuni 葦原中国, which literally means ‘The middle country of reed beds’ and which represents the physical land of Japan, the name of a sister of a god is known as Tanabata 多奈婆多 who is the Heavenly Weaver maiden in the Upper Heaven.

Printed Japanese text in rows consisting of kanji
Above left is the page showing a part of the waka dealing with Tanabata, 多奈婆多indicated by a vertical blue line on the right-hand image. (Prince Toneri 舎人親王(676-735) [editor], Chronicles of Japan. Chapters on the Age of Kami (日本書紀神代巻, Nihon shoki. Jindai no maki), Movable type print edition published by command of Emperor Go-Yōzei 後陽成天皇 (慶長勅版, Keichō chokuhan), 1599, Or.59.bb.5, f 057r)
CC Public Domain Image

Weaving cloth dedicated for Shintō deities have been treated as an important activity since the very early legends of the Upper Heaven. There is an earlier famous episode in the Upper Heaven, in which the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, hides herself in the Heavenly Rock cave (Ama no iwado 天の岩戸) so that the all of the worlds lose her rays of light. She is extremely upset by her brother who has disturbed her or her weaver maiden. He throws a dead horse into the special workshop where the ladies are weaving. His action not only destroys the building but also injures the ladies and stains their clothes. Amaterasu rages at her brother and goes into the cave to hide herself.

Printed Japanese text in rows consisting of kanji
Above left is the page showing the episode of ladies weaving in the special workshop. The keywords ‘weaving for gods at the special holy workshop’ (織神衣居斎服殿) is indicated by a blue line on the right-hand image. (Prince Toneri 舎人親王(676-735) [editor], Chronicles of Japan. Chapters on the Age of Kami (日本書紀神代巻, Nihon shoki. Jindai no maki), Movable type print edition published by command of Emperor Go-Yōzei 後陽成天皇 (慶長勅版, Keichō chokuhan), 1599, Or.59.bb.5, f 031v)
CC Public Domain Image

The legend of the heavenly weaver maidens has passed their ancient name as Tanabata down through the ages to the Star Festival. This occurred long after the Star Lover’s story became very popular and their romance was celebrated annually on the 7th day of 7th lunar month. In this way, their curious legacy remains just barely visible beneath the surface of later traditions.

Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator, Japanese Collections
CCBY Image

References

Keene, Donald, and McMillan, Peter, Translator, Writer of Added Commentary, The Tales of Ise, (UK : Penguin Classics, 2016). (YKL.2018.a.8090)

Keene, Donald, The Manyoshu : The Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai Translation of One Thousand Poems, with the Texts in Romaji . Records of Civilization, Sources and Studies ; 70. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965). (Ac.2688/45.(70.))

Manyoshu [Book 10] Japanese Text Initiative, University of Virginia Library

Related blogs

The Star Lovers

‘Tanabata (七夕) Star Festival’ - is it 7 July or 2 August 2014? (1)

‘Tanabata (七夕) Star Festival’ - is it 7 July or 2 August 2014? (2)

With special thanks to Mr Stephen Cullis, Lecturer at Nagasaki University of Foreign Studies, for providing the summarised interpretations of the waka in the Ise Monogatari and the Man’yōshū.

17 February 2020

Exquisite patterns: Japanese Textile Design Books

Exquisite patterns: Japanese Textile Design Books, a new exhibition of images from the British Library’s Japanese collection, runs from 14 February to 17 May 2020 in the Library’s Second Floor Gallery. In the first of a series of blog posts, curator Hamish Todd introduces the exhibition and some of the highlights.

Furuya Kōrin Orb_30!132_1_f010_写生草花
Furuya Kōrin 古谷紅麟, Shasei sōka moyō 写生草花模様. Unsōdō, Kyoto, 1907. British Library, ORB.30/132

With the help of a grant from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, the British Library is digitising its collection of Japanese pattern books and making these available online. This exhibition of selected images has been created to display the variety and vibrancy of these works, from their origins in the mid-17th century until the early 20th century.

Textiles and in particular the kimono in its various forms, have been a focus for artistic creativity in Japan for centuries. Following decades of civil war, the Edo Period (1603-1868) saw the re-establishment of peace and stable government under the Tokugawa shogunate. As the economy prospered, large urban populations developed in Kyoto, Edo (Tokyo) and Osaka. Alongside the Imperial Court and aristocracy in Kyoto, the samurai and increasingly prosperous merchant classes of Edo formed a sophisticated, fashion-conscious audience and many aspects of Japanese culture, notably the arts and crafts, flourished.

The desire among the fashionable for variety and novelty led to the publication of the first pattern books, hinagata-bon 雛形本, in the 1660s. These early works were printed using traditional woodblock technology in black and white, but often included notes describing the intended colour and type of fabric. They were practical in nature, serving as manuals for textile designers and kimono merchants, or fashion magazines and catalogues for the discerning customer.

Or_74_cc_8_f006r_新撰御ひいながた_crop  The first kimono pattern book
The first kimono pattern book. Shinsen o-hiinagata 新撰御ひいながた by Asai Ryōi 浅井了意. British Library, Or.74.cc.8. On the left a pattern of chrysanthemums and on the right, printed in red, the characters representing the names of the animals of the Chinese zodiac.

Shinsen o-hiinagata 新撰御ひいながた’A New Selection of Patterns’, the first pattern book, was published in 1666. Initially printed solely in black and white, the following year another edition, shown here, appeared with some pages also printed in single colours of blue, green or red. Early pattern books normally depict the kosode (forerunner of the modern kimono) in a T-shape with the back and sleeves forming the focus of the striking designs.

This novel type of publication proved very popular and new titles appeared in quick succession as publishers sought to capitalise on the new trends. Textile designers and artists drew inspiration from a wide range of sources, notably, the natural world, folklore, history, signs of the zodiac, auspicious symbols and the written word.

For example, in this design, a carp fights its way up a powerful waterfall, a popular symbol of energy and determination drawn from a Chinese legend in which a carp crossed the Dragon Gate rapids on the Yellow River and turned into a dragon.

Dragon Gate Waterfall Orb_30!4449_vol_3_035_雛形萩の野
‘Dragon Gate Waterfall’ 龍門乃滝, from Tōsei somegumi hinagata hagi no 当世染組 雛形萩の野. Kyoto, 1741. British Library, ORB.30/4449.

In this design from Shin moyō yaegasumi 新模様八重霞, the artist Kōyōken Charanshi 紅葉軒茶藍子 has depicted a herd of lively horses. Published in 1784, this work brings an added level of sophistication to the pattern book by the addition of delicate hand-colouring and the inclusion of images of the whole design and of a detail.

Shin moyō yaegasumi _新模様八重霞  Shin moyō yaegasumi _新模様八重霞
Shin moyō yaegasumi 新模様八重霞. Kyoto, 1784. British Library, ORB.30/8579

Symbols of good fortune and longevity were, and remain, popular motifs for textiles. In Japanese folklore, the crane represents 1,000 years of life, the tortoise 10,000 years. In Tennen hyakkaku 天年百寉 (‘Tennen’s One Hundred Cranes’) Kaigai Tennen, explored the theme with depictions of these auspicious birds in a variety of styles, settings and combinations with other propitious symbols.

A crane from Kaigai Tennen
A crane from Kaigai Tennen 海外天年, Tennen hyakkaku 天年百寉. Unsōdō, Kyoto, 1901. British Library, ORB.40./964 (vol.3 folio 1)

A crane with a mythological minogame (long-haired tortoise)_007
A crane with a mythological minogame (long-haired tortoise) from Kaigai Tennen 海外天年, Tennen hyakkaku 天年百寉. Unsōdō, Kyoto, 1901. British Library, ORB.40./964 (vol.3 folio 4)

Enterprising kimono merchants were quick to see the potential of pattern books as a means of attracting customers and promoting their wares to a wider clientele. An example is the lavish Kuretake 呉竹, produced in 1902 by Ichida Yaichirō 市田弥一郎, proprietor of the Kyoto kimono emporium Ichida Shoten. It includes 120 spectacular designs as well as 47 textile samples from which clients could choose their preferred colours and fabrics.

Orb_40!1208_f047v_呉竹
Design for a haori (short jacket) incorporating animals of the Chinese zodiac. From Kuretake 呉竹. Kyoto, 1902. British Library, ORB.40/1208

Orb_40!1208_f059r
Fabric samples from Kuretake 呉竹. Kyoto, 1902. British Library, ORB.40/1208

The British Library collection also contains a slightly more ‘homespun’ version of this sort of ‘catalogue’. It is in the form of a scrapbook into which paper cutouts of kimono designs have been pasted. Some of these are reminiscent of the clothes made for Japanese paper dolls (anesama ningyō 姉様人形 ‘big sister dolls’).

Or_16979_f019r_cropped
A design for a furisode (‘swinging sleeves’). From an untitled scrapbook, c. 1890-1900. British Library, Or.16979

As colour-printing became more sophisticated, so did pattern books. By the late 19th century publishers, led by Kyoto-based Unsōdō and Unkindō, were collaborating with talented artists, among them Kamisaka Sekka, Furuya Kōrin and Tsuda Seifū, to produce superb design albums or zuan-chō 図案帳. While some of these were meant as source books for artisans, others were conceived as beautiful objects to be enjoyed for their own sake. We will look at these later works in the following blog.

Further reading:
Hillier, Jack, The Art of the Japanese Book. London: Sotheby’s, 1987.
Jackson, Anna (ed.), Kimono: The Art and Evolution of Japanese Fashion. London: Thames & Hudson, 2015.
Johnson, Scott, Zuan Pattern Books: The Glory Years. Andon, 2015, 100.
Milhaupt, Terry Satsuki, Kimono: A Modern History. London: Reaktion Books, 2014.

Hamish Todd, Head of East Asian collections Ccownwork

03 May 2019

Jesuit Mission Press ‘Feiqe monogatari’ now online

One of the most important items in the British Library’s Japanese collections is a small, rather ordinary-looking, leather-bound volume, generally known as Feiqe monogatari (BL shelfmark Or.59.aa.1). Despite its appearance, it is, in fact, a remarkable work in a number of ways. Firstly, it was one of the earliest books printed in Japan using movable type rather than the traditional woodblocks, secondly, it is the first non-religious text printed in colloquial Japanese transcribed into the Roman alphabet, offering valuable insights into the phonology of the Japanese language in the 16th century, and thirdly, it is the world’s only extant copy.

Now, thanks to a collaborative project between the British Library and the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics (NINJAL), Tokyo, a fully digitised version of this unique work is available online along with transcriptions, as part of NINJAL’s  Corpus of Historical Japanese, Muromachi Period Series II : Christian Materials.  In addition to a full set of images, NINJAL has also provided transcriptions of the Romanised text and in mixed Japanese kanji/kana script.

The book contains three different texts bound together: Feiqe monogatari a version of the Heike monogatari 平家物語 or Tale of the Heike, a famous medieval epic about the rivalry between the Taira and Minamoto clans, Esopo no fabulas the first Japanese translation of Aesop's Fables, and an anthology of maxims, drawn from Chinese classics, called the Qincvxv (Kinkūshū 金句集).

First page of Feiqe monogatari (Or 59.aa.1, p.3)
First page of Feiqe monogatari (Or 59.aa.1, p.3)Noc

First page of Esopo no fabulas (Or 59.aa.1, p.408d)
First page of Esopo no fabulas (Or 59.aa.1, p.408d)Noc

First page of Qinquxu (Or 59.aa.1, p.507)
First page of Qinquxu (Or 59.aa.1, p.507) Noc

All three were printed on the Japanese island of Amakusa by Jesuit missionaries using a movable-type printing press in late 1592/early 1593. Feiqe monogatari has a preface dated 10 December 1592, the title page of Esopo no fabulas is dated 1593 and a general preface added at the front of  the volume was completed on 23 February 1593.

The three texts are accompanied by a printed glossary of ‘words difficult to determine’ (funbetsv xinicuqi cotoba) found in Feiqe monogatari and Esopo no fabulas.  At the end of the book is a handwritten Japanese-Portuguese vocabulary.

Handwritten Japanese-Portuguese dictionary (Or.59.aa.1, p.597)
Handwritten Japanese-Portuguese dictionary (Or.59.aa.1, p.597) Noc

From the preface of Feiqe monogatari we know that it was the work of the Christian convert - and later apostate - Fabian Fucan (Fukansai 不干斎, c. 1565–1621). Fabian was baptised in 1583 and joined the Jesuits in 1586, teaching Japanese to missionaries in the Jesuit College in Amakusa. He later rejected Christianity and in 1620 published the anti-Christian tract Deus Destroyed (Ha-Daiusu 破提宇子).

When the first Christian missionaries arrived in Japan in the 1540s they immediately set themselves to learning the Japanese language. Their aim, of course, was to convert the population to Christianity and to do this they needed to be able to communicate its teachings in the local language. They made rapid progress and with the help of Japanese converts, soon began translating Christian texts into Japanese. To assist with their work, Alessandro Valignano, head of the Jesuit Mission in East Asia, had a movable-type printing press brought from Portugal. It reached Japan via Goa in July 1590 and was set up at the Jesuit College in Kazusa 加津佐, on the Shimabara Peninsula, where the first work, a life of the apostles and saints entitled Sanctos no gosagyveono vchi nvqigaqi (Sanctos no go-sagyō no uchi nukigaki サントスの御作業の内抜書), was printed in 1591. Shortly afterwards, in the face of official persecution, the College and press were moved to the more remote and safer location of Amakusa 天草 where printing resumed in 1592. The College on Amakusa was suppressed by the Japanese authorities in 1597 so the Jesuits moved again, this time to Nagasaki, taking the press with them and books continued to be printed there from 1598 to 1611.

The books produced by the Jesuit Mission Press in Japan between 1591 and 1611, almost exclusively religious in content, are known collectively in Japanese as Kirishitan-ban or “Christian publications”. The majority were translations of Christian texts widely read in Europe such as Doctrina Christaã, Guía de pecadores and parts of Introducción del símbolo de la fe, in some cases adapted to the Japanese context with additional explanations or omission of doctrines which might have provoked controversy.

The Japanese authorities increasingly came to regard Christianity as subversive and, following a series of repressive measures, it was eventually suppressed and all remaining missionaries expelled from Japan in 1639.

The precise number of Kirishitan-ban titles printed in Japan is not certain.  With the suppression of Christianity and the destruction of images and artefacts connected with it, most of the Jesuit printings were lost.  In his pioneering work The Jesuit Mission Press in Japan, 1591–1610 published in 1888, Sir Ernest Satow identified 14 titles. Kirishitan Bunko: A Manual of Books and Documents on the Early Christian Mission in Japan (1940) by Johannes Laures, identifies 30 books published by the Jesuit Mission Press but this includes 5 printed in Macao, Goa or Manila. A more recent publication, Kirishitan to Shuppan (2013), lists a total of 41 Kirishitan-ban (including 5 fragmentary texts) with 92 extant copies identified worldwide, 7 of them in the British Library.  For the 35 works published in Japan, it lists a total of 72 known copies.

Besides its rarity, Feiqe monogatari is important in that it is a literary rather than a religious text..  It was not intended for the education of Japanese Christians but for the missionaries themselves as an aid to learning the language and to understanding the history and values of the Japanese for whom the warrior code (bushidō), reflected in Heike monogatari, and the Chinese classics represented by Kinkūshū had great significance.

First page of preface to Feiqe monogatari (Or 59.aa.1, ftpr)
First page of preface to Feiqe monogatari (Or 59.aa.1, ftpr) Noc

The spelling conventions of Portuguese, together with differences in pronunciation of the time, mean that the Romanised texts appear unfamiliar to those used to Hepburn, Kunrei-shiki and other later systems. For example, comparing spellings to the Modified Hepburn transliteration system most widely used today: ‘c’ and ‘q’ are used instead of ‘k’ depending on the following vowel (‘c’ before ‘a,’ ‘o’ or ‘u’, ‘q’ before ‘e’ and ‘i’), while ‘x’ represents ‘sh’ before ‘’i’ and, unlike modern standard Japanese, also before ‘e’. The letter ‘v’ can represent either the vowel ‘u’ or the semivowel ‘w’. The bilabial fricative sound now Romanised as ‘h’ (or ‘f’ before a ‘u’) is written as ’f’ in all positions, presumably reflecting the pronunciation of the time. ‘tçu’ is the equivalent of ‘ts’. As in Portuguese spelling, ‘u’ is inserted after ‘g’ to maintain a hard sound before ‘e’ or ‘i’.

The opening sentence on the first page reads: Nifon no cotoba to historia uo narai xiran to fossvrv fito to tameni xeva ni yavaragvetarv Feiqe no monogatari [The Tale of the Heike made easy to help those wishing to learn the language and history of Japan] which would be written in Modified Hepburn as Nihon no kotoba to historia o naraishiran to hossuru hito no tame ni sewa ni yawaragetaru Heike no monogari, or in Japanese script as 日本の言葉とhistoria [歴史]を習い知らんと欲する人の為に世話に和らげたる 平家の 物語.

Another interesting aspect of Feiqe monogatari is that while not the oldest, it was the first book in the British Museum/British Library’s Japanese collections. The preliminary pages of the volume bear a succession of shelfmarks and annotations from which it appears that the book was acquired by the eminent collector Sir Hans Sloane (1662-1753) in the first years of the 18th century. The earliest number is R3594, one of many sequences used by Sloane. Research published by Amy Blakeway in The Library Catalogues of Sir Hans Sloane: Their Authors, Organization, and Functions (http://www.bl.uk/eblj/2011articles/pdf/ebljarticle162011.pdf), suggests that the R-sequence was used for a rather random can be dated to between 1712 and 1723.  Sloane has also added the erroneous description in his own hand “Fables in the Language of Tonquin” (i.e. Vietnam). After Sloane’s death his vast collections became the foundation of the British Museum and its library and were installed in Montagu House. The number on the titlepage (3Ib) is a Montagu House location, showing that the book was stored in room 3, press I, and on shelf b with other works on Mythology. The book was given the general shelfmark 1075.e. but was later considered to be important/valuable enough to be moved to a case pressmark C.24.e.4.  A subsequent reorganisation of the British Museum Library saw it being transferred to the Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books (OMPB) where shelfmarks beginning “Or.” were assigned - Or.59.d.6 and, later, its current number Or.59.aa.1.  As part of OMPB Feiqe monogatari passed to the custodianship of the British Library in 1973.

Its role as a teaching tool for non-Japanese missionaries gives Feiqe monogatari is greatest significance today - that it is written in colloquial, rather than literary Japanese and is printed in the Latin alphabet, not in Japanese script.  The Japanese written language was, and is, extremely complicated combining many thousands of Chinese characters and two different syllabaries.  Using the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet made the task of writing and printing much simpler and meant that the text was easier for the Jesuits to read.  Since at that time there was no standard way of transcribing Japanese, the missionaries simply wrote down what they heard often using the spelling conventions of their native Portuguese.  For the study of Japanese historical linguistics, therefore, Feiqe monogatari is a very valuable source of information for how the language was actually spoken and pronounced in the late 16th century.

In a way that will be familiar to all who have ever tried to learn a foreign language, whenever they were unable to find the correct Japanese translation of a word the missionaries and their Japanese helpers seem to have simply used the Portuguese word instead. So "Aesop's Fables" becomes "Esopo no fabulas” and “history” is “historia” rather than the expected Japanese words gūwa 寓話 and rekishi 歴史respectively.

Successive shelfmarks used for Feiqe monogatari (Or.59.aa.1, preliminary pages) Successive shelfmarks used for Feiqe monogatari (Or.59.aa.1, preliminary pages)
Successive shelfmarks used for Feiqe monogatari (Or.59.aa.1, preliminary pages) Noc

Sadly, no record has been found of how Sloane acquired the book or from whom. Between 1723 and 1725, Sloane purchased a substantial collection of Japanese books, manuscripts, natural history specimens and other material from the family of the German physician Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) who had lived in Japan from 1690-92 as physician in the Dutch East India Company’s trading base in Nagasaki. However, as noted above, a study of the shelfmarks and other annotations suggest that Feiqe monogatari was acquired by Sloane before the Kaempfer collection. It is known that the Jesuits sent some of their publications back to Europe – either to Rome or to their influential benefactors. Recent research by Peter Kornicki has shown that Japanese books reached England during the 1620s, sent to wealthy patrons by the East India Company through its trading factory in Hirado. Dutch traders also continued a supply of books back to Europe, some of which would have circulated among collectors like Sloane.

One final mystery is the illustration on the front page of the volume which depicts a crowned classical figure in a chariot pulled by lions. Neither the image nor the Latin inscription have no obvious connection to the content of any of the contained works. Perhaps this was an etching or woodcut that had been used in another work and was simply inserted here as decoration. If any readers of this blog recognise it, I would be delighted to hear from them.

 

Hamish Todd,

Head of East Asian Collections

With thanks to Dr Karen Limper-Herz, Lead Curator for Incunabula and 16th Century Books, British Library.

 

References

Blakeway, Amy, “The library catalogues of Sir Hans Sloane: their authors, organization, and functions”. eBLJ (2011). http://www.bl.uk/eblj/2011articles/pdf/ebljarticle162011.pdf

Elison, George, Deus Destroyed: The Image of Christianity in Early Modern Japan, Harvard University Press, 1973.

Kornicki, Peter, Umi o watatta Nihon shoseki : Yōroppa e, soshite Bakumatsu, Meiji no Rondon de 海を渡った日本書籍 : ヨーロッパへ、そして幕末・明治のロンドンで. Tokyo: Heibonsha, 2018.

Laures, Johannes, Kirishitan Bunko: A manual of books and documents on the early Christian mission in Japan. Tokyo: Sophia University, 1940.

Orii, Yoshimi, “The dispersion of Jesuit books printed in Japan: Trends in bibliographical research and in intellectual history”. Journal of Jesuit Studies 2 ; 2 (2015).  https://brill.com/view/journals/jjs/2/2/article-p189_2.xml?lang=en

Satow, Ernest., The Jesuit Mission Press in Japan, Privately printed, 1888.

Toyoshima, Masayuki 豊島正之 (ed.), Kirishitan to Shuppan キリシタンと出版. Tokyo: Yagi Shoten,

 

01 February 2019

Happy Chinese New Year! Year of the Pig 2019

Horoscope for the year of the pig, from a Thai manuscript dated 1885
Horoscope for the year of the pig, from a Thai manuscript dated 1885, containing drawings based on the Chinese Zodiac and its animals (BL Or.13650, f.6v )
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In East Asian and South East Asian countries, as well as among overseas communities of Asian origin, traditional celebrations for the start of a New Year are approaching. On the 5th of February, we will leave the year of the Dog , and welcome the year of the Pig. Dog and Pig are part of a series of twelve zodiac animals associated with the Chinese lunisolar calendar. The Pig is the last animal of the twelve-year cycle, and in the Japanese and Tibetan traditions is replaced by the Boar.

Illustration of a boar from Seihō gahakuhitsu junishi-jō by Takeuchi Seihō (c. 1900)
Illustration of a boar from Seihō gahakuhitsu junishi-jō by Takeuchi Seihō (c. 1900)  (BL ORB.40/71)
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The lunisolar calendar developed in China from the solar one, and was first introduced during the Zhou dynasty (c. 1046 to 256 BC). Years, months and days are calculated taking into account both the phases of the moon and the position of the sun which determines the seasons. Lunisolar calendars require a “leap month” or an “intercalary month” every one or two years. People born during the Year of the Pig, are thought to be clever, calm, mature and well-mannered, but sometimes naïve and insecure.

Illustration from the Japanese album of toys Omochabako (BL ORB 40/950)
Illustration from the Japanese album of toys Omochabako (BL ORB 40/950)
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Zhu Baijie (豬八戒, where the first character means “pig”) is probably the most famous pig in Chinese literature. He is one of the main characters of the novel Journey to the West (西遊記Xi you ji) by Wu Cheng’en, published in 1592. The novel narrates the pilgrimage of the Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Tang Sanzang to India and Central Asia along the Silk Road to gather and take to China Buddhist texts. During his journey, he meets three creatures who become his disciples to atone for their past sins: Sun Wukong (the Monkey), Zhu Bajie (the Pig) and Sha Wujing (a water monster or “Monk Sha”).

Page 494 from the 18th century woodblock printed edition of the Xiyouji
Page 494 from the 18th century woodblock printed edition of the Xiyouji depicting four characters of the novel travelling: Tang Sanzang on horseback, Zhu Bajie and Sun Wukong with martial arts sticks, and Sha Wujing bringing up the rear (BL 15271.c.13, page 494)
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The Chinese New Year is welcomed with fireworks, whose sound, together with the sound of drums and music, is meant to scare away the demon Nian (written 年, like the character for year). Delicious food is put on the table and chun lian (written春聯: good wishes for the new year in form of poems, usually on red paper) are pasted on the entrance doors.

Calligrapher preparing chun lian (BL Or. 11539, folio 34)
Calligrapher preparing chun lian (BL Or. 11539, folio 34)
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Our Curator Han-lin Hsieh wrote a chun lian to wish all our readers a very Happy Chinese New Year!

Poem

 

 

Happy New Year from us to you,

May your triumphs be big,

In the year of the Pig,

And success come with all that you do.

 

 

 

 


Sara Chiesura, Han-lin Hsieh, Hamish Todd (East Asian Collections)
With thanks to Emma Harrison
 ccownwork

19 December 2018

The Arrival of the Black Ships

2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration, a pivotal event in Japanese history which heralded an era of dramatic political, social and cultural change as Japan emerged from centuries of self-imposed isolation and sought to take its place on the international stage.

During the Meiji Period (1868-1912), Japan was transformed from a feudal society where power lay in the hands of the Tokugawa Shoguns and hundreds of local lords or Daimyo controlling a patchwork of fiefdoms, to a centralised, constitutional state under the nominal leadership of Emperor Mutsuhito (1852-1912). This transition was marked by the inauguration of the new reign name of Meiji or ‘Enlightened Rule’ on 23rd October 1868.

To commemorate this major anniversary the British Library has digitised a manuscript handscroll Or.16453 depicting the arrival in Japanese waters in July 1853 of the American Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794-1858) and his squadron of four warships. Perry’s arrival triggered a long chain of events that led ultimately to the revolution of 1868.

One of Perry’s steam-driven Black Ships. Detail from British Library manuscript Or.16453
Fig.1. One of Perry’s steam-driven Black Ships. Detail from British Library manuscript Or.16453
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In November 1852 Perry had been dispatched by US President Millard Fillmore to establish diplomatic relations and ensure the opening of Japan’s ports to trade. On 8th July 1853 the squadron of four ships –steam-driven paddlewheel frigates Susquehanna and Mississippi and sailing sloops Plymouth and Saratoga – appeared off Uraga heading towards the city of Edo, seat of the Shogun’s government. The sight of these smoke-belching, black-hulled vessels, which dwarfed any ship the Japanese had seen before, must have been awe-inspiring and they were quickly nicknamed the Kurofune or ‘Black Ships’. Following their arrival there was intense activity on shore as local officials sent desperate requests for help to the government in Edo. Over the next few days, in an attempt to stonewall Perry while they waited instructions, a succession of unfortunate junior officials were sent out to the Susquehanna, Perry’s flagship, in an attempt to persuade Perry and his fleet to leave for Nagasaki, the only port designated for foreign trade. The Americans refused and fired off blank shots from their cannon, supposedly to celebrate Independence Day but also as an unsubtle hint of their superior firepower.

Perry and his crew march to the official reception at Kurihama. Detail from British Library manuscript Or.16453
Fig.2. Perry and his crew march to the official reception at Kurihama. Detail from British Library manuscript Or.16453
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Eventually on 14th July Perry was allowed to land at Kurihama for a meeting with local dignitaries. He marched in considerable pomp with a large contingent of marines and sailors, accompanied by a military band playing ‘Hail Columbia’ while the Susquehanna fired a 13-gun salute. The scroll gives a vivid impression of the scene with the procession of Americans snaking into the distance[1]. They are preceded by the musicians and the US flag while in the centre walks Commodore Perry accompanied by two cabin boys bearing boxes, probably bearing official gifts or the President’s letter.

Site of the official reception at Kurihama. Detail from British Library manuscript Or.16453
Fig.3. Site of the official reception at Kurihama. Detail from British Library manuscript Or.16453
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The official reception took place in a hastily constructed camp where Perry, accompanied by three of his commanders, presented the letter from President Fillmore to the two Bugyō (Magistrates) of Uraga, Toda Ujiyoshi 戸田氏栄 (1799-1858) and Ido Hiromichi 井戸弘道 (died 1855). With the first stage of their mission accomplished, Perry and his fleet sailed away on 17th July promising to return the following year. As the ships disappeared over the horizon, the watching officials no doubt breathed a sigh of relief but the respite was only temporary and Japan was already on the path to upheaval and civil war.

The British Library scroll Or.16453 is untitled, anonymous and undated but must have been produced shortly after the events it depicts, possibly as an official record. It measures 3.2 metres in length, composed of 8 sections, and the text consists of short captions accompanying the illustrations. A note at the beginning states that the American ships entered Edo Bay on the 3rd Day of the 6th Month of the 6th Year of the Kaei Era (8th July 1853) and they remained until the 14th Day of the 6th Month (19th July) [actually they left on the 17th July]. The first panel depicts some of the US crew - two slightly bored-looking marines resting on their rifles and two luxuriously whiskered officers brandishing swords. They are described as being from the American ship ‘Washington’, although no vessel by that name accompanied Perry.

Crew of the Black Ships. Detail from British Library manuscript Or.16453
Fig.4. Crew of the Black Ships. Detail from British Library manuscript Or.16453
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The artist may have been allowed on board one of the vessels or at least been an eye witness to events since the scroll depicts events and people in considerable detail. For example the second panel shows an array of headgear and musical instruments and the third has pictures of a rowing boat both empty and crewed by sailors and marines.

Headgear, musical instruments and rowing boat. Detail from British Library manuscript Or.16453
Fig.5. Headgear, musical instruments and rowing boat. Detail from British Library manuscript Or.16453
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The fourth section is a magnificent picture (Fig.1) of one of the steam warships with its massive paddlewheel on the side and a huge ‘Stars and Strips’ fluttering from a flagpole.

Next is the illustration of the American procession, followed by a detailed diagram representing the Japanese procession of over 1,000. Unlike the Americans, the members of the Japanese delegation are not shown in person but indicated by dots and banners with descriptions of who was who.

Diagram of the Japanese delegation’s procession. Detail from British Library manuscript Or.16453
Fig.6. Diagram of the Japanese delegation’s procession. Detail from British Library manuscript Or.16453
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The penultimate section shows the specially constructed camp at Kurihama (Fig.3), where the official meeting took place between the representatives of the two sides – the Magistrates Toda and Ido for the Japanese, and Perry and three of his commanders for the Americans. The route taken by the US contingent is carefully indicated by a line of dots leading up from the shore.

The scrolls ends with a view of Edo Bay with four enormous Black Ships, the two steamships flying oversized flags, moored ominously off Kurihama.

The Black Ships at anchor off Kurihama. Detail from British Library manuscript Or.16453
Fig.7. The Black Ships at anchor off Kurihama. Detail from British Library manuscript Or.16453 Noc

When the Black Ships departed, they left in their wake a nation in profound disagreement as it faced the challenge of dealing with the advent of the western powers and their demands the opening of Japanese ports to international trade. The existential threat posed by the Black Ships and the world they represented led to deep divisions with the Japanese ruling elite and the population at large. Traditionalists sought to maintain the status quo and keep the foreign ‘barbarians’ out at all costs while reformists believed that change was inevitable and that Japan could benefit from interaction with western nations. The ensuing 15 years of internal disagreement, political machination, diplomatic skulduggery, intimidation and violence on all sides ultimately led to the collapse of the Tokugawa regime and the emergence of a new political and social order.


Hamish Todd, Head of East Asian Collections

https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef022ad37f13ca200c-pi


[1] The procession numbered some 250 individuals but the scroll exaggerates this to 500.

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