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Older Japanese Books (Edo & Meiji Periods)


1. An Edo period orai-mono.

Shin Doji Orai no Jiten Daizen (A Complete Book of Information for Elementary Children). Kansei 4 (i.e., 1792). An anonymous work. 334 pages + 3 (contents pages). 26 x 19 cm. (10.5 x 7.5 inches). An anonymous work. First edition in this form.

This is an orai-mono, a textbook for use in the terakoya (shrine schools) of the Edo period, when the common people received a basic education from Buddhist or Shinto priests, physicians and anyone else old enough and venerable enough to be considered a sensei. Once common, they are now an unusual curiosity.

This picture gives a sense of the size and outward appearance of the book. The title on the cover is worn but still legible. It is in the fukurotoji binding typical of the period. Next to it is a set of elementary school textbooks from the Meiji period, a century later (see 3, below).


The publication details appear on the pastedown at the end of the book (left). The date is given in the fourth column from the left. Directly above it, at the top of the page, the date is penned in Arabic numerals.

About 15% of the pages contain illustrations, ranging from three full-page illustrations with no text, to some half-dozen in which the illustrations predominate over the text, to about a dozen with a similar amount of illustration to that shown here, to twenty or so with small illustrations inset into the text. The rest of the pages are text only.

The contents range from Japanese legends and history to calligraphy, palm-reading, etiquette and much else besides.

I have not managed to track down any copies - or even any record - of this particular orai. They were in widespread use over a period of several centuries, and there must be many which are not recorded, or even extant. To give an idea of their current scarcity, there are only eight editions of orai held in Japanese libraries from the 1790s (half of them dated 1799), each with one copy only, six of which are held by Tsukudai, and one each by Meidai and Kiyuudai. LoC records only two orai prior to 1800.

Below is a selection of pages, giving a sense of the contents and general appearance of the inside of the book.



2. A Little Treasury of Lessons for Women

Jokun Takara Bunko (A Little Treasury of Lessons for Women), illustrated by Tokinobu Kitao, written by Nakaya Chodou, 1843 (10 inches by 9.5 inches, approx.). There is an online reference for this work here. The details of authorship, publication, etc., are shown in the lower left picture above.

This is an obscure work, featuring the artwork of Tokinobu Kitao (active from around 1749-1778; also known as Sekkosai or Jin-o), a pupil of Sukenobu Nishikawa and resident of Osaka. I can locate only one copy in a holding library in Japan, and no copies in any other libraries worldwide. I can find only six copies on record of 17th century editions of Kitao's work, one of which appears to contain at least some of the illustrations in this volume, a handful of 19th century copies, and a 20th century edition (by Ryoshodo Nishikawa) of Tokinobu's illustrations of and for women. Osaka Shoin Women's University Library has copies of editions of Kitao's work (including this one) from the 18th to the 20th century, and is the most likely source of authoritative information on this title.

3. A Meiji period elementary school textbook.

Kokugo Tokuhon: Jinjo Shogakko (A Japanese Reader: Ordinary Level). By Tsubouchi Yuzo (pen name Shoyo). Second printing, Meiji 33 (i.e., 1900), December 19th (the first printing was on September 17th of the same year). 56-90 pages per volume. 14.5 x 10 cm. (5.5 x 4 inches). 8 volumes, complete with slipcase.

This is a lovely set, with just some slight dampstaining at the top of a few pages (like the volume 1 copyright page, right).

Tsubouchi (1859-1935), a renowned Shakespeare scholar, was a graduate of Tokyo University and a co-founder of Waseda University. There are six recorded copies of the first or second printings of this work in Japanese libraries, as well as a large-paper version and a companion set for Koko Shogakko (Advanced Elementary) use. The text is illustrated throughout, with illustrations on almost every page in the earlier volumes and every three or four pages in the later volumes. Below is a representative page (including illustration) from each of the eight volumes. (Camera glare on some images, reflected from the transparent ruler I used to hold the pages open.)


4. An Edo period medical textbook.

Zentai Shinron (A New Theory of the Whole Body), by Benjamin Hobson and Hanketsu Kiyomoto ( 1857). No previous editions listed on copyright page, but this is the second edition (the first edition came out in 1851). 96 leaves. About 10 inches by 6.5 inches.

Originally published in two separate volumes, this edition combines the two parts, the first being on general anatomy, the second on the womb and childbirth.


Hobson (1816-73) was an English physician who spent 20 years (1839-59) in China as a missionary and medical doctor. He is famed for having introduced Western approaches to medical science to China. He is particularly well-known for his work on childbirth. The fact that he was early published in Japan is only to be expected, given Japan's rapid absorbtion of Western learning, and several of his works appeared in Japanese editions during the 19th

Title page (left) and colophon (right).

This book is written in kanbun (Chinese script), with markers for Japanese readers. Kanbun was the script in which "Chinese learning" was transmitted. It continued to be in use until about 50 years ago.


5. The Tenmangu Shrines

YAMAMOTO, MASAA, and MURAI, MASAYOSHI, Tenmangu Ondenki Ryaku (A Historical Review of the Tenmangu Shrines). 6 1/2 inches by 10 inches, approx. Complete in two volumes of 50 and 48 pages respectively (a list of other titles by this publisher is given at the end of the second volume). Published in Akita in the year Kaei 4 (i.e., 1852). First edition, illustrated (in black and white). Fukurotoji binding (traditional Japanese soft cover threaded binding with pages of folded ricepaper). 11 and 12 pages respectively of illustrations, all but one (the portrait of Sugawara shown above) being a double-page spread. A beautifully illustrated account of the shrines known as Tenmangu Jinja (or Ten Jinja, the most famous being Kitano shrine in Kyoto), founded by the "gakusha" (scholar) Sugawara no Michizane (845-902). In 894, Sugawara refused an appointment as kentoushi (cultural ambassador) to T'ang China on account of growing instability in China and the dangers of encounte ring pirates during the crossing. This was a historical decision, leading to the demise of the tradition whereby Japan sent its greatest scholars overseas and giving rise to a period in which the indigenous Japanese culture flourished and developed. The Tenmangu shrines are dedicated to knowledge and learning, and celebrated in the popular traditional song Toryansei.

6. Kanbun (or Kambun) Dictionary

ISHIKAWA, KOUSEI (compiler), Kouki Jiten (Chinese Dictionary, Houbunkan, 1882). Fukurotoji binding. First edition. Complete in twenty volumes (about 60 folded leaves per volume), with original wooden boards and strings to hold the volumes together. Roughly 8 inches high by 5 wide, and occupying about 9 inches of shelf-space.


This type of dictionary dates from 1716 (the Shin period in China). The text is kanbun - the Chinese-style Japanese script (without kana, but with tiny inflections to indicate the reading order of the kanji) that characterises jugaku (Chinese learning) in Japan - and of course a dictionary such as this is the essential reference work for all jugaku studies, such as the previous entry (#5, above).


7. Koto Music, The Sea of Songs

ANONYMOUS, Ikutaryuu Kinyoku Uta no Umi (The Sea of Songs: Melodies of Ikutaryuu Koto Music), Meiji 22 (i.e., 1889). Three volumes, 7 inches by 4 3/4 inches, approx. First edition, illustrated (in colour). Ikutaryuu is one of the two styles of Japanese koto music, and this is a selection of songs (words only, not melodies) to be sung to the accompaniment of the koto, chosen by "koto teachers from Kyouto and Osaka").
The first few pages of each volume have a coloured border and/or other decorative motif, and there is a sprinkling of illustrations (about half a dozen altogether) in the first and third volumes. The pages are not numbered, but there are some 250 leaves in the three volumes combined. The second volume has an additional song handwritten on the back pastedown. The paper is Western-style (not rice paper), but folded in the Japanese style (i.e., printed on one side only, with a fold at the front edge), and the books are in a fukurotooji binding.


8. Study of Hamlet

Hirate Genkichi, Hamuretto Geki Kenkyu (A Study of the Play "Hamlet", Toyamabou, 1910). First edition. Original cloth binding. 407 pages of text, plus adverts. Octavo. Shakespearean scholarship in the late Meiji period.


9. Kaibara Ekiken

Kaibara Ekiken (Ekken; also Atsunobu), Nikko Meishoki (A Record of a Beautiful Sunny Place), Shoutoku 4 (i.e., 1714). 18 cm. First edition, 47, 8, [1] leaves, illustrations accompanying every page of text, maps. Only one holding library in Japan (Nakiyoudai). Published in the year of the author's death.

Kaibara Ekiken's reputation is undergoing a tremendous revision. Scholars such as Professors Tsujimoto and Yotoka of Tachibana Jochi University have helped to bring him into the limilight in Japan, and in the West the 1998 conference of the International Institute for Asian Studies (focused entirely on Kaibara), coupled with Mary Evelyn Tucker's monograph, have made his works - neglected for many years - the object of renewed interest.

Kaibara was a prolific writer, particularly well known as a Confucianist philosopher and botanist, but also for works on education, health (Yojokun, "The Book of Life-Nourishing Principles", is perhaps his single best-known work, and - while it is at complete odds with modern medical science - is still read today), geography, the natural sciences, etc. This book is a wonderful insight into life in rural Japan in the early 18th century. 


10. Letter-Writing Manual

Kubota Ryozan Fujo no Gyokushou (Letter-Writing for Ladies), Nagashima, Meiji 33 (i.e., 1900). Teaches women the kinds of letters appropriate for writing on different occasions (for example, at New Year or when it's a full moon or during the cherry blossom season). Not listed in NACSIS, which does list other of his works, including Onna no Ko Shou Gaku You Bun (A Textbook for Primary School Girls), published in 1886 (one holding library listed), and others connected with the education of women/girls and with education generally. Fukurotoji binding, 50 numbered leaves (folded rice paper). Vignette title page: CLICK HERE. Very good, with some wear to the binding (thread worn through


11. Shrine and Temple Artwork

Odagiri Harue, Narumikata, Meiji 16 (i.e., 1883). FIRST EDITION (Tokyo printing). SEE SCAN OF COPYRIGHT DETAILS HERE. Complete in five volumes, together with a three-volume supplement which is rarely listed. Fukurotoji binding. Each volume consists of some sixty to seventy pages (thirty to thirty five leaves). These books consist of line drawings (with short written descriptions) of artwork in Japanese shrines and temples. SEE SCANNED EXAMPLE HERE. There are notes on the shrines, etc., at the back of each volume. Fukurotoji binding, on ribbed paper, thicker than the usual rice paper. Uncommon.


12. Two Meiji "penny dreadfuls"

Anon., (1) Otogi Banashi Inga Woguruma (Fairy Tales of Reward and Retribution; above left). Meiji 18 (1885). 96 pages. 17.5 cm. First edition, complete in one volume. Inga Woguruma could be rendered as "the little wheel of fate", and is basically the Japanese word for the Buddhist idea of karma. The plain front cover has been removed, leaving the vignette title page at the front.

(2) Oume no Adauchi (Oume's Revenge; above right). Meiji 17 (1884). 64 pages. 17.5 cm. First edition, part two only of two parts. The vignette title page is inside the plain front cover.

Books like these are the Meiji period equivalent of the Victorian penny dreadful. The contents are mainly text, with a few black and white illustrations. The text has furigana readings for the kanji, making these books good readers for anyone trying to master obsolete kanji, but mainly they are a lighthearted keepsake of a bygone age.


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