Magical picture books from 19th century Yokohama

CamelliasForeigners in Yokohama at the end of the nineteen century lived an enviable life. They inhabited large mansions up on the hills overlooking the bay with spacious grounds and plenty of servants so they had time to turn their attention to gardening, versifying and keeping the kids entertained. Which is where Japanese publisher Takejiro Hasegawa spotted an opportunity.

In the mid 1880s he began producing books of English translations of Japanese fairy tales, printed on crepe paper which wouldn’t tear even when grabbed by children’s clutching hands. He had them illustrated by woodblock prints specially made by Japanese artists, following in the tradition of ukiyo-e prints which were used in the Edo period to illustrate novels.

The mouse's weddingWhen the fairy tales did well he expanded his range with books about Japanese children meant for western readers, like Mrs Smith’s The Children’s Japan and Mary J. Kimura’s A day with Mitsu.

Children studyingPlaying at soldiers

Japanese artists also produced the illustrations for a book of La Fontaine’s Fables published in Tokyo in 1894.

Cock finds a pearlIn an era where Japonisme was fashionable in the capitals of Europe, Hasegawa and other publishers began producing books of Japanese scenery, like Images Japonaises published in 1896…

Woman planting rice from Images Japonaises…and accounts of Japanese customs like those shown in Ceremonial Japan and its companion volume Musical Japan.

Playing the taiko drumGekkin and kokyu (guitar and fiddle)With his eye firmly on the home market Hasegawa produced a series of beautifully illustrated gardening catalogues in which the citizens of the treaty ports in Yokohama, Nagasaki and Kobe could search out exotic plants for their gardens and to take back home.

PeonyJersey lilyNandina domesticaAt the end of the nineteen century he also produced a series of calendars showing the changing seasons.

Fireworks on the Sumida RiverPoetry books took two forms – translations of Japanese poems and lighthearted books of satirical doggerel written by resident foreigners poking fun at their compatriots and their sometimes pompous, ignorant and free-spending ways, with particular emphasis on their deluded belief that they were Japan experts after superficial acquaintance with the country.

Rickshaw manI know all this because Hugh Cortazzi has published a beautiful little book about Hasegawa and other publishers of the period, lavishly illustrated in colour. It’s called Images of Japan 1885-1912, Scenes, Tales and Flowers. The illustrations I’ve used are drawn from this book and I was also lucky enough to hear Sir Hugh talk about it at the Japan Society. 2015 Update: Sadly the book is no longer available.

Front Cover Images of Japan

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