The Brunei Gallery at SOAS, where 100 years of Japanese Books, an exhibition of rare Japanese books, documents and manuscripts is on show, is easy to get to – just a few minutes walk from the rear entrance of the British Museum in fact. So why haven’t I been there for so many years? I’ll tell you.
The last time I was there was to sit my final exam in the painfully difficult Japanese Language Proficiency Test series. In my day it began at level 4 (nowadays it’s level 5) and progressed to level 1, a fiendishly hard exam sat by students of Japanese all over the world. So you can imagine, once it was over I never wanted to see the Brunei Gallery ever again.
It was strange going back for the exhibition, and a little bit frightening how familiar the place still was. It made me think of the other students who sat the exam with me that day, and whether they had passed or not. And of all the other students taking it in the future (is it still held in the Brunei Gallery?). I wish them luck.
The small exhibition is on the ground floor and the books on display all come from the Tenri Library, which is not far from Kyoto. It was built in 1925 as the central library of the Tenrikyo Church and currently holds nearly two million books. The Tenrikyo pursues the ideal of Joyous Life (yoki gurashi), sought through charity and abstention from greed, selfishness, hatred, anger and arrogance.
The books chosen for the exhibition are, sensibly, mainly ones with interesting illustrations and associations which are likely to be meaningful to westerners. Although it’s been on for a while there was regular to-ing and fro-ing of visitors peering into the dimly lit cases.
This illustration shows the poet Basho and his disciple Sora on their travels around northern Japan immortalised in Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North. The picture was drawn by Kyoriku in 1693, during Basho’s lifetime, and is thought to be the most accurate picture we have of him.
This is an early moveable-type edition of the Tales of Soga, a popular medieval military tale of the Soga brothers and their efforts to wreak revenge on their father’s enemy. It dates from 1615-1643.
I was intrigued by these tiny books, no more than an inch or so square which were made for children, as toys or decorations for Girls Day (hina matsuri). They were generally nursery stories like this one about Momotaro, the little peach boy. Not surprisingly, very few of them survive today.
And impressed by this scroll of a collection of essays by Yoshida Kenko, called Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness), regarded as one of the three greatest works in the essay genre. The essays were written in the fourteenth century but this manuscript dates from the early Edo period (1603 to 1868).
But my favourite was this illustrated anthology of poems edited by Sogai with pictures of fish and shellfish by Kunsai. This copy is the first edition, published in 1802 with excellent colour printing including the use of mica dust.
And finally an edition of I am a Cat (wagahai wa neko de aru), the humorous novel detailing a cat’s eye view of human life by Natsume Soseki written in 1905 and still selling well in Japanese and in English translation.