Rare Treasures from Japan

By Quintana Heathman
February 12, 2016
Participants in the workshop gather around to look at examples from the museums’ Japanese printed books collection. 

Quintana Heathman

Harvard’s libraries are world-renowned for their extensive holdings of rare books, but some may be surprised to learn that the Harvard Art Museums also possess a remarkable collection of rare Japanese printed books. These beautifully illustrated works are precious examples of the height of contemporary woodblock printing technology in Japan, and a lucky group of scholars, librarians, curators, and collectors recently gathered to learn more about these Edo period (1615–1868) and Meiji era (1868–1912) treasures. The workshop, organized by the Rare Book School of the University of Virginia, was hosted by the Harvard Art Museums and the Harvard-Yenching Library. 

Under the guidance of Ellis Tinios ’69, honorary lecturer of history at the University of Leeds, the group explored a selection of objects spanning the range of early modern printing in Japan, including an example of early movable type printing; a large-format work comparing the beautiful courtesans of the pleasure quarters and their fine calligraphy; and perhaps one of the best known 19th-century Japanese books, Hokusai manga, a 15-volume series of sketches and figures by the celebrated artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849).

When woodblock printing reached Japan from China and Korea in the eighth century, production was initially limited to religious texts in monastic settings. But by the early modern era, commercial publishers were enlisting authors and artists, as well as skilled block carvers and printers, to produce strikingly illustrated popular works, and a spectacular boom in print culture ensued. The popularity of these books can be seen in the variety produced during this time, from light comic fiction to encyclopedias, kimono pattern books to poetry anthologies, Confucian treatises to travel guides.

These books, Tinios emphasized, can be considered “works of art produced in multiples.” Each was printed by hand, creating objects that despite being in a sense mass-produced, are also subtly unique. This can be seen in Gifts of the Ebb Tide (1789), a lavishly printed volume designed by Kitagawa Utamaro (d. 1806) for an amateur poetry club. Utamaro, one of the most celebrated printmakers of the late 18th century, is known for his images of beautiful women in the popular ukiyo-e prints of the day. However, in this book he depicts the variety and intricate beauty of shells found along the shores of Japan; each group of shells is accompanied by poems.

A showcase not only for Utamaro’s arresting designs, the publication also incorporates a number of complex luxury printing techniques, including blind printing and the use of metallic pigments and reflective mica. The museums are fortunate enough to possess two excellent examples of the book, so workshop participants were able to compare the delicate differences in color and printing.

The production of opulent woodblock printed books continued into the modern era of Japanese bookmaking, persisting in beautiful design books by artists and publishers who pushed the limits of the medium. For a taste of these objects, visitors to the museums can enjoy the book A World of Things (1909–10), designed by Kamisaka Sekka, currently on view in the galleries. (The book is part of a promised gift from Robert and Betsy Feinberg.) The artist’s bold designs were extravagantly printed in stunning colors and metallic pigments by the publishing firm Unsōdō, building on centuries of technological innovation and the rich history of book production in Japan.

Quintana Heathman is the curatorial fellow in Japanese art at the Harvard Art Museums.