During the spring of 2019, a Japanese classic took the world by storm as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) opened its major exhibition The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated. Highlights of the exhibition included Channel Markers (Miotsukushi) and The Barrier Gate (Sekiya), a pair of screens dating back to 1631, painted by Edo-period Rinpa master Tawaraya Sotatsu. The screens, which depict scenes from The Tale of Genji, have long been considered masterpieces and are noted for their reinterpretations of traditional Genji painting.
"Japanese objects such as books, hanging scrolls, and folding screens have long been cherished the world over for their beauty. And the recent amount of interest in Japanese classics is obvious when we see a large-scale exhibition like the one recently held at the Met,” explains Keio professor Takahiro Sasaki, who also serves as director of the university’s Institute of Oriental Classics (Shido Bunko). He brings an indispensable point of view to the Japanese classics, one firmly based in the field of bibliography, which sits at the intersection of physical material and cultural context. The assessment of a work is often dependent on when it was made and by whom, and as a leading expert in the field, Prof. Sasaki is well-versed in the Japanese classics. Here he discusses how his research is contributing to the knowledge of classical Japanese literature around the world.
Bibliography is a different kind of literary research. While most research attempts to interpret the meaning and genre of a work of art, bibliography instead pays particular attention to the physical and material aspects of books in which those works are contained. For example, a bibliographic approach would first inspect a book not by the quality of its content but by the quality of its paper, its binding, and the type of decorative illustrations inside. "The way paper is manufactured and decorated has gradually evolved, and through the ages we see changes in how books are made, how covers are designed, and even how fonts and characters are shaped and stylized. This multifaceted approach to material and context can help reveal the period in which a book was produced. The craftsmanship of a book can even tell us the extent of the social impact the works inside may have had at the time.”
Ancient books using Chinese script can be found all across East Asia in countries such as Korea, Vietnam, and of course China, where the characters were first developed. Japan, however, stands out for its variation in terms of book production, size, and design.
“A book’s binding and shape can tell us a lot about its historical significance. For example, even books that were produced and bound in the same manner would have different shapes depending on their genre. Waka poetry collections, for example, would often be rectangular, while fictional narratives were most often square. In the past, waka poetry enjoyed a higher social status than works of fiction, so we can infer that these shapes were related to a book’s role in society. We do, however, come across rectangular storybooks, which we speculate were made for a special purpose, perhaps to be presented as gifts or used for academic study."
There have also been cases in which this bibliographic approach has correctly dated a book that, based on its contents, was otherwise thought to have been from a different period. These kinds of rediscoveries have even happened with some of the most famous books in the field, according to Prof. Sasaki.
“The question of whether or not you can trust when a book was supposedly written is largely based on the reliability of the content found inside. When incorrect information is accepted at face value and used as a basis for study, researchers are more likely to draw false conclusions. When examining the classics, we care most about when and by whom a book was made because it affects our interpretive research and analysis of the works found inside,” he says.
To push bibliographic research forward, it is essential to look at as much quality literature as possible, which is exactly what Prof. Sasaki is doing at the Keio Institute of Oriental Classics (Shido Bunko). The institute was preceded by another of the same name—Shido Bunko—a research institute established in Fukuoka in 1938 by Takakichi Aso, the then president of Aso Shoten (now Aso Group), for the study of Japanese and other Oriental classics. The institute was relaunched in 1960 as a university research center when its collection of 70,000 books was presented to Keio University on the occasion of the school’s 100th anniversary. Since then, the institute has continued to collect materials and currently houses around 175,000 books, 52,000 of which have been donated to the institute.
“On the 150th anniversary of Keio University, the Century Cultural Foundation entrusted the institute with 1,740 items related to Japanese literary culture. Because many of them are artistic in nature, the Institute of Oriental Classics has become somewhat of a unique organization in Japan—part library, part museum, and part research lab. We also host bibliography courses to give students a rare firsthand look at the valuable documents in our possession. We have a lot of literature related to Japan as well as China, Korea, and Vietnam, which makes this an ideal place to do comparative studies," explains Prof. Sasaki.
Moving forward, the Institute plans to receive more than 500 additional art-related materials from the Century Cultural Foundation, which will be housed in the Keio Museum Commons (KeMCo), a new type of academic and cultural facility set to open March 2020, aimed at encouraging the use of these cultural resources. The Institute of Oriental Classics will play a vital role in the preservation and management of many of the materials donated to KeMCo.
Since 2016, Prof. Sasaki and other academic faculty at the institute have teamed up with FutureLearn, the UK-led MOOC learning platform, to offer free courses on the Japanese classics, which have been well received by an international audience. Some of these courses include Japanese Culture Through Rare Books, Sino-Japanese Interactions Through Rare Books, and The Art of Washi Paper in Japanese Rare Books. While courses are only available in English, Japanese- and Chinese-language materials are indispensable to the curricula. Many of the course materials are not available to the public unless on exhibition, so these courses can be particularly valuable opportunities for students abroad to interact with the materials, even if through a screen.
“Valuable Japanese materials are preserved in universities and libraries all across the world—from Oxford, Cambridge, and the American Ivy Leagues to The Met and the British Library,” says Prof. Sasaki. “A number of universities and museums abroad have invited me to come speak about the artistic value of Japanese books. These experiences ended up informing the curricula for the courses we now offer on FutureLearn. You may think research into Japanese classics would be niche and old-fashioned, only of interest to a small number of Japanese scholars, but the overwhelming response to our online courses from students around the world proves otherwise. Many Japanese books, including classical works, have garnered significant attention outside of Japan, which is one reason why I am convinced of the field’s potential to expand globally as a part of Japanese studies.”
On the recommendation of the FutureLearn headquarters, Prof. Sasaki is now working with the British Library on a new comparative studies course that examines the differences between Western and Japanese books.
The world is paying attention to the Japanese classics. And there are still many masterpieces that remain largely unknown even in their home country. In fact, Prof. Sasaki has just recently discovered a sagabon collection at Enpuku-ji, a Shingon Buddhist temple in neighboring Chiba Prefecture. Sagabon are elegant books from the Saga region of Kyoto, printed during the Edo period in the early 17th century. Characterized by tinted paper and decorated with elaborate patterns and mica glitter, called kira in Japanese, these books have undeniable artistic value and include some of the most beautiful and highly valued books in the history of Japanese printing. Among them, the sagabon volumes that depict The Tales of Ise are especially famous, and Enpuku-ji holds several copies of the text in its collection.
"The temple enlisted my help to plan an exhibition in 2014. On my first visit, I was just about knocked off my feet when I discovered the marvelous collection of books in its storehouse. Since then, I have helped the temple put on biannual exhibitions that highlight these treasures while I continue to research its collection."
Prof. Sasaki claims that one of the real joys of bibliographic research is encountering classics that have yet to be discovered, and his enthusiasm shows. “I’m convinced that there is still an abundance of Japanese books—both here in Japan and around the world—that are just waiting to be found, which is just thrilling to me.” As research into Japanese classics continues around the world, Prof. Sasaki’s insatiable curiosity continues to find new audiences and discoveries far beyond Japan.
In 1985, Prof. Sasaki graduated from Faculty of Letters, Keio University. In 1987, he completed a master's degree at the Graduate School of Letters, where he would later go on to receive his Ph.D. After serving as a research associate in the Research Information Division at the National Institute of Japanese Literature (NIJL), he returned to Keio to become a research associate at the Institute of Oriental Classics (Shido Bunko). In 2000, he became a senior assistant professor before going on to serve as an associate professor in 2003 and full professor in 2010.
Prof. Sasaki is a member of the Association of Waka Poetry Studies and the Academy of Middle Ages Literature. In 1995, he was awarded the 21st annual Japan Classic Literature Foundation Prize and was selected for the Keio Prize from Keio University in 2016. He was chosen for the 39th Kadokawa Gen'yoshi Prize in Literature in 2017. Prof. Sasaki specializes in medieval Japanese waka poetry and bibliography.
*All affiliations and titles are those at the time of publishing.
Keio University Institute of Oriental Classics (Shido Bunko) http://www.sido.keio.ac.jp/en/