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Now Online: Japanese Rare Book Digital Collection

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(The following is a post by Cameron Penwell, Japanese Reference Librarian, Asian Division)

The Japanese Rare Book Digital Collection, launched in December 2020, currently contains 35 titles in more than 270 volumes. Twenty-five of these rare books are newly digitized, while the remaining ten are titles that were first scanned and made available online several years ago. Only recently, however, were they assembled as a collection and configured for viewing on the Library’s updated platform for digital content.

Among the previously digitized materials are some rare and beautifully illustrated works of classical Japanese literature that have drawn attention from scholars around the world. Of particular interest are two unique editions of “The Tale of Genji,” the famous 11th-century work attributed to Murasaki Shikibu (c. 978–c. 1014), a lady-in-waiting at the imperial court in Kyoto (then known as Heiankyō). One of the two sets of “The Tale of Genji” held by the Asian Division is an illustrated woodblock print edition produced in Kyoto in the mid-17th century. In addition to the main text in 54 volumes, it also includes six additional volumes consisting of commentaries, a genealogy, an index, and an extra chapter written by a later, unknown author.

A scene from the chapter “Wakamurasaki” (Lavender) in which Genji, who has left the capital in order to recuperate from an illness, consults with an ascetic mountain priest. Image 5 of Volume 5 in [Genji monogatari] [源氏物語], 1654, Japanese Rare Book Digital Collection, Asian Division.
The other set of “The Tale of Genji” is a manuscript edition that dates to the early 16th century. Until its acquisition by the Library in 2008, this edition was relatively unknown to scholars. Between 2010 and 2012, several specialists in classical Japanese literature visited the Asian Reading Room to carefully survey and document it as part of a project led by the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics (NINJAL). The results of their work can be viewed in English and Japanese on the NINJAL website. Currently just three of the 54 volumes in this older set have been digitized, but plans are underway to make the entirety of it available online. Staff at NINJAL, however, have already made use of these three digitized volumes to create an innovative display method that allows readers to view the team’s expert transcription of the handwritten manuscript alongside the original text or superimposed over it.

As both editions continue to attract scholarly attention, the new online presentation within the Japanese Rare Book Digital Collection will continue to facilitate comparative research, especially in the digital humanities. Some exciting advances in this field more generally include the development of optical character recognition software for handwritten Japanese texts as well as crowdsourcing initiatives to transcribe them, similar to the Library’s own By the People campaigns.

A scene from a Nara ehon edition of the Japanese folktale “Hōmyō dōji” (Marvelous Dharma Child) a Buddhist story with roots in South Asia. Image 10 of Volume 3 in “Hōmyō dōji” ほうみやう童子, early 18th century, Japanese Rare Book Digital Collection, Asian Division.

The digital collection also contains four examples of Nara ehon, or “Nara picture books,” a style of manuscript book adorned with hand-painted color illustrations produced between the late 15th and early 18th centuries. Among the titles are “Hōmyō dōji” ほうみやう童子 (Marvelous Dharma Child), “Shigure” しくれ (Autumn Shower), “Shizuka” 靜 (The Tale of Shizuka), and “Soga monogatari” 曽我物語 (The Tale of the Soga Brothers). Professor Elizabeth Oyler, a specialist in premodern Japanese literature, has studied these unique editions both online and in person in the Asian Reading Room. Those interested in learning more, particularly about “Shizuka” and “Soga monogatari,” may consult her article “Japanese Cultural Treasures at the Library of Congress: Digitization of the Rare Books Collection,” which appeared in the October 2007 issue of the open-access “Journal of East Asian Libraries.”

Turning to the recently digitized materials in the collection, readers will discover a number of books in classical Chinese. These include texts first produced in China that were later reprinted or hand copied in Japan, often with notes and annotations added, as well as works by Japanese authors writing in classical Chinese, or kanbun 漢文 (Chinese writing) as it is called in Japan. Regardless of origin, they encompass a broad range of topics: Buddhist sutras; Chinese rhyme dictionaries; Confucian critiques of Christianity; military arts and strategy; world geography; and writing implements, among many others. The diversity of these works reflects the widespread importance that classical Chinese played as a written lingua franca for transmitting ideas and culture across East Asia prior to the 20th century.

One interesting example of Japanese scholarship from these materials is a partial set of a lightly illustrated 1643 book titled “Hochū sōkikan” 補註相驥鑑 (A Guide to Judging Horses, Annotated), based on the 1639 work “Sōkikan” 相驥鑑 by Kurosawa Sadayuki 黑澤定幸 (d. 1671). Kurosawa was a samurai who worked as a caretaker of horses (umaazukari 馬預) in direct service to the Tokugawa shogunate, the central military government that ruled Japan from its seat of power at Edo (Tokyo) between 1603 and 1868.

In this book, Kurosawa draws on a variety of historical Chinese texts and other sources to compile a comprehensive guide for evaluating the quality of a horse based on its appearance, a practice also known as horse physiognomy. The book provides information on raising and caring for horses, with detailed sections on anatomy, diseases, and medical treatment; it also features an introduction by Kurosawa’s former teacher, Hayashi Razan (1583–1657), a famous scholar who served as a tutor to four shoguns.

The notes in the annotated edition were added by Kurosawa Hirotada 黑澤弘忠 (1612–1678), also known as Kurosawa Sekisai 黑澤石斎. Born to a family of humble means, he entered into the service of Kurosawa Shigehisa 黒沢重久 (1555–1618) where, like “Sōkikan” author Kurosawa Sadayuki, he was formally adopted. He, too, studied under Hayashi Razan, and later went on to serve as a chief scholar for the ruler of Matsue domain, in what is now Shimane prefecture.

An anatomical chart of a horse, with relevant parts of its head identified. Image 28 of Kan 1 in “Hochū sōkikan” 補註相驥鑑 (A Guide to Judging Horses, Annotated), 1643, Japanese Rare Book Digital Collection, Asian Division.

Another newly available title of note is a richly illustrated study of bamboo by Okamura Shōken 岡村尚謙 (d. 1837) called “Keien chikufu” 桂園竹譜 (A Genealogy of Bamboo by Keien). Okamura was a doctor and natural scientist who served as an official physician to the lord of Takaoka domain in Shimōsa province, now part of present-day Chiba prefecture. The “Keien” indicated in the title of the book actually refers to Okamura—it was his pen name. In addition to scientific descriptions of the bamboo plant, the work documents historical and literary references to bamboo and contains numerous color illustrations.

A scene of bamboo. Image 21 of Kan 1 in “Keien chikufu” 桂園竹譜 (A Genealogy of Bamboo by Keien), c. 1828, Japanese Rare Book Digital Collection, Asian Division.

Tucked away in the back of the set’s fifth and final volume is a typed note from “Tanaka Tyōzaburō” [Chōzaburō] (1885–1976) dated June 13, 1922, that reads “Memorandum for Mr. Swingle about Keien Chikufu.” The addressee of this memo, Walter Swingle (1871–1952), was a botanist who specialized in citrus plants at the United States Department of Agriculture and had a keen interest in Chinese history. He even helped acquire rare Chinese and Japanese books for the Library during research trips to East Asia in the 1910s and 1920s. You can learn more about Swingle and his ties to the Library’s Asian collections in this blog post.

These are just a few brief highlights, but we hope interested general readers and specialists alike will continue to explore the Japanese Rare Book Digital Collection, which is the latest effort by the Asian Division to make its collection materials more accessible to worldwide audiences. It follows two earlier releases, the Japanese Censorship Collection in April 2018 and the Ainu and Ezochi Rare Collection in April 2020.

For questions or additional information about any of these resources, or Japanese-language materials at the Library of Congress more generally, please use the Asian Division’s Ask-a-Librarian.

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  1. These images of the artwork are just amazing! It is so nice to be able to have the LOC digitized network to showcase off these rare and beautiful pieces of Japanese art.

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