First Illustrated Japanese Book Added as 13-Millionth Volume

Ise monogatari 伊勢物語 (Tales of Ise). Kyoto-fu (Saga): Suminokura Soan, with Nakanoin Michikatsu and Hon’ami Kōetsu, 1608.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has added its 13-millionth book, maintaining our status as the largest public university library in America.  The 13-millionth volume is the Ise Monogatari of 1608, the first illustrated Japanese printed book.  It is also the first printed edition of the popular Ise Monogatari (or Tales of Ise).  Published by Suminokura Soan 角倉素庵 (1571-1632),  a wealthy entrepreneur, scholar, litterateur and art connoisseur, it is also one of the earliest Japanese books printed with moveable type.

Soan’s printing establishment, which he set up at Saga 嵯峨 village near Kyoto, produced the much sought after “Saga-bon” imprints, of which this is the most famous.

The Tales of Ise is an anonymous compilation of 209 poems and 125 episodes from a poet’s life, arranged in rough chronological order as a biography of the unnamed protagonist (known in the text only as ‘a man’).  It probably originated the 10th century but gained its present form in the 12th century, in a version edited by the great poet Fujiwara Teika 藤原定家 (1162-1241).  Enormously popular, the Tales of Ise recounts the amorous exploits of an unnamed lover/poet, often identified with Ariwara no Narihira (825-80), one of the six “sages” of Japanese poetry.  The text was often illustrated in manuscript form and has long been considered a kind of ars amatoria and an essential text for students of Japanese culture. Theromantic adventures are also popular subject matter for painting, so it is not surprising that the first illustrated Japanese book would be the Tales of Ise.

The first printed edition—our 13 millionth book—was published by Suminokura Soan in co-operation with the famous painter, calligrapher and polymath, Hon’ami Kōetsu 本阿弥光悦 (1558-1637). The illustrator of the book is unknown, but some have attributed the woodcuts to Kōetsu.  A third member of the publishing team, Nakanoin Michikatsu 中院通勝, (1558-1610), was a nobleman, literary scholar, and editor.  Their Saga-bon editions were prized for their high quality and artistic merit.  They were printed with movable wooden type, a technique newly imported from Korea. The elegant type and delicate woodcuts of the Saga-bon Tales of Ise appear on five different hand-made colored papers.

This rare first edition is distinguished by Nakanoin Michikatsu’s brush drawn kakihan or cipher, one of only four copies with his handwritten signature, probably indicating that this copy was presented as a gift.

The book was reprinted eight times by 1610.  Its illustrations became the model for the iconography of this text and for the general style of Japanese book illustration for the next two centuries.  The University of Illinois houses an excellent collection of 17th-  to 19th-century illustrated Japanese books in its Yamagiwa Collection, including a 15th-century manuscript copy of the Tales of Ise and three 17th- and early 18th -century print editions. This new acquisition will be a boon to scholars and students of Japanese literature and culture at our university, and a welcome addition for anyone who loves beautiful books.

We are grateful to the Simpson family for the generous support which made this important acquisition possible.

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One response to “First Illustrated Japanese Book Added as 13-Millionth Volume

  1. Reblogged this on What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies? and commented:
    Today’s Fun Link Friday is more of a quick and interesting news update. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign added its 13-millionth book to its collection at the end of September, which happens to be the Ise Monogatari (Tales of Ise) of 1608, the first illustrated Japanese printed book. It is also the first printed edition of Ise Monogatari! If you’re not aware of what your university (or even local public libraries, which especially in big cities have unique collections of unexpected items) has in its possession, be sure to check it out! Oftentimes you can go take a look at these fabulous items of the past first-hand thanks to special collections experts.

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