1,000+ Historic Japanese Illustrated Books Digitized & Put Online by the Smithsonian: From the Edo & Meji Eras (1600–1912)

Sure­ly we’ve all won­dered what we might do as promi­nent nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry indus­tri­al­ists, and more than a few of us (espe­cial­ly here in the Open Cul­ture crowd) would no doubt invest our for­tunes in the art of the world. Rail­car man­u­fac­tur­ing mag­nate Charles Lang Freer did just that, as we can see today in the Freer Gallery of Art in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Togeth­er with the Arthur M. Sack­ler Gallery (Sack­ler hav­ing made it as “the father of mod­ern phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal adver­tis­ing”), it con­sti­tutes the Smith­son­ian Insti­tu­tion’s nation­al muse­um of Asian art, gath­er­ing every­thing from ancient Egypt­ian stone sculp­ture to Chi­nese paint­ings to Kore­an pot­tery to Japan­ese books.

We like to high­light Japan­ese book cul­ture here every so often (see the relat­ed con­tent below) not just because of its strik­ing aes­thet­ics and con­sum­mate crafts­man­ship but because of its deep his­to­ry. You can now expe­ri­ence a con­sid­er­able swath of that his­to­ry free online at the Freer|Sacker Library’s web site, which just this past sum­mer fin­ished dig­i­tiz­ing over one thou­sand books — now more than 1,100, which breaks down to 41,500 sep­a­rate images — pub­lished dur­ing Japan’s Edo and Mei­ji peri­ods, a span of time reach­ing from 1600 to 1912. “Often filled with beau­ti­ful mul­ti-col­or illus­tra­tions,” writes Reiko Yoshimu­ra at the Smith­son­ian Libraries’ blog, “many titles are by promi­nent Japan­ese tra­di­tion­al and ukiyo‑e (‘float­ing world’) painters such as Oga­ta Kōrin (1658–1716), Andō Hiroshige (1797–1858) and Kat­sushi­ka Hoku­sai (1760–1849).”

Yoshimu­ra directs read­ers to such vol­umes as Hoku­sai’s One Hun­dred Views of Mt. Fuji, Uta­gawa Toyoku­ni’s Thir­ty-Six Pop­u­lar Actors, and artist, crafts­man, and design­er Kōet­su’s col­lec­tion of one hun­dred libret­tos for noh the­ater per­for­mances. Even those who can’t read clas­si­cal Japan­ese will admire an aes­thete like Kōet­su’s way with what Yoshimu­ra calls his “cali­graph­ic ‘font,’ ” all “skill­ful­ly print­ed on lux­u­ri­ous mica embell­ished papers using wood­en mov­able-type.”

While the online col­lec­tion’s scans come in a more than high enough res­o­lu­tion for gen­er­al appre­ci­a­tion, to get the full effect of book­mak­ing tech­niques like mica embell­ish­ment — which only sparkles when seen in real life — you’d have to vis­it the phys­i­cal col­lec­tion. Some things, it seems, can’t yet be dig­i­tized.

Enter the col­lec­tion of Japan­ese Illus­trat­ed Books here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch a Japan­ese Crafts­man Lov­ing­ly Bring a Tat­tered Old Book Back to Near Mint Con­di­tion

Enter a Dig­i­tal Archive of 213,000+ Beau­ti­ful Japan­ese Wood­block Prints

Japan­ese Kabu­ki Actors Cap­tured in 18th-Cen­tu­ry Wood­block Prints by the Mys­te­ri­ous & Mas­ter­ful Artist Sharaku

Splen­did Hand-Scroll Illus­tra­tions of The Tale of Gen­jii, The First Nov­el Ever Writ­ten (Cir­ca 1120)

Behold the Mas­ter­piece by Japan’s Last Great Wood­block Artist: View Online Tsukio­ka Yoshitoshi’s One Hun­dred Aspects of the Moon (1885)

A Won­der­ful­ly Illus­trat­ed 1925 Japan­ese Edi­tion of Aesop’s Fables by Leg­endary Children’s Book Illus­tra­tor Takeo Takei

“Tsun­doku,” the Japan­ese Word for the New Books That Pile Up on Our Shelves, Should Enter the Eng­lish Lan­guage

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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