An Archive of Vividly Illustrated Japanese Schoolbooks, from the 1800s to World War II

If you want to appre­ci­ate Japan­ese books, it helps to be able to read Japan­ese books. It helps, but it’s not 100 per­cent nec­es­sary: even if you’ve nev­er learned a sin­gle kan­ji char­ac­ter, you’ve prob­a­bly mar­veled at one time or anoth­er at the aes­thet­ics of Japan’s print cul­ture. Maybe you’ve even done so here at Open Cul­ture, where we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured archives of Japan­ese books going back to the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, a col­lec­tion of Japan­ese wave and rip­ple designs from 1980, a Japan­ese edi­tion of Aesop’s Fables from 1925, and even a fan­tas­ti­cal his­to­ry of Amer­i­ca from 1861 — all of which dis­play a height­ened design sen­si­bil­i­ty not as eas­i­ly found in oth­er lands.

The same even holds true for Japan­ese school­books and oth­er edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als, a dig­i­tal archive of which you can explore on the web site of Japan’s Nation­al Insti­tute for Edu­ca­tion­al Pol­i­cy Research. “Rang­ing from brush paint­ing guides to ele­men­tary read­ers to the geog­ra­phy of Koshi Province — now the Hokuriku region — hun­dreds of dig­i­tal scans reveal what stu­dents were learn­ing in school more than 100 years ago,” writes Colos­sal’s Kate Moth­es.

Cer­tain pub­li­ca­tions, like the epis­to­lary 冨士野往来 (“Mount Fuji Com­ings and Goings”) from 1674, date back much fur­ther. But only a cou­ple of cen­turies lat­er did Japan­ese books start inte­grat­ing the col­or­ful art­work that still looks so vivid to us today. You’ll find par­tic­u­lar­ly rich exam­ples of such books in the sec­tions of the archive ded­i­cat­ed to edu­ca­tion­al pic­tures, wall charts, and sug­oroku, a kind of tra­di­tion­al board game.

Orig­i­nal­ly pro­duced, for the most part, in the mid-to-late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry (though with some items as recent as the time of World War II), these pro­vide a look at the world­view that Japan pre­sent­ed to its young stu­dents dur­ing a peri­od when, not long emerged from more than 200 years of delib­er­ate iso­la­tion, the coun­try was tak­ing in for­eign influ­ence — and espe­cial­ly West­ern influ­ence — at a break­neck pace.

But despite a vari­ety of pro­posed dra­mat­ic lan­guage reforms (which would lat­er include the whole­sale adop­tion of Eng­lish), Japan would con­tin­ue almost exclu­sive­ly to speak and read Japan­ese. If you’re inter­est­ed in learn­ing it your­self, the read­ing mate­ri­als in this archive will sure­ly work as well for you as they did for the stu­dents of the eigh­teen-nineties. And even if you’re not, they’re still time­less object lessons in edu­ca­tion­al illus­tra­tion and design. Enter the col­lec­tion here.

via Colos­sal/Present & Cor­rect

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

A Japan­ese Illus­trat­ed His­to­ry of Amer­i­ca (1861): Fea­tures George Wash­ing­ton Punch­ing Tigers, John Adams Slay­ing Snakes & Oth­er Fan­tas­tic Scenes

Behold A Gram­mar of Japan­ese Orna­ment and Design: The 19th Cen­tu­ry Book That Intro­duced West­ern Audi­ences to Japan­ese Art (1880)

Down­load Clas­sic Japan­ese Wave and Rip­ple Designs: A Go-to Guide for Japan­ese Artists from 1903

The Japan­ese Fairy Tale Series: The Illus­trat­ed Books That Intro­duced West­ern Read­ers to Japan­ese Tales (1885–1922)

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

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.