Click here to skip to content

Japanese manuscripts

The British Library’s collection of Japanese language manuscripts amount to some 500 items covering a wide range of subjects from religion, literature and the arts to science and mining. There is also a substantial collection of modern calligraphy.

The collections

The collection of Japanese manuscripts in the Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections covers a large variety of subjects including the arts, literature, religion, history, foreign relations, science and botany. 

The first manuscripts to enter the collection were a small number of maps and documents acquired by Sir Hans Sloane from the German physician Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716). More than half of the present holdings of pre-modern Japanese manuscripts were acquired by the physician Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866), and cover a wide range of subjects including maps, law, foreign relations, botany, medicine and scientific themes.

Perhaps the most notable manuscripts are the twenty or so Nara-ehon or 'Nara picture books'. These are folk tales from medieval Japan which were often propagated in illuminated manuscripts well ahead of any printed versions, and contain fabulous stories told in flowing calligraphy alternating with descriptive paintings embellished with gold.

There are also several manuscripts in the Okinawan language, including 'Elements or contributions towards a Loochooan and Japanese grammar' (1849) (Or.41) and 'English - Loochooan dictionary' (1851) (Or.40), compiled by the missionary Bernard Jean Bettelheim (1811-70).

In addition to these historic manuscripts, in recent years the British Library has built up a collection of around one hundred examples of modern calligraphy by leading Japanese calligraphers. 

Accessing the collections

Details of the Japanese manuscript collections can be founded in the printed catalogues, and for items acquired since 1984 a handlist is available online.

The India Office Records include 360 manuscript documents from the English Factory at Hirado, which operated from 1613 to 1623, when it was closed on the Shogun's orders. Amongst them are nine letters in Japanese. Detailed information about this corpus of material may be found in Anthony Farrington's The English Factory in Japan, 1613-1623 (British Library, 1991).

Other manuscript material relating to Japan, including items from the Kaempfer collection, is held in the Manuscripts department.

Contact

Hamish Todd, Lead Curator, Japanese and Korean
Asian and African Studies
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7662
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7641

E-mail: hamish.todd@bl.uk

Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator, Japanese Section
Asian and African Studies
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7652
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7641

E-mail: yasuyo.ohtsuka@bl.uk

PDF files

The links below are to Adobe PDF files. Accessibility solutions and free Reader software are available from Adobe.