The Library at Illinois has added its 13-millionth book to its collections, maintaining its status as the largest public university library in the country. Ise Monogatari (or Tales of Ise), the first illustrated Japanese printed book, is an anonymous compilation of 209 poems and 125 episodes from a poet’s life. Enormously popular, 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 University Library’s copy is the first printed edition of the classic work and was published in 1608 by Suminokura Soan, a wealthy entrepreneur and art connoisseur, in co-operation with Hon’ami Koetsu, the famous painter, calligrapher, and polymath, and Nakanoin Michikatsu, a nobleman, literary scholar, and editor. The illustrator of the book is unknown, though some have attributed the woodcuts to Koetsu.
Tales of Ise is also one of the earliest Japanese books printed with moveable type. Soan’s press, which he established at Saga village near Kyoto, produced the much sought after “Saga-bon” imprints, of which this is the most famous. The elegant type and delicate woodcuts appear on five different hand-made colored papers.
Tales of Ise 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. This rare first edition is distinguished by Nakanoin Michikatsu’s brush-drawn kakihan (or seal). The presence of his signature in manuscript indicates that this copy may have been presented as a gift.
“The University of Illinois houses an excellent collection of 17th- to 19th-century illustrated Japanese books in its Yamagiwa Collection. This new acquisition will be a boon to scholars and students of Japanese literature and culture at our University, and a welcomed addition for anyone who loves beautiful books,” said Valerie Hotchkiss, director of The Rare Book & Manuscript Library. “We have a 15th-century manuscript of the text, as well as later imprints from the 17th and 18th centuries, but to be able to add the first edition, which is also the first illustrated Japanese book and one of the earliest examples of moveable wooden type in Japan, well, this is really spectacular!”
The 13-millionth volume was acquired through the generosity of the Simpson Family of Coshocton, Ohio. Robert E. and Juanita J. Simpson have been long-time Library Friends, supporting the Library through their numerous gifts since 1987. Along the way, they established the University Librarian Deanship, the Rare Book & Manuscript Library Chair, and the Senior Conservator positions.