The new selection of prints online at Toshidama Japanese Prints takes inspiration from a book published by an English aristocrat in 1871. They are a random collection of folk tales, myths and stories from before the great modernisation of Japan and the restoration of the Meiji Emperor in 1864.
It is a charming book, and refreshingly free of the colonial overtones many of his contemporaries fell victim to when writing about other cultures. Many of the stories will be entirely familiar to collectors of Japanese prints… The 47 Ronin and their vendetta of revenge, the Vampire Cat of Nabeshima, tales of magical foxes and badgers and a selection of children’s fairy tales, printed here for the first time in the west. Given that the eccentric Lord was an English aristocrat, there are a surprising number of stories about Edoists, common people, townsfolk. He had a fascination with the street toughs, the otokodate and devotes chapters to their exploits, whilst barely mentioning the achievements of Yoshitsune or Yoritomo.
Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford, 1st Baron Redesdale, GCVO, KCB, DL (24 February 1837 – 17 August 1916) was a British diplomat, collector and writer. He is famous because he was the grandfather of the more famous Mitford sisters. 1st Baron Redesdale went to Japan as a secretary to the British Legation as the Imperial power in Japan was shifting from Kyoto to Edo. In other words, Mitford was there at the point of the accession of the Meiji Restoration. Whilst serving in Japan at such a delicate time in the country’s history, Redesdale became friendly with the brilliant scholar, author and diplomatist E M Satow. It was probably under Satow’s influence that he began his account of Japanese folklore.
Tales of Old Japan, would certainly have been the first time that the British public would have been made familiar with Japanese culture in any meaningful way. The writing and the empathy that he has with the subjects shows a good deal more than a colonial administrator’s disdain for foreign culture. The book does reveal a deep insight into Japanese life, albeit with a distanced eye. Mitford was truly embedded in Japan at a time of change and at great personal danger to himself. He witnessed – probably the first westerner to do so – ritual suicide by disembowelment, commissioning his own illustrations such as the one below that shows the climactic moments of the Ronin tale.He met the Meiji Emperor (albeit from behind a screen), and witnessed first hand the final throes of revolution in 1868. He showed great courage in Japan, nearly drowning, shot at, and nearly cut down by samurai swords; and yet the country was the making of him and his classic Tales of Old Japan, which is still in print nearly 150 years after it was first published, turned him into a celebrity in Britain.
His children were less famous and made less of their lives but his grandchildren became the notorious ‘Mitford Sisters’, defining the style and literary fashion of the interwar period as well as dominating headlines with their love of communism, Hitler, chickens and Evelyn Waugh. Despite the relentless publicity given to Unity Mitford’s unconsummated affair with Adolf Hitler and her failed attempt at suicide, Nancy Mitford became the epitome of post-war aristo-socialism, living in France and espousing Labour governments in her newspaper columns whilst all the while poking affectionate fun at bourgeois manners.
As for the book itself, well – I reread it recently and liked it very much. Our selection tries to reflect the feel of the chapters, treating each print as a small vignette of the Japan that is now wholly lost to us, except through these fragile prints. Redesdale for example draws attention to the stories surrounding Chobei, Banzaemon and Nagoya Sansa, under the chapter ‘A Story of the Otokodate of Yedo’. He retells the story of the hapless young townsmen, rogues and fighting, squabbling men with humour and dignity and compassion. The narrative was made into a kabuki drama, and we are showing two Kunisada triptychs that illustrate the play.
Elsewhere in the book, Redesdale devotes an entire chapter to ‘The Vampire Cat of Nabeshima’. Cat witches abound in Japanese folklore. We are showing a tremendous print by Koko Yoshitsuya of a cat-witch (pictured further up the page), and the story surfaces again in an enigmatic print by Kunisada taken from a play, Iroha Diary of the Stations of the Eastern Road, a story about a cat stone which transforms into the bewitching beauty Tatsuyo.
The greatest emphasis is placed on the enduring story of loyalty, betrayal and duty that is the Forty-seven Ronins. How the private 47 strong army of retainers plotted to kill the man who obliged their master to take his own life after great provocation in the Imperial palace.
There was a great deal in Edo culture that fascinated Redesdale. The English have an obsession with chivalry, with King Arthur, with loyal and brave knights and not forgetting the British regard for outlaws with a heart of gold. These are powerful symbols of the British Isles, myths that have spread and persist still in the culture of cinema from America – the persistent hegemony of medievalism that finds expression in Marvel heroes and masked avengers. They find an equivalent in Japanese and Chinese traditions such as the less well known heroes of The Water Margin; a Chinese novel that was translated into Japanese in the early nineteenth century about a group of independent, rough spirited warriors, rebels, intellectuals and bandits.
The story begins with the release of 108 spirits imprisoned beneath a tortoise. Some Courtiers are forced to flee to the Water Margins, a swamp at Liangshan Marsh. They settle as outlaws and others with extraordinary skills, reborn spirits of the 108, join them. They eventually defeat the corrupt army of the Emperor and are pardoned. They then become a private army at his disposal and the further chapters detail their increasingly outlandish achievements… think about Avengers Assemble!
It’s a shame that Redesdale didn’t write about the Water Margin heroes, but there is plenty to admire in the book as it is. It is available in paperback for less than $15. The current exhibition at Toshidama Japanese Prints has a selection of prints inspired by the themes of Tales of Old Japan, all prints are for sale.