Winter Scene

After last month's somewhat shocking print, we're back to something more serene to close this album. The designer's name does not appear anywhere on this print, but that we are looking at a design by Ando Hiroshige is beyond doubt. I have no idea which of his many print series this is taken from, but a good guess would be that it might be part of an Edo Miyage (Souvenirs of Edo) series. Eh? Hiroshige designed prints with English lettering? Well no ... but as usual, there is quite an interesting story behind it!

A few month's back - in the story to accompany the sixth print of this album - I mentioned the name of Meiji-era publisher Takejiro Hasegawa. That print wasn't a reproduction of one of his publications, but this one is. It is from a beautiful 3-volume book he produced entitled 'Sword and Blossom Poems' (this image is from Volume 1, published in 1907). The book was intended for the foreign market, and he of course was playing on the image of Japan that was held by most foreigners of that time - in which bushido and sakura were inextricably linked with their view of life in this country. Here at the beginning of the 21st century, swords are certainly not something that immediately comes to our mind when we think of Japan, but we are happy to see that cherry blossoms are still an important part of the national culture!

The image you see here is taken from the 'blossom' section of the book, in which each picture is paired with a poem from the Kokinshu, the famous old anthology of tanka poetry created many centuries before. The poems were not written in traditional calligraphy, but were translated into English, as you can see here. This was still 'early days' in western studies of old Japanese literature, and it took two people to make the translation; the poem was first put into basic English by a scholar in Japan (Shotaro Kimura, a member of the British Society of Japan at the time), and then rendered into literary style by a lady over in England, Mrs. Charlotte Peake. The resulting poem has come out in a style that sounds quite archaic to us now, but perhaps this is just as well, considering that the Japanese original version is more than a thousand years old, and must sound pretty archaic to Japanese ears too!

In that previous story I talked about just how thorough Hasegawa-san was in creating his products, and when we look a bit closer at the poem on this print, we can discover evidence of this. In the early Meiji period other woodblock printed materials using English had been made, mostly English/Japanese dictionaries. When we look at those books now, we are struck by the clumsiness of the lettering - it is evident that the Japanese carvers had no idea how to carve those strange .. a .. b .. c .. shapes - and such books are ugly indeed. Hasegawa-san must have been aware of this problem, and to solve it he created (or commissioned?) an alphabet font specifically designed for carving on woodblocks in the traditional manner. Each letter is delineated in a way that makes sense to the carver, and as I well know from having carved this myself, the knife slides easily around each letter just as it does when carving Japanese cursive characters. Even though the old carvers wouldn't have been able to read the text they were working on, they would have been able to carve it with beauty and taste. Hasegawa used this font for many of his publications, and we now refer to it with his name; this type style is called Hasegawa. To Japanese viewers it looks English ... to English readers it looks quite Japanese. An excellent solution!

So this peaceful snowy scene brings our album to a close, and as the poem mentions, I'm sure spring is just around the corner. We've really covered a lot of ground in the album this year; I hope you haven't become too dizzy with all the coming and going ...

February 2003

David