Special collections: Japanese manuscripts and rare books

Collections in Japanese

The Bodleian Library's historical collections in Japanese are small. Nevertheless, the library holds some unique treasures acquired in the early years of its foundation.

The first known accession of Japanese printed material was three volumes of Saga-bon (Saga Press edition) (Nipponica 131-133), presented to the library in 1629 by Robert Viney, rector of Barnack, who studied at Oxford in 1621-25). The term Saga-bon refers to a group of luxury editions of Japanese literary works printed by Hon’ami Kôetsu’s press at Saga, Kyoto, c.1608–15. The Bodleian’s copies are texts of the Kanze school of Nô theatre. A special place is accorded to Saga-bon in the fields of fine printing and production of kanamajiri books printed with movable type.

Missionary literature

The next acquisition, Kirishitan-ban, is similarly unique and significant in the history of Japanese printing. Various kinds of missionary literature of the Jesuit Mission Press in Japan, collectively known as Kirishitan-ban, were produced from 1590 until the expulsion of the missionaries from Japan in 1614. The press used both Japanese and European typefaces, of both wood and metal. Many of these books were destroyed when the country was closed and the priests expelled. Today only 75 copies, including fragments, of 31 titles are known throughout the world. Thanks to its own long history, the Bodleian is fortunate in possessing six of these rare titles, including Sanctos no gosagueo no uchi nuqigaqi (a Compendium of the Acts of the Saints), the first book printed from moveable type in Japan, which came with the collection of John Selden received in 1659 (Arch.b.f.69).

Early printed books

The collection of early printed books in Japanese (c. 1,000 titles) now held in the Nipponica collection, is quite miscellaneous in character. It covers a wide range of printed books of the Edo period (17th-18th century), including some woodblock print albums.


The Japanese manuscript collection, numbering about 100 titles, contains over 20 titles of Nara-ehon (Nara picture books), decoratively illustrated literature hand-produced in either book or scroll format from the 17th to 18th century.

This includes a unique treasure, a picture scroll of Urashima. The shuinjô (vermilion seal document) of 1613 was issued by Shôgun Tokugawa Ieyasu to grant the English Company trade privileges in Japan. The Bodleian’s shuinjôis believed to be one of the two copies given to John Saris, the commander of the eighth voyage of the Company, for long presumed to be lost. It was already included in the list of Bodleian manuscripts (Library Records e.337) which was probably compiled in 1680. Dated the 28th day of the 8th month of the 18th year of the Keichô (12 October 1613), the document, bearing Ieyasu’s seal in vermilion, was issued to the captain of an English ship, to whom it grants privileges for trade in Japan and concomitant terms including jurisdiction rights in seven articles (MS. Jap.b.2).

The log-book of William Adams (1564–1620), the first Englishman known to have visited Japan, of four voyages made between 1614–1619 to Siam, China and Japan came to the Library as part of the bequest of St Henry Savile (MS. Savile 48).

Early printed books in European languages relating to Japan

The Bodleian has a rich collection of pre-1850 books dealing with Japan written in European languages. This includes examples of the published correspondence of the Jesuit fathers, accounts of the early travels to Japan in various published records of European voyages overseas, material relating to the East India Companies of England and Holland, and works of European explorers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The material vividly illustrates Europe’s contacts with Japan from the sixteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century.

The primary catalogues for Japanese works are Bunyiu Nanjio, A catalogue of Japanese and Chinese books and manuscripts lately added to the Bodleian Library (Oxford, 1881) and Jonathan M. Bunn & Adrian D.S. Roberts, A union list of Japanese local histories in British libraries (Oxford, 1981).

See also