|2005 Spring - Intro - Books - Calendars
Japanese Fairy Tale Series in chirimenbon
Visiting the home of the crepe-paper books' creator
text by Alex Byrne
What are chirimenbon?
I first came into contact with these Japanese crepe-paper books about 10 years ago at an antiquarian bookshop in Sydney, Australia. A small, interesting-looking volume in the window caught my eye. Titled The Old Man Who Made the Dead Trees Blossom, it looked as if it was printed on some kind of cloth. Intrigued, I bought it.
Since then I have found these books as far away from Japan as Israel and Uruguay and have accumulated more than 200 titles.
||Translated into many tongues:
This selection of chirimenbon was published by Hasegawa in eight languages between 1885 and 1930. Clockwise from top left are books in German, Swedish, English, Italian, Russian, Spanish, French, and (center) Portuguese.
Basically, chirimenbon are soft, pliable yet durable storybooks published in Japan from 1885 until as late as 1960. They contain colorful woodblock prints by well-known Meiji-period artists and were bought mostly by foreigners as gifts or to learn about Japanese culture.
Woodblock prints including text were prepared on regular paper, then interleaved with specially grooved cardboard molds, moistened, and wrapped around the vertical post on a device known as a momidai. A large amount of pressure applied to the paper and molds created the unique crinkly texture seen and felt on the page and reduced it in size by up to 30 percent.
Most chirimenbon were published by Takejiro Hasegawa in various shapes and sizes and exported all over the world. Content ranged from fairy tales to calendars to large-format works in many languages. Most were in English, French, and German, but volumes were also published in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Dutch, Swedish, and Danish. Though the process of making them was quite labor intensive, Hasegawa was able to publish extremely large quantities.
According to his grandson, Yusaku Nishinomiya, who still lives in his grandfather's house, it would be very difficult to make these books now because the craftsmen involved in their production are no longer alive.
Nishinomiya's home was once owned by Munemitsu Mutsu, Japan's foreign minister in the 1890s, and purchased by Hasegawa around 1910. The building is a European-style wooden structure, probably built in the 1880s.
Not surprisingly, Nishinomiya and his father inherited unsold stock of chirimenbon that remain in the house in varying condition. He still has some 800 crepe-paper books and 300 calendarsnot really a large number considering that tens of thousands were publishedbut likely the largest remaining collection in the world.
What is especially interesting about Nishinomiya's trove is that it contains some previously uncatalogued items and some that may have been made as samples but never sold.
Among his rarities are versions of the Japanese Fairy Tale Series. These 20 books, first published in English between 1885 and 1892, were very popular and ultimately sold as a boxed set. Nowadays single volumes are not so hard to find outside Japan but a complete set in its original box is rare.
Actually, the first books Hasegawa printed were in black and white on plain paper. However, he quickly realized that foreigners were more attracted to color prints, and his transition to crepe paper soon followed.
Although crepe paper had been used in Japan as early as 1800 for single-sheet prints, Hasegawa is thought to be the first to use it for complete books. Opinions vary as to why he published such books in the first place. Some say they were solely for children because a number were advertised as being printed on "Hasegawa's untearable crepe."
Some think they were intended for Japanese people to help them learn English because they already knew the underlying plots. Others believe they were for foreigners to learn about Japan. It was most likely a combination of all three. By 1900 Hasegawa was publishing stories and calendars in many shapes and sizes. Some designs were particularly ingenious and hold up well next to modern designs.
Hasegawa created a chirimenbon publishing empire with exports to North America and Europe. His first real international exposure came when he exhibited at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and at the Paris Universal Exposition in 1900, where he won a gold medal.
Interestingly, although he was exporting substantial numbers of books each year and dealing with foreigners both in Japan and overseas, he never once left Japan.
Hasegawa was born in 1853 and lived near Tokyo's Tsukiji area, home to the first relatively large foreign community.
He started studying English in 1869 under the tutelage of some foreign missionaries and soon developed contacts with eminent academics and missionaries who would later become his translators and probably market advisors.
In fact, Hasegawa ended up dealing with the three best-known foreigners living in Japan in the late 19th century: James Curtis Hepburn, Lafcadio Hearn, and Basil Hall Chamberlain. All three were perfectly suited to translate stories into English for him.
With the Japanese Fairy Tale Series, Hasegawa obviously saw that there was a need for English books not only for foreigners in Japan, but also for Japanese people who wanted to learn English and already knew the original stories. He had come up with a simple way of reaching a large number of customers. With the rapid development of Japan in the Meiji period, his timing could not have been better.
I have visited his grandson, Nishinomiya, several times over the past few years and can hardly contain my excitement each time. Though a new house has been built next to the old one, he always waits for me in the entrance of the old house.
It is truly a time capsule, barely touched since 1938 when his grandfather passed away. I feel privileged to know the grandson of Takejiro Hasegawa and I am thankful for the hours we have spent discussing his grandfather's legacy.
Hasegawa played a substantial role in exporting Japanese ideas and customs at a time when Japan was mostly importing and absorbing Western ideas and technology. Even today, most Japanese are unaware of chirimenbon, but when they see them they are without exception beguiled by their beauty and form.
Articles from the 2005 SPRING issue:
Kateigaho International Edition Issues:
2005 SUMMER - 2005 SPRING - 2005 WINTER
2004 AUTUMN - 2004 SUMMER - 2004 SPRING - 2004 WINTER
2003 AUTUMN - INAUGURAL ISSUE