In the 1930s, an admirer remembered Japanese antiquarian Ninagawa Noritane fondly as ‘simple-hearted and unpretentious. He was frugal and sometimes walked around wearing a lampshade hat woven with rush.’ He added, perhaps unnecessarily, ‘It should be said that he was a rather extraordinary individual.’
Certainly Ninagawa lived in extraordinary times. From our perspective, the Meiji Restoration – the moment on 23 October 1868 when Japan decisively turned from closed, feudal Tokugawa shogunate into a rapidly industrialising nation-state under Emperor Meiji – can seem simple, inevitable even. But it was a convulsive change that happened over decades: US gunboat diplomat Commodore Perry first arrived in 1853 with his fleet of steam-powered Black Ships, but revolts against the new regime continued through the 1870s. Ninagawa duly found himself at the heart of a fierce struggle to maintain Japan’s heritage against Western modernisation. ‘Yesterday’s new becomes today’s old, and today’s novel becomes tomorrow’s ordinary’, he wrote. ‘Even rare items are denigrated into the dust…’. His own lineage extended back a thousand years to the highest ranks of the nobility – one of Emperor Daigo’s grandfathers, no less – but involvement in a 16th-century rebellion had reduced his immediate family to temple bureaucrats. Ninagawa seems always to have been an obsessional collector. Historian Inokuma Nobuo wrote of Ninagawa’s childhood that: ‘Every day at playtime, he fiddled with soil and caressed roofing tiles.’ (Decorative roof tiles were prized by antiquarians.) Ninagawa was later so consumed by his studies, Inokuma continues, ‘that he forgot to eat in the morning and to sleep at night.’
Ninagawa began work in the Meiji bureaucracy in 1869, from 1871 in charge of the Ministry of Education’s Museum Bureau. He travelled the country as a researcher for the Jinshin Survey of Cultural Properties – an early attempt to develop a kind of heritage listing, which included making a photographic record of Edo Castle shortly before it burnt down in 1872. He was one of the major organisers, too, of the Western-style Yushima Seidō Exposition, later the foundational collection for Tokyo National Museum. Then, in 1876, Ninagawa set up printing machines in his Tokyo home to publish his impressive seven-volume Illustrated Book of Past Things. Resigning from government the following year, he dedicated himself to antiquarian work until his premature death, probably from cholera, in 1882.
‘By looking at other civilisations,’ Ninagawa wrote in his introduction to Past Things, ‘we come to see the barbaric state of our own. By considering the past, we come to learn what is needed in the present.’
For a detailed account of this period, see Hiroyuki Suzuki, Antiquarians of 19th-century Japan: the Archaeology of Things in the Late Tokugawa and Early Meiji Periods (ed. and trans. Maki Fukuoka, Getty Research Institute).
IMAGES: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons, Wiiii [CC BY SA 3.0].