Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

May 26, 2012

Kanji Culture - Museum of Calligraphy, Tokyo (Museums)

The Museum of Calligraphy is not dedicated to beautiful writing, as the name might suggest, but to inscriptions in kanji, Chinese characters, on jade, bones, bronze, ceramics, and so on. It exhibits some of the oldest examples of the Chinese character script, a true culture of signs.

The collection was set up by Mr. Nakamura Fusetsu (1866-1943), who started out as a painter in the Western style but became interested in calligraphy and Chinese inscriptions when he was in China as reporter with the army during the Sino-Japanese War of 1895.

For half a year he toured China and Korea and found many rubbings and archeological materials about the early history of Chinese characters. This was the start of his collection, which grew to include 12 ‘important cultural properties.’

The museum was already opened in 1936 in the grounds of Nakamura’s residence, opposite the house where in the early 20th c. the haiku poet Shiki lived.

In 1995 the Nakamura family donated the museum to Taito Ward. It was completely refurbished to bring it up to modern standards and in the grounds also the beautiful Nakamura Fusetsu Memorial Hall was built, via which one now enters.

Museum of Calligraphy, Tokyo
[Museum of Calligraphy. Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

It is best to start with the (older) main building and come back later to the memorial hall where the reception desk is. The main building consists of five small galleries, of which four are open for showing the permanent exhibition.

Room One has stone steles and Buddhist statues, all from China and dating from the Han-dynasty to the Tang. There is a small gilt-bronze Buddha statue from the 5th c. and one of white marble from the 6th c. The statues have votive inscriptions on the base or the back informing us about the original use of the statue. One of the steles, a natural stone, dates from the early Han-dynasty (206 BCE – 9 CE) and is one of the earliest examples of such objects.

Room 3 to 5 are on the second floor. Room 3 (all Chinese items) has jades, used as ornaments by the nobility; clay grave figurines; flat tiles for the walls of houses and graves; roof tiles; a fragment from the stone steles on which in the period 172-178 CE the Chinese Classics were engraved; and stone slabs with grave inscriptions, carrying information about the deceased.

In room 4 we enter the world of Chinese bronzes from the Shang and Zhou periods, used for ritual purposes in the ancestor cult and here inscribed with the purpose why the implements were cast, such as official appointments; weapons from the Warring States to Han Dynasty; and finally also something Japanese: itabi, Buddhist steles from the middle ages that were erected by the faithful as prayers for their own bliss in the afterlife.

In room 5 we find another interesting item from China, the so-called oracle bones. These contain the oldest known Chinese characters and date from around 1300 BCE and later. Animal bones or tortoise shells were used to divine by applying heat and interpreting the resulting cracks. Afterwards, the questions (and sometimes also the answers from the oracle) were written on the bone or shell. There are also pottery jars with written inscriptions from the Han Dynasty; mirrors with inscriptions from the Warring States to Tang dynasty; seals; ink stones; writing brushes and water droppers to prepare the ink on the ink stone. From Japan we find in this section a wooden stupa and prayer sheets from Horyuji.

When we finally return to where we entered, the Nakamura Fusetsu Memorial Hall, we find rubbings (including some very large ones mounted on scrolls) and calligraphy books displayed on both the ground floor and second floor. Here are again many rare items, such as copy made in the Ming period of the Daikanjo from the Northern Song (1109).

At the back of the second floor is also a room with memorabilia about Mr. Nakamura, including photos, documents and some of his oil paintings.
Tel: 03-3872-2645

Hours: 9:30 - 16:30. CL Mon (next day of NH), between exhibitions, NY (12/29-1/3).

Access: 5 min on foot from Uguisudani St on the Yamanote Line. Leave via the N exit of the station, walk through the short street with restaurants and then turn left into the road with the elevated road after first crossing over to the opposite side. Take the first narrow road on the right, and turn left at the first crossing. The museum is visible on your right. The area is full of love hotels.