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

May 26, 2012

A Giant Bookcase - Shiba Ryotaro Museum, Osaka (Museums)

The Japanese author Shiba Ryotaro (1923-1996) loved books. That becomes quite clear when you stand in the museum built next to his former house in Osaka and look up at the book cases, towering several stories above your head and containing 20,000 tomes.

If the Big One comes, you will be buried in books. Of course, this is not how Shiba Ryotaro himself kept his library. He had the books in ordinary cases scattered throughout his house, lining every possible part of the walls, including the corridors. I have a lot of books, too, although not as many as Shiba Ryotaro (I have been downsizing for some time now), and in my house the corridor also function as a library.

Shiba Ryotaro
[Shiba Ryotaro Memorial Museum, Osaka]

Shiba Ryoraro started writing historical novels after World War II. In that respect, the pen name, Shiba, he selected is very suggestive: it is the name of the famous Chinese historian Sima Qian, who lived 2,000 years ago. Shiba won the prestigious Naoki Prize for his 1959 novel, "Fukuro no Shiro" ("Owl Castle").

Better known are his long novels "Ryoma ga Yuku" ("Ryoma Is Going"), about the life of Ryoma Sakamoto, and “ Sakanoue no Kumo” (“Clouds on the Slope”), another novel about the turbulent times around the end of the shogunate and beginning of modern Japan. In fact, Sakamoto Ryoma was not at all popular as a historical figure until Shiba Ryotaro wrote his novel about him (personally, I believe Ryoma is not the great historical figure he is now thought to have been, I think much of his present status is due to the fictionalizing by Shiba Ryotaro - and every country needs its heroes).

Another series that won him great fame were his travel essays, 1,146 installments in all, printed first in Shukan Asahi and then issued as a series of books “Kaido wo Yuku” (“Going along the Highways”). These were also made into a documentary series by NHK and I must say it is the part of Shiba's work that I like best. Most of his novels are extremely long and meandering, which put me off - I like writers who manage to be concise.

Many of Shiba's 500 books were filmed or made into TV dramas, especially the NHK historical “Taiga” dramas broadcast on Sunday evening.

Most of his books are so huge and full of historical detail that only few have made it into other languages. Two of his smaller novels, “The Last shogun,” and “Kukai the Universal” are available in English. Even in his novels, many parts are like essays, or musings of the historian, after which storytelling takes over again. The story leans on the historical sources and Shiba's interpretation of them.

In the green garden of the museum, you first pass the former house of the author and through the glass you can see his study with a comfortable reading chair and large desk.

A curving glass corridor leads to the new part. To accommodate the 11 meter high bookcase the museum has been sunk into the soil. Architect was Ando Tadao and it is one of his smaller, but finest creations.

Just sit down and look at this load of books. It makes you feel very small. I regret that it is not possible to browse, to take books out of the cases, and enjoy the smell of paper and ink. There are some small exhibitions of books, manuscripts, photo's and memorabilia as well, but the bookcase takes center stage. It contains the materials Shiba Ryotaro needed to write his fiction: histories, biographies, dictionaries, original materials etc.

I notice one thing: as far as I can see there is nothing in English or any other modern foreign language. But Shiba did travel abroad, there is a small exhibition about his trip to the U.S. when I visit. And in the “Kaido” series, he wrote a nice volume about Holland.

The quite residential neighborhood is well suited to creative work. It is a pity Shiba Ryotaro died at the relatively young age of 73 – had he lived longer he could well have added a few hundred more works to his oeuvre.
Shiba Ryotaro Memorial Museum
3-11-18, Shimo-kosaka, Higashi-Osaka
CL Mon, 1 September-10 September & 28 December-4 January
15 min walk from Kawachi-Kosaka St on the Kintetsu Nara Line