For a long while I’ve been intrigued by the large concentration of important Chaucerians in Japan. Japanese scholars present at Anglophone medievalist conferences around the world, and their work appears regularly in monographs, collections, and journals. No other non-Anglophone country produces more first-rate Chaucerians. Where did their passionate interest in medieval European literature (in general) and Chaucer (in particular), originate? A forthcoming article by Koichi Kano traces the somewhat dispiriting publication history of the first Japanese translation of The Canterbury Tales in 1917; bringing Chaucer to a Japanese audience through prose translation was certainly an important step. I have my own ideas about the role played by Lafcadio Hearn, a Greco-American scholar, author, and translator at the end of the nineteenth-century. Perhaps, though, the best explanation for what I’ve observed during my own twenty-five-year career can be explained by the extraordinary influence of Professor Toshiyuki Takamiya.
Over a period of fifty years, Professor Takamiya became one of the preeminent private collectors of Middle English manuscripts. His passion for collecting Western books was sparked when he handled one with its thick pages and sturdy binding, creating a heft noticeably different from the Japanese books he knew growing up in post-war Japan. This son and grandson of prosperous traders had recently received two degrees (in Economics and in English) from Keio University, and he soon became a knowledgeable scholar of medieval literature. With familial resources and deep knowledge, he transmuted his bibliophilic passion into shrewd manuscript purchases.
Two historical and academic circumstances allowed him to amass his distinctive collection. First, when he began purchasing manuscripts in the 1970s, many landed British families were divesting their book and art holdings in order to pay property taxes. In this sense, the Takamiya collection’s shape (like that of any other collection) was determined by availability. Moreover, the restrictions were looser for exporting these items, items that would eventually be covered by the Garvey Clause and prohibited from leaving the U.K. Thus, not only were the manuscripts on the market, but they could be removed from the U.K., a pair of historical circumstances not likely to be repeated. This means that Takamiya’s 1970s purchases were the necessary route for a non-U.K. institution (such as Yale’s Beinecke Library) to acquire significant manuscripts in the 2010s.
Anyone with the necessary financial ability and bibiographic acumen could have taken advantage of these circumstances and purchased the manuscripts now comprising the Takamiya Collection. One reason Takamiya was able to acquire these manuscripts with little competition can be understood as the consequence of mid-twentieth-century academic fashions. At that time, institutional collections (the competitors who could match his resources) such as the Folger Library, the Huntington Library, and research university libraries were primarily attracted to illuminated deluxe manuscripts, most often Italian humanist and other Latin texts. These collectors passed on the more modest Middle English codices, rolls, and fragments with minimal ornamentation that Takamiya quietly slipped into his library and generously shared with colleagues and students around the world.
His three Canterbury Tales manuscripts, however, take advantage of an academic fashion peculiar to Chaucer Studies. When Takamiya purchased the Devonshire and Delamere manuscripts, codicological studies focused on a handful of essential texts. Chaucerians sought to recreate a text that matched medieval author’s intention by identifying the earliest examples. Two manuscripts, the Ellesmere and the Hengwrt, were identified as the earliest sources and thus the texts that should form the basis of Chaucer scholarship. Once scholars had noted the gaps, textual variants, and idiosyncratic ordering of the tales found in the other manuscripts, Chaucerians generally overlooked these “lesser” manuscripts. With libraries and museums not interested in them for their aesthetic beauty, and university research libraries not interested in them for their contents, these seemingly prosaic, even debased, manuscripts were available to the young Japanese bibliophile with the foresight to see what others overlooked.
For decades, Takamiya’s medieval library was a resource to scholars, whether they studied in his class at Keio University, made a pilgrimage to Tokyo, or participated in conferences from around the world. His carefully curated collection—filled with texts chosen to satisfy both the collector’s enthusiasms and the pedagogue’s and scholar’s needs—provides an epitome of the period’s extant text. The quality of the Takamiya collection resides in the collector’s drive towards completion, his financial resources, his knowledge of medieval texts, and his intuition about which manuscripts were currently undervalued.
In 2013, the collection’s residency in Tokyo came to an end but not its availability to scholars, for its transfer to Yale’s Beinecke Library ensured a safe and accessible repository.
When the crates of medieval manuscripts began arriving in New Haven from Tokyo, they held of one the most significant acquisitions by a North American library in half a century. As the 143 codices, roles, and fragments were unpacked, cataloged and made ready for their new home in New Haven, Connecticut, the staff noticed that, here and there, Professor Takamiya had inserted used envelopes and business cards, marking both his place and (it turns out) his temporary custodianship of the books. Beyond the assigned accession numbers prefixed with “Takamiya ms,” nothing else about the books seems to betray the five decades they spent in his care, both in the temperature-controlled library of his Tokyo home and his international travels when he gleefully pulled from his bag a valuable manuscript that formed the cornerstone of his talk’s analysis.
Among the 143 manuscripts in the Takamiya Collection are Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe as well as three containing The Canterbury Tales, including the Delamere Chaucer and the Devonshire Chaucer. Before acquiring these manuscripts, the Beinecke had no manuscript copy of the Tales; now it has three as well as the Treatise ms, Takamiya ms 9, 22, 24, and 32. With their travels from England to Japan and now to the U.S., these four manuscripts add a new dimension to the term “Global Chaucers.”
The Beinecke celebrated its acquisition of this transformative collection with Making the English Book, an intimate conference featuring eminent scholars of medieval manuscripts, book collectors associated with Toshi Takamiya, and Professor Takamiya himself. In all ways, the conference reflected Takamiya’s generous spirit, his warm sense of friendship, and his passion for collecting Middle English manuscripts. I attended the conference not only as a medievalist fascinated by the manuscripts themselves but also as a Chaucerian curious about what it means that such a significant mss collection (with 4 Chaucerian mss) was amassed in Japan: what it tells us about Chaucer Studies in Japan, what it tells us about ourselves, and what it tells us about Chaucer and his works that we might otherwise overlook.
I came closer to some answers. Some Japanese medievalists at the conference see a commonality between European feudalism and Japanese feudalism, and hence Japanese scholars have a natural interest in that European period. They also credited Japanese interest in Chaucer to the three good translations now available. They explained the nature of Japanese scholarship, with its intense emphasis on phonology and textual variants, as a function of the way English is taught in Japanese schools; Middle English is part of the teaching of English, since their approach includes the language’s history. They tend toward that approach because, as one scholar wryly admitted, that approach was most likely to receive (grant) funding. Takamiya’s collection, with its wide range of Middle English texts helped to feed those interests.
Repeatedly, the conference presentations reminded us that the provenance of a manuscript is important, reminding how ownership shapes the reception and how reception shapes ownership. Ownership marks are carefully preserved and noted in all discussions of the manuscripts. That fact that Prof. Takamiya seems to have left no similar marks recording his possession of this significant collection seems out of step with the delight he and other bibliophiles take in tracing provenance. His apparent failure to leave his mark in his books reminded me of certain attitudes towards conservation I observed in Japan. At many shrines and pilgrimage routes, “conservation” did not mean “restoration.” Instead, “conservation” meant careful, respectful, and continued use of an object or place, leaving as little trace of one’s presence as possible, neither mourning when use wore away a stone step nor replacing a wooden beam deteriorated by weather. I see something akin to this in Takamiya’s habits as an academic collector who did not see himself as an owner but as a guardian: he cared for the manuscripts without turning them into museum objects. He used them as a scholar and teacher who left the faintest trace, just a stray envelope or extra business card left behind, waiting for his return. Nevertheless, his name is permanently associated with these manuscripts, if not with owner’s marks on the flyleaf or doodles in the end pages or annotations in the margins, then with their accession number.
Perhaps, though, he had a bit more in common with many of the books’ previous owners because, after confessing that he never inserted the bookplates he had had specially designed for his collection, he whispered that there might be some very small TTs penciled in the gutters. With this tantalizing clue, we should all keep a watchful eye open for these hidden monograms whenever we open a Takamiya manuscript.