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Celebrating the Japanese collection’s centenary
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Celebrating the Japanese collection’s centenary

After World War I, Japan came to Leuven’s rescue by donating a literary treasure to the university library, now exactly one century ago.

7 minutes
22 June 2020

World War I put the city of Leuven on the international map, but, unfortunately, for rather tragic reasons. When German troops destroyed the city centre in August 1914, the university library was burned to the ground. The terrible fire caused worldwide outrage and became a symbol for the destruction of art and culture in times of war. Soon after World War I, however, an unlikely ally decided to step up to the plate. Japan came to Leuven’s rescue by donating a genuine literary treasure to the university library, now exactly one century ago.

Leuven’s original university library was established in 1636 in the Naamsestraat. Sadly, its long history is littered with terrifying ordeals. The most memorable event occurred on August 24th, 1914. That night, German troops reduced the building to ashes, much to the dismay of the rest of the world. The material damage was enormous: no fewer than 250,000 books went up in flames, among which about 800 so-called ‘incunables’, i.e. books that were printed in Europe before the year 1501.

Of unicorns and goddesses

After the fire, people across the globe rallied to the cause of the Leuven library. The United States played a huge part in rebuilding the library. Thanks to American funding, it was possible to commission New York architect Whitney Warren to design the building at the Ladeuze square. Between 1921 and 1928, the building was raised anew from the ashes.

In addition to the construction of the actual building, many countries, schools and universities raised money to restock the library. In January 1919, the Paris Peace Conference was convened at Versailles. An international committee was set up on its margins of the main peace conference to help the Leuven university library get back on its feet. One member of this committee was Prince Kinmochi Saionji, the former prime minister of Japan, who was in Versailles to represent his country. On behalf of Japan, the prince promised to donate a unique collection of books to the Leuven university library.

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In June of 1921, Prince Regent Hirohito of Japan went on a European tour. Hirohito, who would later become the 124th emperor of Japan, used this opportunity to pay a visit to the Leuven university library, which was still in complete ruin at the time of the royal stopover. According to Professor Willy Vande Walle, founder of the Department of Japanese Studies at KU Leuven, that was the moment the wheels of the Japanese promise made in Versailles were set in motion. Soon after, in the spring of 1922, Japan organised a large-scale collection of books and pictures to be donated to Leuven.

Earthquake aftereffects

Unfortunately, a second disaster struck: on 1 September 1923, the disastrous Great Kantō Earthquake devastated large parts of the Tokyo-Yokohama region. The earthquake not only killed more than 100,000 people, it also destroyed large parts of the Japanese capital and ruined Tokyo’s Imperial University library. The fire that ensued incinerated many books that were meant for Leuven. It seemed as if the university library was cursed. Despite this disastrous setback, a donation was finally made thanks to the Japanese Imperial Court, a few Japanese universities, the National Bank of Japan and a number of wealthy Japanese families. The donation encompassed some 3,100 Japanese titles, totalling almost 14,000 volumes, which makes it an exceptionally large collection.

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Japanse diversiteit

The literary gift was intended to paint a picture of the diversity of Japanese culture and society, and covers topics ranging from religion to philosophy, and from astronomy to home economics. Moreover, as the Japanese realised their language was unfamiliar to many, they selected a large number of illustrated books. The donation also included a precious vase that had been passed down as an imperial family heirloom. The underlying aim of the donation was to turn Leuven into a centre for the study of Japanese culture and history, which revealed some of Japan's newfound confidence after the World War I.


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For the Edo Period in particular, i.e. the period between 1603 and 1868, the collection contains almost every representative Japanese book of academic importance in various fields of study, including law, economy, medicine, engineering, industry and art. In addition to this, the selected books include some the most fundamental works of Japanese scholarship produced up to the 1920s. The way in which this collection was organised reflects the enormous efforts and profound knowledge of Wada Mankichi, librarian at the Imperial University of Tokyo, and his assistants. They systematically selected these works with the express desire to comprehensively represent pre-modern Japanese book culture. Interestingly, though, the complete collection was only catalogued years after the donation took place; this catalogue was only rediscovered in Japan as late as 2000.

The story of the catalogue

The extensive Japanese collection was without a complete catalogue until the year 2000. When the books first arrived in Leuven, they appeared to be catalogued on index cards, but they weren’t given a call number. There was a Japanese subject catalogue, but nobody could make use of that in Leuven. The books were just placed on shelves in their order of unpacking. In the 1950s, Jozef Mullie, a Scheutist missionary and sinologist, gave the books a label with a call number. However, it isn’t clear which classification system he used, although it certainly wasn’t the same as that used by the Japanese subject catalogue. Mullie’s classification system is full of inexplicable anomalies (perhaps because he didn’t know any Japanese). In 1998, a Japanese bibliographer in Tokyo found a copy of the original Japanese subject catalogue. He was able to use this discovery to compile a new catalogue in 2000, one which fully respected the original classification system in its composition.

Nothing short of a miracle

In 1940, at the start of World War II, the Leuven university library was once again targeted by German bombs. Yet again, nearly everything was destroyed…except for the books donated by Japan. In fact, the collection remained completely intact as the collapsed roof miraculously protected the collection from the flames.

The Japanese books remained in Leuven until 1968. Once the university had split into KU Leuven and UCLouvain, the books were transported to Louvain-la-Neuve, where they have been kept safe to this day. A century has now passed, and the time has come to once again bring this unique collection to the world’s attention.

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Taking a leaf out of the book of Professor Vande Walle, who showcased a selection of the collection in 2001 in the Orientalia exhibition, KU Leuven and UCLouvain have decided to properly celebrate one of the greatest collections of Japanese cultural heritage – also one of the most forgotten. And what better occasion is there to commemorate the Japanese donation than its 100th anniversary? Therefore, from the end of 2022 to early 2023, the KU Leuven Libraries will hold a major exhibition. Entitled Japan’s Book Donation to the University of Louvain – Japanese Cultural Identity and Modernity in the 1920s, the exhibit will be curated by Professor Dr. Jan Schmidt and coordinated by Dr. Demmy Verbeke. In order to introduce the public to this oft-forgotten donation, Leuven University Press will publish a detailed exhibition catalogue, discussing the collection’s history as well as 100 representative books.

In a joint effort by KU Leuven and UCLouvain, a new professorship will be established to allow further research into the 1920s Japanese donation.

Mythical lion-dog

We can never judge a book by its cover, and the same goes for the Leuven university library. Its particularly tragic past lead to a surprisingly happy end in the form of a unique collection of 14,000 books. Now we can look forward to a wonderful exposition on the history and culture of Japan from 1600 to the middle of the 19th century to celebrate the 100th anniversary of this Japanese literary treasure.

If you look closely, you might see Koma-Inu, the mythical lion-dog creature, sitting atop the Leuven university library, cracking a little smile as he remembers his country’s wonderful gift.

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