Treasures of the Library

Portraits of Japanese’ in M Breton’s Le Japon

Following on from my last e-magazine article, this article highlights further interesting details found in M Breton’s Le Japon, ou Moeurs, usages et costumes des habitans de cet empire (Japan: Customs and costumes of the inhabitants of this empire). Published in 1818 by A. Nepveu, this four volume set includes abundant illustrations to provide a glimpse into Japanese life.

Amongst the images is this set of illustrations to the right found in volume 3.

Captioned ‘Portraits de Japonais’ (portraits of Japanese), the set accompanies the section in the book on the different ways the Japanese wore their hair. The text describes how physicians and monks shaved their heads, which the image does illustrate. But it also goes on to mention that young men and women had an equally if not more distinct and codified styles of hair. In comparison, the images are 1) of men; 2) of similar age; and 3) of similar hair style apart from the shaved headed man. The limited pictorial range here gives the impression that the author missed an opportunity to give a fuller account of the coiffure culture of Japan.

Why are women and children’s hairstyles not included in the illustrations? It is worth mentioning, as said in the previous article, that these and the other illustrations found in Le Japon are not newly commissioned images. Rather, they are renderings of pre-existing images that have been lifted from other publications on Japan available in Europe. It may be that the most suitable image the illustrator could find to depict hairstyles in Japan was of these portraits of eight men. If so, from where did the original images come?

Terre de Iesso. 1683. Cartographer: Manesson-Mallet, A. Paris.

This takes us on a slightly different conversation to the history of maps of Japan. The Lisa Sainsbury Library houses an impressive collection of old maps of Japan in the Cortazzi Map Collection. Collectively, they tell a story of how Europe imagined the geography of Japan. In the early 16th century, Japan for Europeans was a country shrouded in mystery. This is reflected in maps from the period where Japan was at best drawn from imagination.

Once Europeans started to arrive and explore the country themselves, the blobs that represented Japanese landmass on European maps were replaced by a more accurate form. By the end of the 18th century, virtually all coastlines on the globe had been surveyed by Europeans as demonstrated in the maps from the time. Nonetheless, there were pockets of the world Europeans struggled to access. The northern Pacific and specifically the coasts off Chishima, Sakhalin and Hokkaido were such hard to reach areas. There were confusions as to whether Sakhalin is an island or peninsula and map makers often resorted to using vague shapes to outline the area. The pink landmass on the left map by Manesson-Mallet is one such example.

As part of a mission to survey this less charted part of the world, the Russian Empire sent its navy sub-lieutenant Vasily Golovnin (1776-1831) on a voyage around the world aboard the sloop Diana in 1807. During his mapping survey in 1811 of Etorofu and Kunashiri islands, Golovnin and seven of his officers were captured and imprisoned by the Matsumae magistrate. Vice admiral P. I. Rikord (1776-1855), who was unable to rescue Golovnin, returned to Russia to reorganise his position before returning to Japan the following year in July as a special envoy to offer prisoner exchange. He was told by the magistrate that Golovnin had in fact died during his capture though Rikord refused to believe the story without being presented with formal evidence. While Rikord patiently waited for news on Golovnin on his ship off the coast of Kunashiri island, he intercepted the Japanese merchant ship Kanzemaru commanded by Takadaya Kahē (1769-1827).

Kahē was a prominent sea merchant in the late Edo period (1615-1868). Born in Awaji Island, he built a successful business in marine transport operating out of Kobe. In 1798, he opened a branch in Hakodate and expanded his business in commercial goods transport that stretched from Hokkaido to Kobe and Osaka area sea routes. In 1799, under Bakufu government order, he was sent to Kunashiri Island to develop the sea route and fishing grounds. For his efforts, Kahē was granted the title of Official Captain of Yezo with the right to bear a surname and wear a sword. He was deeply involved with the strategic development of Yezo and wielded tremendous influence over trade in the area. He profited handsomely from his position and grew his business and wealth exponentially.

Having captured one of the most successful merchants in the area and his men, Rikord transports Kahē and his five men as captives to Kamchat. However, Rikord soon discovers himself hugely impressed by Kahē’s dignified composure and intellect that he sought help from Kahē to fulfill his commitment to rescue Golovnin. In May 1813, Kahē was returned to Etorofu Island on Diana to stand between Russia and Japan to negotiate a peaceful resolution of Golovnin’s capture and his release, which he successfully accomplished.
After returning to Russia, Golovnin published his accounts of his two years in Japan in Narrative of a Captivity in Japan during the Years 1811, 1812 and 1813 in1816. The stories include detailed accounts of negotiation that took place between Kahē written by Rikord. The book was a sensation. A number of European translated editions were made and widely distributed to make the Golovnin Incident a famous tale. In the Russian edition, the following portrait image can be found.

Takadaya Kahē’s portrait in the Russian copy of Golovnin’s Memoirs of a Captivity in Japan

The image is accompanied by the caption to identify the figure as Takadaya Kahē. A mirror image of this portrait, if the reader agrees, has an uncanny resemblance to the figure found on the lower right-hand corner in Le Japon. However, in Le Japon, the image is presented not as Kahē, but as one of the four men sporting a typical Japanese men’s hairstyle. How is it that the author of Le Japon, M. Breton, who has translated details related to the Golovnin Incident in a book and is familiar with those involved in Golovnin’s release not realise that the image he used in Le Japon as a hair model was that of Takadaya Kahē?

The Lisa Sainsbury Library may hold the clue to this mismatch of images. In the library is a copy of a reprint of the second English edition of Golovnin’s Memoirs of a Captivity in Japan (1824/1973). The English reprint edition, which is a faithful reproduction of the original English edition, contains no images even though the original Russian edition is illustrated. When Breton decided to translate part of Golovnin’s Memoris, he may have done so by reading the non-illustrated English translation, rather than the Russian original where he would have spotted the portrait of Kahē.

L-R: Portraits of Japanese men in Le Japon and in Atlas zur Reise by Kruzenshter

When Breton came to work on Le Japon, he consulted Atlas zur Reise by Kruzenshtern for images. In Atlas zur Reise are portraits of eight men. Breton conveniently lifted four of the eight men and created a mirror image for his book on the section about Japanese hairstyles. Had he known that one of the men were a diplomatic hero, he may have treated the image of Kahē in a different way.

Akira Hirano
Lisa Sainsbury Library

e-Magazine contents: