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Telling the story of 400 years of British royal contact with Japan

Frederick Victor Dickins (1838-1915)

Chiushingura, or, The Loyal League : a Japanese romance / translated by F.V. Dickins ; illustrated by numerous engravings on wood, drawn and executed by Japanese artists... 1880

25.2 x 15.7 x 2.5 cm (whole object) | RCIN 1085226

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The opening up of Japan and Japanese trade with the west in the late-nineteenth century sparked a huge interest in Japanese culture back in Europe. Though Japanese goods, and imitations of Japanese wares, had been arriving in Europe from the seventeenth century, the opening of Japanese ports meant that these objects were now available to a wider portion of society. Artists and designers began to look at Japan for inspiration, and a fashion for all things Japanese emerged.

Frederick Dickins, a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, first travelled to Japan in 1862 with the ships HMS Euryalus and HMS Coromandel. Arriving in 1863, he transferred to a post as naval surgeon at Yokohama. He remained in Japan until 1867, acquiring a knowledge of the language and a lifelong interest in Japanese culture. This prompted him to translate several pieces of Japanese literature into English and to make important advances in the study of Japanese arts, including writing one of the first scholarly works on the artist Katsushika Hokusai. Dickins returned to Japan in 1871 to practise law at the consular courts, staying another seven years until ill health forced him back to England.

In 1880, Dickins published a new edition of his translation of Chūshingura (‘The Treasury of Loyal Retainers’), a play based on the tale of the 47 rōnin. The story focuses on the Akō Incident of 1701–3, in which 47 rōnin (masterless samurai) sought to avenge the death of their leader. To avoid the censors, who forbade any depiction of recent history in the arts, the playwright Takeda Izumo (1691–1756) and his two associates had changed the timings of the events, placing them in the mid-fourteenth rather than the early eighteenth century. The play’s themes of bravery and unerring loyalty made it one of the most popular stories in Japan, and it remains so to the present day.

The story was first published in English in Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan in 1871. This edition, purportedly transcribed from a Japanese source to ‘supply the lacunae to Mr Mitford’s version’, is notable for the addition of fashionable aizuri-e, blue-coloured woodblock prints ‘drawn and executed by Japanese artists, and printed on Japanese paper’. The book contains wood-block ukiyo-e style prints on Japanese paper which are rather jarring to the neo-gothic Victorian initials and decorations of the text itself.

Text adapted from Japan: Courts and Culture (2020)