Since 2010, scholars from Kyūshū University have been regularly visiting the museum to research our collection of Edo period woodblock-printed books acquired through the 2003 purchase of the Richard Lane Collection. They are slowly sifting through roughly 11,000 books, many of them exceedingly rare. A few of them are the only existing copy on earth.

While the group’s main objective is to compile a list of old Japanese books located outside of Japan, their work has significantly benefitted the museum. The project helped the museum to better understand its collection of woodblock printed books, and in doing so has made it possible for the museum to display examples of these woodblock-printed books in the exhibition Hiroshige’s City: From Edo to Tokyo, which is currently on view.

This week marks the end of their project, which has been led by Mitsutoshi Nakano, professor emeritus at Kyushu University. Professor Nakano is recognized as an authority on Edo-period books, but can be considered an expert on Edo people, culture, food, and just about any other aspect of that era. We caught up with Mr. Nakano while he was at work in the museum vaults.

What are some of your findings?
I was most interested in looking at works of illustrated fiction from the Edo Period, mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries. The Lane Collection has many copies of these kinds of works that may not exist in their complete form in Japan, but here they do. In some cases the Lane collection contains different versions of the same work, like Bunshō Monogatari (The Tale of Bunshō)

The different versions come in different sizes and have different covers, though the story is the same. In Japan, different editions exist in different collections, but it’s rare for multiple editions of the same work to exist in the same collection. The Lane Collection is unique in that sense. Being able to study these different editions at once without having to make photocopies allows us to compare them.

Has anything surprised you?
There are so many varieties of books that are so rare, there are too many to pick out. But one thing that stuck out are the shunga works, which are very strong in this collection.

Do you feel like you’re leaving anything undiscovered, or do you think that you’ve had enough time to explore the collection?
Over the years we’ve been able to come often enough to look at nearly all of the elements of the collection that we wanted to. There are very few things that we’re leaving unexamined.

What do you consider the biggest success of this project?
Certain works consist of several volumes, and often those volumes can end up scattered in different parts of the collection. The Lane Collection is particularly large, so my goal was to put those volumes back in their original order, which my colleagues and I were able to do using our expertise. Now the volumes are ordered as they were originally intended.