A series of Japanese fairy tales from the Library’s Rare Books Collection has now been digitised and made available through Monash Collections Online. Our Rare Books team writes about the significance of this beautiful collection.

As Japan’s policy of isolation began to disintegrate in the 1850s, Japanese cultures and histories became an object of fascination for much of the English-speaking world. Hasegawa Takejirō, an innovative publisher and book importer, took advantage of this interest by producing the attractive and collectable Japanese Fairy Tale Series. It is understood that, initially, these books were designed to improve English literacy in Japan, although the series soon became popular in English-speaking countries. The bulk of Hasegawa’s Fairy Tale titles were written in English, but a number of selected tales were issued in French, German, and Dutch.

An example of Fukuro Toji binding

There are a number of intriguing elements to these ‘East meets West’ publications and the influence of western culture on Hasegawa’s Japanese Fairy Tale Series is evident. They open in the ‘western style’, with the binding to the left, and are read from left to right.

One feature that sets Hasegawa’s series apart from contemporary western books is its Fukuro Toji bindings. Also called Japanese stab binding, this method involves printing on one side of double-wide paper, folding the paper down the centre, and sewing it together with other pages along the unfolded edge. This style is often found on manga, or Japanese comics today.

Another distinctive characteristic of Hasegawa’s series is its use of different kinds of paper. Some volumes are printed on traditional washi, or plain handmade paper. Others, however, use chirimen, or crêpe paper. To create chirimen, washi paper is placed in a specialised mould, where it is exposed to moisture and pressure, resulting in paper with a distinctive crinkled texture. Hasegawa was the first to use this kind of paper for books, or chirimen-bon, giving them not only a unique character, but also making them much more durable, an important factor in children’s books.

The Monash University Rare Books Collection at the Matheson Library holds 26 books from Hasegawa’s Japanese Fairy Tale Series. A selection held in the Collection have the imprint of Griffith Farren and Co., London and Sydney. This was a publishing arrangement between Hasegawa and Griffith Farren for distribution in England and Australia. Other firms that served as distributors for Hasegawa’s works include the large children’s book publishers Sampson Low, Simkin Marshall Co., and Ticknor & Co.

Each of these 26 books have now been digitised and are available to download and read through Monash Collections Online – the Library’s repository for digitised Special Collections.