Seikado Bunko: Japan’s Private Museums

One of a pair of screen paintings illustrating scenes from The Tale of Genji by Tawaraya Sotatsu, 17th century, National Treasure, Seikadō Bunko, Tokyo

DURING THE LAST century, all the great art collectors in Japan faced wrenching decisions on how to preserve their treasures, accumulated through their lives with what had been very personal passion and dedication. In some cases a new generation of heirs appeared that did not inherit the same passion, or – particularly after World War II – crippling new taxes calculated on current valuations were legislated on personally held assets. There seemed to have been but three choices available: pay up; sell or transfer the legal ownership of the assets to strictly regulated structures roughly modelled on cultural foundations or trusts in the West. Could Japan’s private museums save the day? The Seikado Bunko is one such museum.

Luckily most chose the latter option and were also able to afford the cost of building museums to house their art. Apart from old nobility and daimyo families, most of these collectors – at least since the end of the Edo period – had made their money in business and so there was usually a company around somewhere that could be relied on to fund the expenses of the museum in perpetuity.

The Rise of Private Museums and The Seikado Bunko

As a result, we can now have the most superb private museums throughout the country each to some extent stamped with the individual taste of the original founders. Tokyo is particularly rich, having the Mitsui, Nezu, Suntory, Seikado Bunko, Idemitsu, Goto and Hatakeyama museums to name a few, each of outstanding quality and each with its own special atmosphere. Of these, the Seikado Bunko is perhaps less visited by foreigners as, unlike others in central Tokyo, it takes some effort to find being located out in the suburbs of Setagaya. Nevertheless it is worth the extra effort as treasures abound therein, and if a day-trip is planned, it is not too far from the Goto Museum which is equally rewarding.

Somewhat at odds with its contents, and almost all other buildings in Tokyo, the museum looks like a substantial Arts & Crafts-style English country house that would be more at home in the Surrey stockbroker belt. The incongruity becomes clear on knowing the family members’ interest in Western building and their close relationship with Josiah Conder (1852-1920), educator, architect and writer, who spent most of his adult life in Japan and is considered the father of modern Japanese architecture.

Seikado Bunko Also Has An Important Library of Asian Books and Documents

The Seikado Bunko museum, together with another building housing an important library of Asian books and documents, is situated on a hill in the middle of what by Tokyo standards is a rather large area of native forest. The collection includes masterpieces of Chinese and Japanese paintings, Buddhist art, calligraphy, ceramics, lacquerware, sculpture and swords, some of which are designated National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties by the Japanese Government.

Legacies from the Iwasaki Family

The Seikado Bunko is but one of several cultural legacies bequeathed to the nation by the Iwasaki family, founders of the huge Mitsubishi group of companies, long involved in almost all areas of business in Japan and around the world. The bulk of the art treasures was accumulated by early members of the dynasty, Baron Yanosuke Iwasaki (1851-1908) and his son Baron Koyata Iwasaki (1879-1945) who, along with other enlightened figures such as Baron Masuda and Baron Hara, strove to preserve their native culture at a time when most Japanese held all things Western in awe.

Having wealth, knowledge and taste, they were able to select from the vast amount of traditional art available at that time and form a collection of a quality that would be impossible to replicate today. As the museum’s Chinese collection has been covered before, let us here look briefly at some of the major items of Japanese art, bearing in mind that these objects might be seen only once every few years.

National Treasures

With National Treasure status, seven statues, in the Seikado Bunko, of what were originally 12 semi-divine guardian figures surrounding the Buddha Bhaisaijyaguru, (more commonly known as the ‘Medicine Buddha’) remind us at first sight of that famous circle of 8th-century terracotta guardian figures in the Shin-Yakushiji Temple near Nara. But these are of later vintage, dating from the Kamakura period (circa 1185-1333) when Japanese religious sculpture reached a peak in technical perfection and artistic inspiration. They are carved from wood, each 70-80 centimetres tall, with detailing in gesso, gold-leaf and colour pigments, and glass or crystal inlaid eyes.

But what differentiates these from the Shin-Yakushiji figures is a certain playful sense of humour, and even though their faces are of other-wordly beings with serious martial duties to perform, one senses that the sculptor must have been inspired by those of live models – perhaps local farmers or young priests. One leans on his stick, resting his head in hand and shows an expression of put-upon boredom, wondering perhaps how he ended up with this job where nothing much seems to happen.

Another squints down the shaft of his karimata (rope cutter) bifurcated arrow as if checking that it is not quite up to scratch and perhaps suspicious that he had been provided with inferior weaponry. The fact that such arrows were only used in hunting wild animals also makes one wonder how effective they would be in thwarting those ferocious demons that might attack the Buddha – or could this too be intentionally ironic?

The Korenori-shu – An Important Cultural Property

The strong interest of the Seikado Bunko founders in classical literature is exemplified in a poem-book, designated as an Important Cultural Property, known as the Korenori-shu. This Heian-period (794-1185) compendium is made up of waka poems inscribed on decorated paper, composed by the early-Heian poet, Sakanoue no Korenori. He is noted for having been a member of the celebrated Thirty-six Poetry Immortals, (as well as having been an accomplished player of the courtier kemari football game), and one of his verses is included in the famous Kokin Wakashu anthology of classical court poetry.

Waka Poetry

Waka poetry was essentially pure Japanese in style and subject, as opposed that of imported Chinese classics, and originally had a variety of structures. Later the waka structure became almost standardised as a five-line verse in a pattern of 5-7-5-7-7 ‘sounds’ – usually syllables, but double consonants were also included.

Fine calligraphy was an essential skill to be mastered by the Heian élite, especially the free-flowing, expressive style that can be seen in this piece. Small fragments of cut-out gold and silver leaf, flecks, different-sized squares, and thin strips that perhaps suggest grasses, have been applied together with areas of a wash of silver dust, tarnished to an attractive blue-grey, to enhance the precious quality of the object and the verses inscribed.

Muromachi Period Paintings

The Seikado Bunko owns an outstanding selection of Muromachi (1392-1573) paintings, mainly Chinese-style landscapes in ink and slight colour, in the format of hanging scrolls and folding screens. Inspired by Southern-Song period paintings brought back to Japan by Zen priests who had studied in Chinese monasteries, these landscapes provided a portal to an idealised world of splendid nature that helped to provide, in the imagination at least, an escape from the harsh realities outside at a time when Japan was engulfed in civil wars.

A scroll painting by Maejima Soyu (active mid-16th century), designated as an Important Art Object, shows this dream of a heavenly life on earth. A classic sage together with a servant sits gazing at a waterfall tumbling into a mountain river, his musings sustained no doubt by the container of wine in front of him. High peaks fade into the distance and the rather wild landscape is softened by a majestic pine, bamboo and Chinese fan-palm. While landscapes became a favourite subject for Japanese painters that still continues, those of the Muromachi times convey this feeling of escape with a level of profundity that has never since been matched.

Tawaraya Sotatsu Screens

One gets a completely different sensation from the famous pair of screen paintings, by Tawaraya Sotatsu (flourished first three decades of the 17th century) that are also designated National Treasures. Sotatsu was a co-founder of the decorative Rimpa school, famous not only for his own inimitable paintings but also for collaborating with Hon’ami Koetsu (1558-1637); Sotatsu producing exquisitely decorated papers on which Koetsu inscribed verses in his inimitable calligraphy.

Both witnessed seeing Japan united in peace under the Tokugawa shoguns and the resulting wealth generated by a new class of merchants. They were leaders at a time of experimentation when Kyoto artists turned away from the sober monochromes of the ‘tea-taste’ espoused by Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), and began to explore new ways and designs with colours and different materials. With such motives in mind, the Rimpa school was foremost in a renaissance of painting, lacquerwork and ceramics inspired by classical subjects and the rich nature surrounding the Imperial capital. These screens show scenes from the Tale of Genji – one of the masterworks of classical literature dating from the Heian period – a time considered as Japan’s golden age painted with stylised, decorative intent using strong colours and gold leaf.

Japanese Ceramic and Lacquer Ware

In the Japanese mind there is no dividing line between art and craft as the aim of artistic effort was to appeal to all five senses, and in the Seikado Bunko we can see some of the best examples of Japanese ceramic and lacquer wares that, (unfortunately impossible), beg to be handled for their full beauty to be realised. A large jar for storing tea reflects the artistic exploration mentioned in the previous paragraph with a bold design of the mountains of Yoshino during the cherry-blossom season, a famous scenic area near Kyoto, favoured since ancient times for excursions from the capital.

This jar was made by the celebrated potter, Nonomura Ninsei, (active last half of the 17th century), who mastered a technique of decorating stoneware with coloured enamels. This decorative type of ceramic is still produced by Kyoto potters to the present day and known as Kyo-yaki and Kiyomizuyaki. On this grand pot, Ninsei has used various coloured enamels together with gold on a black background to suggest the Yoshino cherry blossoms at night – a scene that continues around the body and best appreciated by seeing it from all angles.

Ogata Kenzan Bowl

In the Seikado Bunko, from this same cultural milieu of late-17th-century Kyoto and the Rimpa school mentioned earlier we see a square bowl with a bold design of snow-covered bamboo by Ogata Kenzan (1663-1743), brother of the celebrated artist, Ogata Korin (1658-1716) with whom he often collaborated. Here the subject has been made into an almost abstract design with broad, black brushed enamels overlaying lighter-coloured ones that subtly suggest, rather than actually depict, the winter subject. This was a time too when the unique Japanese cuisine was evolving into the highly-refined form we know today and this dish was no doubt used to display some Winter delicacy to best effect.

Kakiemon Porcelain

Dating from the early 18th century, but made far away from Kyoto in North Kyushu, is a perfect example of the variety of Hizen porcelain known as Kakiemon, named after Sakaida Kakiemon (1596-1666), who first experimented with, and then refined the use of coloured overglaze enamels on white porcelain. This high-quality ware was much prized for the milky-white colour of the background body and the characteristic palette of persimmon-red, mustard-yellow, blue and turquoise-green.

Kakiemon wares were highly prized for their refined forms and decoration, and some found their way to eager buyers in Europe through the East India Company during the last few decades of the 17th century. This Seikado masterpiece is in the bottle form for pouring sake to guests and shows how adept the kakiemon craftsmen were at adapting a painted design to a curved surface while maintaining its dynamic presence – in this case a multi-tailed legendary phoenix bird with scattered leaves and flowers of the paulownia tree – two subjects traditionally paired in Japanese design and painting.

Perhaps more so than other museums in Tokyo, the quiet Seikado Bunko is a museum for the connoisseur and scholar and cannot be recommended highly enough. Along with most other museums in Japan, exhibits change with the seasons and it is essential to check the Seikado Bunko website or the Japanese press to find out what is current.


Seikado Bunko Art Museum, 2 Chome-23, Okamoto, Setagaya-ku,