What can we give back to a university like Yale? The simple answer is, of course, money, but that comes with certain implications and problems. Money can never express the unique combination of history and emotion we associate with our alma mater: No one remembers money. Asakawa Kan’ichi, who received his doctorate at Yale and went on to spend most of his career here, personally acquired and donated over 20,000 volumes of original Japanese maps, manuscripts and other records. Additionally, he inspired the Yale Association of Japan to amass its own collection for the University. What, then, can we give? The exhibit “Treasures from Japan,” currently on display at the Beinecke Library, is an answer to that question.
The exhibit is displayed in two glass cases on either side of the Beinecke’s ground floor. Quiet and unassuming, the objects didn’t scream for my attention, but they captured it with their elegant brush strokes and historical significance. “Treasures” is a combination of historical documents, poetry and screen printings that manage to capture Japan’s history and its relationship with art and the outside world. I saw an almanac for the year 1445 with handwritten diary entries by a high-ranking priest, tax receipts from the Todaiji temple, a screen print of a devastating earthquake with fire licking the sides of wooden houses, and woodblock portraits of Commodore Perry and his crew with comically large noses and wild hair — qualities out of place with their starched, formal uniforms. Intriguing individually, these works tell the story of a country that held on to its unique culture even as it was opened to the outside world. A letter on display epitomizes this contradiction — in it, Yoshida Shoin expresses his desire to return with Perry to the United States and “see the world.” (Shoin was later executed for his desires to begin the grassroots movement that would become the Meiji Restoration, a transition into Western “modernization.”)
As I perused the records of taxes, sutras and poetry, I played a game with myself: How many of the delicately penned characters could I recognize? To my shame (and that of my Japanese sensei, I’m sure) I recognized next to none of them. Sometimes a character would jump out at me — autumn, far, wind — but these moments of clarity were fleeting. I couldn’t unravel meaning from what seemed to be tangled knots of ink or meaningless squiggles. Yet I took pleasure in following the gentle curves of calligraphy with my eyes, seeing how each character bled into the next. It was a relaxing, almost meditative exercise.
My favorite piece on display was a series of poems from the anthology “Grasses of Remembrance.” The last poem in particular blended the old and the new, reminding me that life is constantly in flux:
“As my lover leaves,
The skirt of his garment blows,
Showing the lining
In a flash of cool delight
Comes the first breeze of autumn!”
The last line — “aki no hatsukaze” — brings to mind the skittering of leaves in a breeze and the ushering in of change. The word “hatsu” or “new” in Japanese has great significance. The first snow of the year, hatsuyuki. The first dream in a new year, hatsuyume. And first love, hatsukoi. This poem clearly marks an ending — the lover is walking away — yet the new breeze brings changes that might not be entirely unwelcome.
In the midst of all these changes, what can we leave of ourselves here at Yale? Asakawa left behind a collection of books as a gateway for others to understand more about Japan and its rich history and culture. I usually have trouble making connections with objects so far removed from my life, but as I left the Beinecke, I realized that the objects I’d seen had illuminated the present.