The Great Fire of Meireki

Musashi abumi [Stirrups of Musashi Province].

Many fine woodcuts, both full-page & double-page. 20; 26 folding leaves. Two vols. 8vo, orig. blue wrappers (a little worn & rubbed), orig. block-printed title labels on upper covers, new stitching. Kyoto: Nakamura Matabei, 1661.

First edition of the best record of the great Tokyo fire of 1657, which destroyed 60-70% of the capital city; it was one of the greatest disasters in Japanese history. “The greatest of the fires was probably that of 1657, the Meireki era fire, which ranks with the 1923 earthquake and the 1945 B-29 firebomb raids as pivotal in the city’s history…When it was over more than 100,000 had died. Lying in ashes were 160 daimyo estates, 3,550 temples and shrines, more than 750 residential compounds of hatamoto and samurai, and perhaps 50,000 commoner houses.”–Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan, pp. 151-52–(and see the long quotation from Asai’s book).

Both the text and the superb woodcuts vividly record the fire and the resulting terror of the Edo residents. While the creator of the images is unidentified, he was “an artist of no mean ability…the drawings are packed full of pulsing life, and those representing the crowds flying from the devouring, approaching flames, pushing before them their wheeled chests in the endeavour to save a few cherished possessions, are not easily matched in the expression of fear and horror and tumult. The technique is absolutely simple, the drawing being in outline and only relieved by well-placed spots of black representing the iron bindings and trimmings of the chests, the hinges of great gates, parts of clothing and the hair of the terrorized throng; but the sweep of everything in one direction, the flames, the rushing crowds, the trees bending in the terrific blasts of heat and the galloping horses crushing unfortunates who have fallen in the headlong flight, all unite in giving one a painfully vivid impression of the terrible calamity.”–Brown, Block Printing & Book Illustration in Japan, p. 37.

Asai (1612-91), a samurai and Buddhist priest, was a popular writer of the early Edo period, specializing in kanazoshi books, printed largely in kana, which is simpler to read than kanji, and therefore more accessible to the growing reading public. This record of the great fire of Meireki is written in a storytelling style and tells the tale of a monk called Rakusai who lost his family in the fire. He meets an old acquaintance from his hometown during a pilgrimage across the country and recounts the story of the terrible event.

Some worming in Vol. II, touching image and text in about ten leaves. Nevertheless, a nice copy of a rare book; WorldCat locates only one copy in North America. Preserved in a chitsu.

Price: $5,500.00

Item ID: 6930

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