A group of us who just attended a meeting of the JSL Kanji Study Group (JSL漢字学習研究会) held at Keio University in Tokyo were walking toward a side gate, which Keio people would affectionately call 幻の門 Maboroshi-no-mon “Invisible Gate.” A young Japanese lecturer who teaches at Keio stopped and said,
“Isn’t that also ancient Chinese writing up there?”
We turned our heads toward where he was pointing. It was the familiar red-brick university library building.
Up on the archway of the entrance, there it was the name of the library 慶應義塾圖書館 “Keio Gijuku Library” inscribed in the ten-style (official seal style).
Earlier that afternoon I had just discussed how we could utilize the intrinsic relationship between shape and meaning seen in ancient Chinese writing to teach kanji and how the last style of ancient writing style called 篆文 ten style is still appreciated in the modern life of Japan. I had shown some photos of the stone steles that I had taken in Kamakura as examples.
Then, right at my own alma mater, there it was – – the ten style plaque – – and I did not know that. To us who are not calligraphers the ten-style is something ornamental, and we would not take the time to make out everything writing in it. But this time I came from a totally different direction. I spent several years examining ancient Chinese writing to find a way to convert it to something useful for a student who studied Japanese outside Japan. I felt like a mole that had just come out to see the light after burrowing a long tunnel.
This library building was completed in the last year of the Meiji era (1912) and is one of the treasured structures of the oldest private Japanese university. To us students this old building represented something scholarly that we came here for. The hushed quiet reading room was our haven from the noises, distraction and temptation on the campus. I spent two summer vacations on a long paper and thesis but never paid any attention to the plaque.
Red brick buildings (赤煉瓦-あかレンガ) were built in the Meiji and Taisho eras and we associate them as something early modern Japan, thus “old.” Because they are old and facing demolition, recently there have been efforts to preserve them. Tokyo Station, originally built in 1914, completed its restoration/renovation. Inside the domes is magnificent (my photo in 2013) and my time spent waiting for my friend to show up was a well-spent enjoyable time. In Yokohama there is an area called 赤レンガ倉庫 (/akarenga so’oko/) that is a venue for public events and a tourist attraction.
Now back to my library plaque story.
As I gazed at the tengaku (ten-style plaque), I began seeing a memory under the intense summer sun — a young female student, in a navy blue cool linen dress that her mother had made for her, intently disappearing into the building. A few decades later she would return and re-discover what she had not seen.
Antoniomarco, a young Italian researcher from Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, who was standing next to me, said,
“Ancient writing on a modern building! What an interesting match it is.”
That brought me back from my daydreaming.
Ah, to an Italian who is used to really old structures of hundreds years ago, this treasured building of ours doesn’t even come close to the word “old.” We proudly say that the old library is ゴシック建築 (/goshikku-ke’nchiku/”Gothic style structure”), but to our Italian friend Antoniomarco there is nothing old or Gothic about it.
P. S. If you are interested in kanji education, I recommend joining JSL 漢字学習研究会 (the link is in the article.) Their bi-monthly meetings are inspiring and you meet people who share the same interest, or even passion, in kanji education as you do, which does not happen too often in the United States.