Out of Japan: Some corner of Tokyo that is forever Ruskin

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The Independent Online
TOKYO - Tsukiji, at the mouth of the Sumida river in central Tokyo, is best known as the city's fish market. Before dawn, fishmongers and restaurateurs flock to the area to buy the fish that will later in the day be sold as sushi and sashimi throughout the city. It is a colourful area whose bustle - and smell - spill on to the streets.

It was a bit of a surprise, then, to find, tucked away in a narrow back-street in Tsukiji, a small building bearing a plaque advertising the 'Ruskin Library'. Inside is a reading-room with a mahogany table, carved chairs and busts of Ruskin on shelves. And another room, with temperature and humidity controls, houses the largest collection of Ruskin's works outside the United Kingdom: rows and rows of leather-bound volumes with rainbow-coloured flyleafs and gold-edged pages.

It is a long journey from the Stones of Venice to the fish of Tsukiji. The story of how England's most renowned art critic of the last century found a resting place in Japan turns out to be a curious tale, drawing in the international pearl business, an idiosyncratic art collector and a large dollop of Japanese nostalgia for the past.

The library is run by Kaoru Kasuga, great granddaughter of Kokichi Mikimoto, the famous Pearl King of Japan, who pioneered cultured pearls and founded the Mikimoto pearl empire in 1893. Today Mikimoto pearls are known the world over. But while Mikimoto Snr was growing wealthy, his son, Ryuzo, developed a passion for the work of John Ruskin.

In the 1910s and 1920s, as Japan was energetically opening up to Western art and ideas, Ruskin figured on the curriculum of English studies at Japanese schools. Having read him in school, Ryuzo Mikimoto went on to study him in depth at university in Kyoto.

He then started a series of trips to England, where he bought up as many of Ruskin's books, portraits, letters and manuscripts as he could find. Ruskin had died in 1900, but Mr Mikimoto visited his surviving relatives and friends. Photographs show him with slicked- back hair, frameless glasses and dapper double-breasted suits.

He set up a coffee-shop in the fashionable Ginza district of Tokyo, which became the Ruskin Library in 1934. Pictures from the time show a spacious room with palms and large armchairs in which patrons lounge, reading and whiling away the time. There are even pens and inkwells for those moved to commit thoughts to paper. By contrast, today's coffee-shops in Tokyo are cramped, noisy places where waitresses whisk away cups as soon as they are emptied to speed the flow of salarymen seeking a quick caffeine fix.

'Japan was different then,' says Keisuke Shimada, 78, a former employee of an insurance company, who administers the library. He remembers reading Ruskin at school: Sesame and Lilies and The Seven Lamps of Architecture. 'Unfortunately, these days Ruskin is liable not to be such an important figure,' he says.

Tokyo was then a vibrant city, still largely unconcerned with the threat of war and the extreme nationalism that was to damage Japan's relations with the world for decades.

Ryuzo Mikimoto was busy translating Ruskin's works into Japanese and publishing a Ruskin Society magazine. When the Second World War came, all his Ruskin books were stored at the Mikimoto Pearl Farm, which saved them from the fire-bombing of Tokyo. He died in 1971, but his family, recognising the value of his collection, decided to reopen the library in 1984.

'Many who come to the library remember reading Ruskin a long time ago,' Ms Kasuga says. These memories, she hints, are of a happier Japan. She spends several days a week at the library, and organises monthly Ruskin readings as well as a Japanese-language Ruskin newsletter three times a year. The other side of her family still runs the pearl business.

Thus, the man who inspired Gandhi and Proust continues to attract a small group of Japanese followers, who assemble in the building in Tsukiji to talk about the great European painters, or - more relevant to Japan today - Ruskin's criticism of unrestrained capitalism. And it is the title of one of Ruskin's works that Ryuzo Mikimoto chose to put on the gravestone of his father, the original Pearl King: A Joy for Ever.