'Work of art' library opens at Japan House London

'Work of art' library opens at Japan House London

A new library devoted to Japanese culture is opening in London today as part of an initiative to raise awareness of Japanese creativity and innovation in the UK. 

Japan House, a revitalised Art Deco building on Kensington High Street, will offer a library specially designed and curated by Tokyo "book connoisseur" and representative of Bach Library, Yoshitaka Haba, as well as an exhibition gallery, events space, shop and Japanese restaurant.

Tasked with helping visitors gain “a deeper appreciation of Japanese culture”, every aspect of the Japanese government-funded house is derived “from source”. All elements have been creatively directed by Muji art director Kenya Hara and the space has been created by the interior designer behind Uniqlo’s global stores, Masamichi Katayami. 

The library at Japan House has been described as "not just as a data source, but as a work of art in its own right”, providing "a new approach to appreciate and engage with books through bookshelf exhibitions”. Its designer and curator, Haba, has helped bookshops in Japan successfully champion paper books in the digital era, as well as curating libraries in spaces such as hospitals, nurseries, hotels, and even Kyoto City Zoo.

Speaking to The Bookseller about Japan House London's books offering, Haba explained the library comprised photo albums, vintage books, paintings, novels, poetry and picture books.

In Tokyo he said it was extremely difficult to reach readers, forcing booksellers to choose titles carefully with a 'less is more' attitude - an approach he had embraced for Japan House's library.

"In the internet age, the opportunities to encounter books are fewer. My aim is to increase accessibility to the unknown books people might not otherwise read," said Haba.

"Because of the nature of this space, which is quite small, and having visited Waterstones and other bookshops in London, I realised most of the books are available in bookshops, and so the selection here has to be something very particular - books you have never seen before in London."

The library is divided into two sections – one area which is permanent, and another which is temporary. 

The temporary exhibition, Nature of Japan, runs from June until August. Splitting books by season, notably it recognises Japan’s occupation with cherry blossom – or sakura – which in Japan is a symbol of the beauty of the transience of life. Featured artwork in close proximity includes original photographs from leading Japanese photographer Risaku Suzuki. The second library exhibition Mingei is scheduled from September until November and will be themed around Japan's mingei folk art movement that developed from the late 1920s.

The permanent section meanwhile comprises books showcasing Japan’s culture and customs. Whilst you might think such categories as 'Food and drink' should self-explanatory, less conventional offerings include a photobook from a famous photographer documenting the last meals his wife ate before she passed away.

"I share the aim of Japan House; I want the library to inspire an appreciation of Japanese culture in London. But personally what I expect is for people to come here and have a quick look. Many people don't read books unless they are related to their work or their interests; one of my aims is to draw people into this space and allow them to indulge themselves in an activity they usually don't," said Haba.

"The doors at the entrance of the Japan House Library are heavy, but the books inside are light and varied ... I selected many books with beautiful bindings, as I want to totally mobilise the five senses, such as touch and smell. My aim is that guests to the Japan House Library will have pleasant encounters with good books."

None of the books on display can be removed from the library currently, but some are available for purchase in the Japan House shop. The majority are photo books imported from Japan, but the space could also provide a venue for launches of books with a Japanese link.

Japan House London joins other worldwide branches in Sao Paulo and Los Angeles and will provide Britons with a new opportunity to "encounter Japan" ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. 

Commenting, Michael Houlihan, director general of Japan House London said: "London has long been a crossroads for our world's cultures, ideas and trade. From June, Japan will have a special place where its voice can be heard and its stories can enrich this exceptional fabric of openness and understanding."