Law Books of Kan’ichi Asakawa

April 14, 2014

Kan’ichi Asakawa (1873-1948) was a remarkable scholar and cultural ambassador. Educated in Japan and at Dartmouth, Asakawa earned a Ph.D. from Yale (1902) and embarked on a long and productive career, spent largely in the Yale History department. His work centering on classical and medieval Japan – particularly its economy and government – was pioneering, and he maintained interests in medieval Europe, drawing the feudal institutions of both societies into comparative perspective.

Dr. Asakawa wrote on later periods as well, and proved an engaged observer of contemporary East Asian-American relations. He corresponded widely, and is credited with fostering greater understanding between Japan and America, in academic circles and beyond. In the lead-up to Pearl Harbor, he spearheaded efforts to appeal through the US government to the Emperor of Japan, in the hope of avoiding Japanese-American hostilities. 

At Yale, Asakawa also served as the curator of the East Asian Collection, from his appointment in 1907 to his death in 1948. Among other impressive feats, he acquired 11,280 works (comprising 66,520 volumes) on a trip to Japan in 1906-1907, and motivated the donation of a collection of rare Japanese works in the 1930s. More on Asakawa and his career is available at the Council of East Asian Studies, and the finding aid to his papers is also online.

Asakawa was a collector of Western rare books, and had a strong interest in law. After his death, eighty-six rare law books from Asakawa’s collection were transferred from Yale University Library to the Law School Library. Among these, feudal law, French customary law, German Landrecht, and commentaries on them, from the Middle Ages to the early modern period, are prominent. Two examples are pictured below: at left, Jean Boutillier’s La grant somme Rural (Paris, 1539), a fourteenth-century work on French customary law in use in northern France, and Francois Hotman’s De fevdis commentatio tripertita (Lyon, 1573), reflecting Hotman’s classroom teaching on feudal law.

In his books, Asakawa also recorded the prices and dates of purchase. The image at bottom shows his ownership stamp, with the date (Dec. 1921) and the price paid in French francs (750) for his copy of Boutillier. The English price and date of purchase is also copied faintly on the title page of Hotman’s De feudis, bits of information which can be used to trace the development of the collection.

Asakawa’s interesting collection of rare law books can be perused through the Library’s catalog. 

– RYAN GREENWOOD, Rare Book Fellow



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