Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Japanese amulets: Chamberlain Collection

A series of few happy coincidences brought me to the Pitt Rivers Museum, for the first time, to assist a group of Japanese academics to study the Museum’s Japanese amulets collection. That experience left me both fascinated by the collection and also impressed by the staff’s helpfulness to us, and so I volunteered to work on Japanese objects in the museum. My main work when I began working to transcribe, and to translate, the Japanese text written on ‘o-mamori’ and ‘o-fuda’, which mean amulets in Japanese, into English. These were collected by Basil Hall Chamberlain (1850-1935) while he was living in Japan about a century ago. He was one of ‘o-yatoi gaikokujin’ (Europeans employed by the Meiji government when Japan reopened its door after nearly 300 years of isolation).

Basil Hall Chamberlain and several early editions of his book, Things Japanese, first edition published 1890. 
Charm bag worn by children with paper amulet
1892.29.10 .1 & .2 © Pitt Rivers Museum
When I tell my friends that I volunteer in the Pitt Rivers Museum, they get very excited, but most of them assume I am a volunteer guide. Well, not quite. When I explain that I work on the Japanese amulets in the Collections Department, they often become rather skeptical. Amulets and charms are regarded generally as unfashionable and as something belonging to the past and to the superstitious older generations. However, as I went through the items collected by B. H. Chamberlain, I became increasingly interested in Japanese religions, in the amulets they have produced and in the background stories. You see a lot of similar items in modern Japan. In some pictures in the old scrolls or the folding screens, you can see o-fuda pasted on a wall of a house to ward off evils. The continuity is amazing. 

Amulet, ritual purification wand "onus", 1892.21.18 .1 & .2. 
These wands were presented when praying the the Kami 
or exorcising imperfections © Pitt Rivers Museum

Amulet for the safety of horses and cattle, 
1908.82.108 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Amulet from a shrine on Mt. Fuji, 
1908.82.46 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Those amulets normally do not survive in Japan because they are discarded by being burnt, or by being thrown into rivers annually to be replaced by new ones. Therefore the Museum’s collection is really valuable. Chamberlain travelled all over Japan, and the amulets in his collection were from many different places. There is only one place where contemporary Japanese researchers can see them all together, which is oddly enough the Pitt Rivers Museum, almost on the other side of the globe from Japan.  

Fusa McLynn
Collections Volunteer 

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