Shigeko Tanaka says she has two very good reasons for going often to England. Those reasons are her daughters, both of whom live there.
She has also other very good reasons for her frequent travels. One is a compelling interest in stately country houses that hold serious collections of Oriental ceramics.
Another is the Leys School in Cambridge, which uniquely began accepting students from Japan in the late 19th century. Both these subjects constitute her personalized, continuing research.
Born into a long-established family in Tokyo, her father a medical doctor, she attended Aoyama Gakuin from prep school through university. She married Ryozo Tanaka, a teacher and had her children. She took a course in teaching Japanese to foreign students.
“Whilst I was bring up my children, I never dreamed of going abroad,” she said. “But we had an opportunity to go to Britain. In 1968, my husband was asked to look after a group of Japanese students going on an intensive language course to the U.K. My daughters and I went too, I as his assistant.”
Five years later, the family went again to England. “We went to Cambridge for two years. Both my daughters were educated there. My husband became a research student, and as a supervisor I taught Japanese at Cambridge University,” Tanaka said.
Many of the English novels that husband and wife enjoyed reading were set in magnificent English country houses. Tanaka and her husband began visiting those that were open to the public.
“He was interested in the houses themselves. Of course I was too, but I had always been interested in ceramics, and in those country houses were so many family collections of Japanese ceramics. That was my beginning,” Tanaka said.
Self-motivated, she joined the Oriental Ceramics Society in London and in Tokyo. Returning to live in Tokyo, she attended seminars and wrote articles on the Oriental ceramics she had seen abroad. In 1987, as a visiting scholar she was attached to Wolfson College, Cambridge, where she researched the collections of early Yueh wares in the U.K.
In 1992, she reported finding in a country house in Scotland a ceramic piece “Figure of an Immortal on a Tortoise.” She identified it as one recorded in a Dutch shipment of 1665. It resembled two pieces already held in Europe, one in the Burghley House collection in England and one in the Kassel Collection in Germany.
In 1988, a mold of the back of a tortoise was excavated in Akaemachi, Arita, Saga Prefecture. Tanaka found that its pattern was exactly the same as those on the last surviving pieces in Europe.
Last summer, Tanaka went to Havana with her husband to look for evidence of the 17th and 18th centuries’ Spanish trade in Oriental ceramics across the Pacific Ocean. She found Chinese blue-and-white shards and one Japanese piece.
By photograph, the Japanese piece was later identified by the Kyushu Ceramics Museum as one fired in Arita in 1660-1680. This find advanced the theory that the Spanish trade in Oriental ceramics from Manila to Mexico had reached Cuba.
Tanaka and her husband then went to Sicily, which during those two centuries was under Spanish rule. They found no relics in the museums but in the palaces saw some items of 18th-century Imari ware.
Last month by invitation Tanaka attended the Centenary Celebrations of the Chapel of the Leys School. Fourteen Japanese students who attended Leys from 1887 to 1904 donated the money for a stained glass window in the chancel and for furniture for the vestry. The Japanese names are set in a plaque in the vestry wall.
Tanaka’s article on the students was included in the centenary booklet published at the time of the commemorative dinner held at the school. While she was in the U.K., Tanaka also attended the reopening of the Japanese Galleries of the British Museum.
Tanaka has been a member of the Asiatic Society of Japan since 1980 and a council member since 1986. “That means I have been enjoying working with other members for 20 years,” she said. She is a frequent contributor of English-language articles to the society’s publication “Transactions.” With her connections, she is often instrumental in offering members complimentary leaflets and tickets to current museum exhibitions.
When ASJ was looking for a meeting place, Tanaka succeeded in interesting Tetsuo Tamura of Shibuya Jyoiku Gakuen to provide a classroom. She played a similar role for the British community when the British School in Tokyo was looking for a home.