Portrait of the Week #23 – Elizabeth Anna Gordon

Elizabeth Anna Gordon (1851 – 1925)

In 1891, Elizabeth Anna Gordon (nee Henry) and her husband, John Edward Gordon (1850 – 1915), embarked on a round the world tour. This was not untypical at the time for people of their class and generation. Two years later, she published a memoir recording her experiences, ‘Clear Round!’: or Seeds of Story from Other Countries: Being a Chronicle of Links and Rivets in This World’s Girdle. Japan had evidently made a very great impression on her, and her reminiscences of the country fill several chapters. She was struck, in particular, by Japanese religious life and children’s education. Shortly before they returned to Britain, the Japan Society London was established; she and her husband joined the Society, in February 1892, almost immediately after their return. ‘Clear Round!’ was successful, since it ran into three editions. It may even have contributed to the promotion of a favourable attitude towards Japan among the reading public before the conclusion of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1902. Sixteen years later, Elizabeth Anna Gordon returned to Japan with a large consignment of English books, as part of the ‘Books for Japan’ project which she had organized with the aim of furthering Anglo-Japanese cultural and religious understanding. From her mid-fifties onwards, she lived almost continuously in Japan, except for a few years after the First World War. She died in Kyoto in 1925.

Books were a central feature of Elizabeth’s life. She published at least thirteen titles, primarily on the subject of Christianity and Mahayana Buddhism. Eight were published in London; the other five titles were published in Tokyo. She was clearly precocious, having written five books before her marriage at the age of twenty-eight. She was also a major book collector, eventually amassing an enormous library. She initially collected books for her own studies of world religions, but later collected books with the aim of distributing them to the Japanese public. Her collections on religious studies ended up in Japanese universities as the Gorudon Bunko (Gordon collection or Gordon Library) at both Waseda University Library and Koyasan University Library. Her collection of English books (around 100,000 books) which she and her colleagues collected was called the Dulce Cor Library. It was called Nichi-Ei Bunko or Nichi-Ei Toshokan in Japanese, i.e. the Anglo-Japanese library. This library formed the core of Japan’s first public library, Hibiya Library, when it was opened in Tokyo in 1908.

 

This is an extract from a biography by Noboru Koyama. The full biographies for each Portrait of the Week are contained in the Japan Society series Biographical Portraits (Vols. I – VIII). If you would like to purchase any of these volumes, they can be found online in the Japan Society Shop, with a special discount for members.

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