Browsing in Princeton University Library’s rare books vault, I came across a copy of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in parallel Greek and Latin (Hanover: Wechel, 1610), bound in tooled calfskin at Oxford, which was inscribed on the rear end leaf by a 17th-century hand in dark black ink:
“This incke came from Japan w[hi]ch is 17,000 myles from England.”
Evidently, a traveler to Japan brought a sample of sumi ink home to England, where someone tried it out on a blank leaf of the 1610 Oxford Aristotle. According to a helpful email from Ad Stijnman, noted researcher on historical inks, “the sumi ink will have been brought to England in the form of a stick, the way oriental writing ink is kept, likely not in a bottle European style, and only prepared shortly before writing.”
This strikes me as a potentially very early and interesting instance of contact with Japanese material culture in England, dating perhaps only a few years after the first English contact with Japan, established in 1610 by William Adams (who did not return to England), and the more diplomatically successful 1613 voyage by John Saris, who brought numerous Japanese objects back to England the following year. The alleged distance that the ink had traveled, 17,000 miles, may offer a clue as to which sea and/or land routes were taken.
Scholars with greater expertise in this area are invited to comment!
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