The Japanese collection at the V&A is extensive and varied, numbering in excess of 42,000 objects. The items are predominantly from the Edo period but there are some good representative earlier objects and a well-documented collection of pieces acquired from the great exhibitions of the late 19th century. For example the Museum acquired from the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 a huge collection of ceramics chosen to represent the entire history of Japanese ceramics.
The collections also hold, particularly following a period of active collecting over the last 15 years, a good representative collection of contemporary works in many varied media. The collections today therefore range in period from Heian to the contemporary and include metalwork (arms and armour, mirrors, decorative inlay, figurative works, religious items and over 5,000 sword fittings), graphic works (including some 28,000 prints and printed books, as well as a few paintings, scrolls and screens), textiles (including court wear, country textiles, textiles for performance religious items and textile samples), ceramics (of all types), wooden objects including furniture, lacquer ware (including inro and some world-famous examples of export lacquer) and sculpture pieces (that include masks for performance as well as carvings such as okimono and netsuke).
The Museum began an active programme of collecting from the 1850s - the first Japanese items to come into the collection were a group of modern Nagasaki lacquer purchased from Hewitts and Co. of Fenchurch Street, London.
In 1860 Queen Victoria gave the Museum a collection of Imari porcelain formerly in the Japanese Palace at Dresden. In 1865, Queen Victoria donated another group of items from the diplomatic gift given to her in 1860 from Tokugawa lemochi. They included swords, splendid Oyoroi armour as well as textiles, lacquer ware and ceramics. Many objects given to the V&A by Queen Victoria were donated in turn to what was then the Royal Museum in Edinburgh (now the National Museums of Scotland).
Royal and diplomatic relations are the source of many Japanese objects held in the V&A. For example, there is a sword by Tomomitsu, dated equivalent to 1335, which was especially mounted for presentation to Sir Harry Parkes, Britain's first accredited minister in Japan, by the Emperor Meiji at a private audience in 1872.
In the early 20th century, the V&A benefitted from many significant gifts and bequests of Japanese objects, most notably the Salting bequest of metalwork and sword fittings, lacquer ware and netsuke and in 1931 the extraordinary Hildburgh gift of over 2,500 items of Japanese metalwork - these were mostly sword fittings.
The V&A's Toshiba Gallery of Japanese art opened in 1986. The display is a permanent one, although sections are redisplayed from time to time.
This is a shortened version of the V&A entry in Gregory Irvine's 'Guide to Japanese Art Collections in the UK' available from the Japan Society or booksellers.