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Number 1 Shimbun

Tapestries for the Empress

Tapestries for the Empress

by Hans Brinkmann

In October 1961, during a vacation in the Netherlands from Japan – where I worked as a banker – my wife, Toyoko, and I paid a visit to my parents in the leafy town of Doorn, in the province of Utrecht. During our brief stay at the Koetshuis, a bed & breakfast in the nearby village of Driebergen, we had a most unusual encounter. The Koetshuis – the former coach house of a stately mansion by the name of Kraaybeek – was situated on the mansion’s extensive grounds. The mansion itself served as an exclusive retirement home, and the Koetshuis offered accommodation to visitors and outsiders alike.

We registered at the front desk in the mansion, walked over to the Koetshuis and checked into our room. Later that day the front manager called to say that the mansion’s director, “Count Lubienski,” had noticed our Japanese address and would very much like to meet us, as he too had lived in Japan. We were invited to join him for tea in the mansion’s salon.

We were greeted by a tall, courteous gentleman, who introduced himself as “Stefan Lubienski, the host of this retirement home.” He explained that the home was operated by the Anthroposophical Society, a spiritual movement based on Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy. It counted among its residents a Princess Hohenzollern, a close relative of Germany’s last Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who had been forced to abdicate in 1918 as Germany faced its disastrous defeat in the First World War. Wilhelm fled into exile in the neutral Netherlands and purchased the stately Huis Doorn not far from Kraaybeek, where he spent the rest of his life, from 1920 until his death in 1941.

Lubienski went on to say that he had been born in Poland in 1893 and had had many occupations in his life, ranging from painting and teaching to trading and diplomacy, and had worked in many countries, including Japan. His eyes grew distant as he mentioned Japan. “Ah, Japan. You see, I had studied piano and composition in Vienna, with the idea of launching a musical career. But I was much more interested in philosophy, metaphysics and Eastern religions, and wanted to go and live in Japan.”

Since my arrival in Japan in 1950, I too had studied Buddhism and Japanese culture. Noticing my interest, he told us more. He moved to Paris in 1920 and there met Zina, a lady from an aristocratic Polish family, who also had her eyes on Japan and, likewise, had a musical education. They got married and booked their trip, “third class, for we were very poor, you know!” They arrived in Yokohama in March 1921 after a sea voyage of 44 days.

“My memories of Japan are precious and unforgettable,” he said. “So much happened in the five years we lived there, studying Buddhism and the Noh theatre and making music.” The beginning was a struggle. The couple survived by drawing postcards by hand, which he hawked door to door. Then they turned to weaving tapestries, a skill they had learned in Paris. It took a while, but eventually they managed to find a market. “In the end even the Empress bought them!” he added rather proudly.

Despite their modest means, his family background allowed them to move in the best circles. “Overalls by day, tuxedo by night!” is how the count phrased it. The terrible earthquake of 1923 that devastated Tokyo and Yokohama killed their tapestry business, but they managed to stay on a few more years, to continue their studies. “I wanted to stay forever, among those spiritual people, but I couldn’t. We had to go back to Europe.”

After returning to Poland in 1926 Lubienski joined a firm that traded with Holland, and he was sent to Rotterdam. Apart from the war years, he had lived there ever since.

That, in broad strokes, was the story of his colorful life. I was fascinated, not so much by the wealth of his experience as by his mind. He was elegant and charming, but it was his intellectual and spiritual side that appealed to my probing, searching 29-year old self. Unexpectedly, he asked if I would be willing to give a talk on “Japanese life and culture” for the residents of the house. I readily accepted, and he promptly invited us to join them for dinner at the main house that evening.

My talk took place two weeks later. I don’t recall what I talked about, but it turned out to be a rather lively and pleasant evening. The count came dressed in a faded, formal kimono preserved from his Japanese past. He welcomed us most warmly, and introduced us to his then-wife (who was not Zina; this wife said she had not been to Japan). The residents, mostly well-heeled old ladies, were clearly delighted with this exotic happening.

The count had prepared a little exhibition of his modest collection of Japanese objects, which he had treasured all those years. Teacups, a doll in kimono, lacquered chopsticks. Also old postcards of Mt. Fuji and the Polish countryside, which he said he had hand-painted himself… After my talk, tea and cakes were served, and even a good glass of wine to grace the occasion and loosen the tongues.

Almost six decades have passed since this brief experience, which took firm root in my memory. I wanted to verify some of the more unusual details of his story. My initial enquiries on the Internet turned up two references. One was the autobiography of the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. At the time of the Lubienskis’ arrival in Japan, Wright was living in Tokyo to oversee the building of the New Imperial Hotel, designed by him, the construction of which had begun in 1916. Wright writes:

“The management of the Imperial allowed me to build a modest little nook for myself in the new temporary annex. . . . Into these charming quarters we now went. There was a small grand piano – there were few in Tokio, and our friends were all capable of making good music. . . . .We knew a good many interesting people and some charming Russians in Tokio[sic], among them the talented Polish Count and Countess Lubienski.”

The hotel was due to open on September 1, 1923, but on that very day the Great Kanto Earthquake struck, destroying most of Tokyo and Yokohama. More than 140,000 people died in the disaster. Wright, who had returned to the States, anxiously awaited news of the hotel’s fate. At last, on September 13, Western Union delivered a telegram with this message:
“Hotel stands undamaged as monument of your genius.”

The Lubienskis were not so lucky. Although they survived the earthquake, their workshop was damaged beyond repair. They had to stop making tapestries, for which in any case the demand had evaporated.

The other reference was on the website of The International Shakuhachi Society where I found the following note to a CD in their catalogue of recorded music for shakuhachi (the Japanese bamboo flute) composed by Seifu Yoshida, a prominent shakuhachi player and composer at the time:

“When the Polish nobleman, Count Lubienski, visited Japan…he commissioned this music for a ballet of his creation, inspired by ancient Greek sculpture, expressing the chaste devotions offered by the Athenian maidens to their gods.” The composition was given the name Inori and is known as Adoration in English. Yoshida, by the way, often performed together with the legendary blind player of the koto (the Japanese horizontal harp) Michiyo Miyagi, whom I came to admire in Japan.

I found no other record of Lubienski’s time in Japan. Then I had an idea. I wrote for information to the Anthroposophical Society in the Netherlands. Thanks to the material they kindly and promptly provided, including selections from Lubienski’s journal, I was able to fill in some of the blanks in my sketchy recollections. What I learned is that a friend of Lubienski’s, a Frenchman he met in Paris who also had his sights set on Japan, suggested they learn how to knot and weave tapestries “as there is nobody in Japan doing that.” The friend was convinced that they could make a living that way. Together they spent many nights “in a Parisian basement” teaching themselves the necessary techniques. They were very poor. During their Paris period Lubienski provided for his wife and himself by doing backbreaking work as a laborer in a paper factory. Once they felt sufficiently confident about their acquired skill they booked their third-class passage to Japan.

A generous Japanese nobleman to whom Lubienski had an introduction offered them a small house to live in, free of charge, in the seaside town of Atami. They had to import wool from Australia before they could start on the tapestries. Meanwhile, wrote Lubienski, “I made picture postcards, by hand and, whether I liked that or not, hawked them door to door. Very original, Polish folk art in the Far East! But if you have to draw every one of them yourself you can’t produce more than 100 a day – anyway, that was my record. I couldn’t charge more than for a printed postcard, and for every one I sold I had to ring dozens of doorbells . . . At last, with the first rolled-up tapestry on my shoulder, I left for a round of visits to art lovers.”

He took the night-boat from Atami to Tokyo and called on “Baron Kondo,” who introduced him to “the head of a department store, who might allow me to hold an exhibition. And believe it or not, in October Mr. Kurachi can make a large space available for us!”

The exhibition proved his big break. Eventually he formed a partnership with an architect named Horikoshi who had visited the exhibition, and together they opened a “well-equipped workshop with new looms and workers and the security of a regular income. . . . The Horikoshi-Lubienski partnership soon became well-known. I made tapestries for Horikoshi’s houses. . . . Newspapers write about us, the empress orders our products.”

And then it all came to an abrupt end with the devastating earthquake. “We are on the train to Tokyo,” wrote Lubienski in his journal, “returning from a holiday. Suddenly the train shakes and in the distance we see enormous clouds of dust and smoke. . . . The last stretch we have to walk. It’s dark when we arrive home. Smoke and ashes everywhere and silent, stunned people. Our house is still there. But what now?”

Without wasting time, Lubienski changed tack. Because he and Zina wanted to stay on to continue studying Japanese culture, he had to find another source of income quickly. Anticipating the need for stenographers by insurance adjusters arriving from abroad, he took a crash course in shorthand from a self-help book, and was promptly hired. After the insurance people had gone home, he joined an established British import-export firm as department manager. With a secure income (“The highest I’ve ever received!”) the couple could now devote themselves more fully to their private pursuits. Besides the spiritual studies, Lubienski continued composing and writing for the stage. But when in 1926 his employer needed to downsize in the face of increasing competition from Japanese firms, Lubienski decided it was time to leave.

They returned to Poland in September 1926, taking the Trans-Siberian Railway. “While on the train,” noted Lubienski in his autobiography, “I wrote my book about the Japanese soul and its future.” Soon his work in a Polish trading firm brought him to Holland. The Second World War Lubienski spent in France in various disguises, mostly working for the Maquis resistance. In 1945 he returned to the Netherlands, as Polish consul-general in The Hague. When the Soviet communist domination over Poland became a fact, Lubienski took up lecturing and language teaching in the Netherlands until, in 1959, he was offered his position at Kraaybeek.

A raging fire destroyed the Kraaybeek mansion in 1969, killing seven of its residents. Lubienski survived, but seven years later, when he was 82, death came to this man who

evidently possessed such a thirst for knowledge and experience, both spiritual and broadly cultural, that he had allowed nothing to stand in the way of quenching it. He had not let his aristocratic upbringing keep him from working as a common laborer when poverty required it, and he had embraced the artisan’s life in his quest for a reliable source of income. Perhaps he recognized the intrinsic value and dignity of even the humblest kind of work.

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Hans Brinkmann has been living in Japan on and off since 1950. He is the author of several books of fiction, non-fiction, history and poetry as well as many essays. For more information about his work and activities, see his English/Japanese website at www.habri.jp.

Published in: May 2018

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