Philatelist R. Ranganathan on what drives his passion to collect Japanese stamps

The year was 1882, and the young Meiji Emperor sat comfortably inside a 4x4 square with King Milan I of Serbia. The stamp had the rare honour of being the only one that accommodated a Japanese emperor on it, and the philatelist who owns it is a proud man.

Even after collecting 10,000 stamps and a lifetime of loving everything Japanese, R. Ranganathan still pursues his dream of collecting all stamps Japanese. And, who said they had to come only from Japan?

The stamp with the Meiji Emperor was quite a find, for the Japanese rulers never allowed themselves to be featured on their stamps. Japanese Emperors and the Prime Ministers have always been elusive to collectors, who sought to set them up on their hingeless mounts.

It was Ranganathan's tireless quest that helped him trace this stamp to Serbia. “Initially, I never looked beyond Japan,” he admits. Once geography stopped mattering, he ran into Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on a stamp, this time from North Korea. Though the stamp was never endorsed by the international community due to North Korea's standing, it made its way into his burgeoning collection.

From across the globe

He once bought a British stamp that was objected to by the Church of England merely because the artist was Japanese. And, from Congo came a stamp that had Pope John Paul II with Japanese trains behind him. The Pope had never visited Japan, and the story of the stamp goes thus: the Pope had given a message of peace in troubled Congo, and that was read by a Japanese boy at the Nagoya expo in the country.

Both his stamps and the stories they tell are exhaustive. But, why Japan? He recalls: “I burnt my fingers with some hard-to-master French grammar. Then, I saw this ad in The Hindu calling for students to learn Japanese. The class started with 43 students, and ended with just three of us.”

It was Japanese engineer, Kumagaya, who he calls a friend, philosopher and guide, who was instrumental in getting him a scholarship to visit Japan. And, thus began his courtship with everything Japanese.

Twenty-seven years ago, he came back to India and started ABK-AOTS-DOSOKAI in Chennai; it is the largest and the most resourceful Japanese school in South India. Though a civil engineer by profession, teaching and promoting Japanese is his first love.

“Do you remember collecting stamps as a child?” he asks. In Japan, more than 90 per cent of children collect stamps. The country has a glowing culture of stamp collection.

How else can one explain the ‘greetings' and ‘condolence' stamps? Says Ranganathan: “It was close to New Year, and one of my friends from Japan sent me a letter with a condolence stamp on it. Intrigued, I opened it and saw a letter in which he notified me that he would not be sending me a New Year greeting because his mother had passed away.”

Ranganathan still maintains an address in Japan, and believes his love for the country has lasted because, like others, he did not ask what he would get by learning Japanese.

“I learnt it because I loved it. And, even today, my stamps are my stress-busters. I look at them and feel a wave of calm.”