Skip to 0 minutes and 2 secondsBuddhist texts, which played an incredibly important role in the development of Japanese bookmaking, were traditionally written or printed on color paper. The most common color is this yellow paper here, which is obtained from the Amur cork tree (Phellodendron amurense), called kihada in Japanese. Its bitter taste was known to repel insects. Here we have an example of an 8th century Buddhist text. Buddhist sutras were often colored to represent the Buddhist Western Paradise. This example in the middle has purple paper, which was probably obtained from the roots of the murasaki plant (purple gromwell, Lithospermum erythrorhizon). Here we have an example of indigo paper made from the ai plant (Persicaria tinctorial,sometimes called “Japanese indigo”).

Skip to 1 minute and 11 secondsThis is made by soaking the paper in a solution of the dye, a process that is called tsukezome (“dip-dyeing”) or hitashizome (“soak-dyeing”) in Japanese. First used in the Nara period, dyed paper for Buddhist texts continued to be common throughout the Heian period (794-1185). By the 17th century, in the Edo period, colored paper came to be used for secular books as well, such as this one. Here is another example.

Skip to 2 minutes and 9 secondsHad books been made only to be read, there would be no need to use color. Clearly, it was to make books more beautiful and pleasing to the eye that Japanese bookmakers experimented with various types of color paper.

Tsukezome and hitashizome

The method known as either tsukezome (dip-dyeing) or hitashizome (soak-dying) consists in adding color to the paper after it has dried and gives a particularly vibrant color.

Please watch the video to see examples of Buddhist texts decorated using this method.

Colored paper used for letters

In novels such as the famous Genji monogatari (Tale of Genji, early 11th century), we sometimes encounter situations in which the letters the characters exchange are written on beautiful, colored paper. In some cases, the paper is made of multiple layers of paper of different color. The color combination of the paper is closely connected to the dress coordination of the aristocracy in the Heian period. Color combinations were chosen according to the season and were named after the season. The influence of such sensitivity color on Japanese book decoration culture should be obvious.

Please look at the two books listed in the SEE ALSO section. Published in the 19th century, they describe how to appropriately combine colors. The images are available from the National Diet Library in Tokyo, Japan.

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This video is from the free online course:

The Art of Washi Paper in Japanese Rare Books

Keio University