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This content is taken from the Keio University's online course, The Art of Washi Paper in Japanese Rare Books. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 2 seconds One distinctive characteristic of paper used in Japanese books is the abundant use of gold and silver. First, over here we have what was originally part of a sutra scroll made in the 12th century, in the Heian period. As you can see, very fine specks of gold leaf and silver leaf are applied to the surface of the paper. As you can see here, the gold and silver leaf decorations can take a variety of shapes. The ones cut in a straight line are known as kirihaku (small foil squares) and the rough uneven ones are known as momihaku (crumpled foil). The small granulated gold and silver is known as sunago (literally, “sand”), and the long, threadlike ones are known as noge (“tinsel,” lit.

Skip to 0 minutes and 53 seconds “field hair”). You can see the variety of gold and silver leaf designs that were used to decorate paper. Next over here is a 14th-century scroll. It narrates the origins of a temple and the reasons why it was built. This is also very expensive paper decorated with gold and silver. You can see many examples of sunago, kirihaku and other designs that I just mentioned. On the reverse side as well, the paper is decorated with tiny silver kirihaku squares. Furthermore, although this is the end-paper portion (a sheet of paper pasted on the back side of the front cover), it is also decorated with gold and silver leaf in various shapes.

Skip to 1 minute and 50 seconds From early on, it was common to use these techniques to create elaborate patterns. Finally over here is a fragment of a book from around the 15th or 16th century. Here we have an example of kumogami, which we looked at in a previous Step. It is decorated with various shapes made of gold and silver leaf that were scattered on top of the sheet. From these examples, you can see how common it was to decorate books with gold and silver.

Sunagogami and Hakuokigami

Although the techniques we have seen so far make use of dyes the main ingredient is still paper. We will now discuss decoration techniques in which mineral materials are mixed with or added to the paper.

In The Travels of Marco Polo, the great Venetian traveler describes Japan as “the golden country of Jipang”, a country full of gold. Looking at the decorations on traditional Japanese books, gold leaf and gold paint are used so profusely that one may well believe Marco Polo’s description to be true. Silver was also used as often. Another mineral that must be mentioned is mica. Mica powder was mixed with nikawa (an organic adhesive made from animal sources) in order to obtain a sparkling translucent glaze for paper decoration. Color pigments were also mixed with shell white (see Step 2.16) to make glossy paints of various colors.

Specialists classify paper decorated with minerals by the form or shape of the mineral used (e.g. powder, foil, etc.). Paper decorated with powdered minerals is called sunagogami (“powder-dusted paper”), and paper made with gold and silver leaf is known as hakuokigami (hakuoki literally means “to add foil”).

Sunagogami is made by sprinkling powdered gold leaf, silver leaf or other powdered minerals (e.g. mica) over the surface of paper pre-coated with glue. Different patterns can be created by reducing or increasing the amount of powder or by using stencils.

By contrast, hakuokigami is made by pressing gold or silver leaf of different shape onto paper pre-coated with glue. Depending on their shape, the foil decorations are called kirigane (gold strips), kirihaku (small foil squares), sakihaku (torn foil), momihaku (crumpled foil), nogehaku (“foil tinsel”), among others. Some examples are decorated with only one type but often several different designs were used to decorate the same paper.

Please watch the video to see examples of books (and fragments of books) decorated with gold leaf and silver leaf.

Books introduced in the video:

books on the table

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This video is from the free online course:

The Art of Washi Paper in Japanese Rare Books

Keio University