Skip to 0 minutes and 2 secondsSome styles were introduced to Japan from Korea. Let us start with this book here. It is a very large book with a yellow cover. It’s an example of what book history specialists call “Chōsen-bon” (“Korean book”) and was published in the kingdom of Korea. The cover of these books, it may be a little hard to see, were decorated by pressing paper on carved wooden plates in order to get the patterns embossed on the paper. This method is known as karaoshi and is thought to have come to Japan at the time of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasions of Korea (late 16th century). The pattern was quickly imitated by Japanese papermakers and used on the covers of Japanese books.

Skip to 1 minute and 4 secondsUnder the influence of Korean movable type technology, movable type printing enjoyed a brief season of popularity in Japan at the beginning of the Edo period (early 17th c.). The covers of these books often imitated the appearance of Korean books. This kind of embossed covers remained popular throughout the 17th century. In this example here the patterns are embossed on gold-leaf paper. In this case, this is the back side of the cover. As we move on in time, we get to the age of multi-color printing and ukiyoe prints (“pictures of the floating world”). This here is not a book but an individual print; the waves and the shells portions are in relief and were made using the karaoshi techniques.

Skip to 2 minutes and 7 secondsIt may be hard to see from the video, but if we look closely, the shells here have a rough texture; this kind of decoration became increasingly common. This relief technique was also used in woodblock printed books. This is a gōkan (“bound book”), an ancestor of today’s manga (Japanese comic books). The cover imitates the “bumpy” texture of danshi paper with this pattern, then here, it may be a little hard to see, a relief pattern was also added to the black sash of the lady’s kimono using the karaoshi technique. Thus the relief technique was extremely popular throughout the Edo period. Also common, was to print the patterns on the covers using various colors.

Skip to 3 minutes and 16 secondsThis is the cover of an Edo-period printed book and you can see this beautiful geometric pattern that is printed on it. Because Edo period printed books were made for selling, and designs went in and out of fashion, from these designs we can roughly tell when the book was made. There were also differences of taste between the Kantō area, where Edo was located, and the Kamigata area, the area of Kyoto and Osaka, and sometimes these differences can be seen in the styles of the book covers. So there is a lot we can learn by carefully examining books covers.

Karaoshi (embossment)

Unlike regular karakami, in which the blocks are first smeared with paint and then pressed onto the paper, the designs are applied to the paper by pressing it against the blocks to obtain a relief pattern.

This technique was widely used for book covers in Korea during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) and some of the plates that were used are still extant. The technique was imported to Japan in the 16th century and was particularly used on the covers of printed books in the 17th and 18th centuries. Although the technique is essentially the same, the designs used in Japanese karaoshi covers often differ from the Korean ones and reflect the taste of the local craftsmen.

Watch the video to see examples of both types.

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