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Skip to 0 minutes and 2 seconds Earlier we looked at paper decorated with gold and silver leaf. Another way to use gold and silver to decorate books was to paint motifs on the page using gold and silver paints known traditionally as kindei (gold mud) and gindei (silver mud). In this example, especially at the top and bottom parts of the page, you see these drawings of clouds and mist made of fine gold sand, and then these exquisite maple leaves drawn with gold paint it is an extremely finely decorated example. Because they are under the written text, they are called shitae (“under-pictures”). Shitae can come in any color not just gold.

Skip to 0 minutes and 59 seconds The earliest examples are the elegant books of the Heian period, but like decorative techniques, there was a revival in the 17th century, during the Edo period, when Heian styles were widely imitated. Here is an example in scroll format, here it’s an accordion book (orihon), here you see this picture of a flowing stream with grass and leaves painted with gold and silver color. The same technique was also used on book covers as in this example. Though these are not called shitae, you see these fine drawings using gold and silver paint, this technique of adding motifs to the cover using gold and silver paint was also used with a peak of popularity in the 17th century.

Skip to 2 minutes and 0 seconds This one here is a poetry collection, but the picture on the cover is a rendition of a scene in the Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari, early 11th c.). The level of decoration is stunning. One important thing to keep in mind, you see here the picture of a horse generally speaking, there is no connection between the under paintings and the content of the written text. However, there is in some cases. Here the word “white horse” appears in the text, and here is the image of a horse this was originally part of a scroll and was cut off so in this case there is a correlation between the text and the motif.

Skip to 2 minutes and 50 seconds It may appear strange but if you look at the painting closely, you will see that care was taken to avoid going over the text. So this picture is not a real shitae but was added to the book after the text was inscribed. It’s important to pay attention to these differences. Shitae are another unique feature of traditional Japanese books.

The World of shita-e

Prior to writing on them, the pages of traditional books were often decorated with painted motifs such as birds, plants, etc. using gold or silver paint (kindei and gindei). Because the motifs appear “under” the written text they are called shita-e (“under-pictures”).

Although there are some early examples from the Heian period, the majority of examples dates from the 17th century, in the Edo period. Generally speaking, there is no direct connection between the painted motifs and the content of the written text, and this is also true of shita-e on shikishi and tanzaku paper strips used to inscribe kanshi (poems in Chinese) and waka poems.

In some rare cases, however, there is a correlation between the painted motifs and the written text. These are usually cases when the shita-e were added to the book after it was made, to increase its value. Obviously, in such cases the decorations were applied after the written text, taking pains to avoid painting over it. These special cases are fairly easy to recognize from the unusual distribution of the painted motifs on the page.

Though not technically “under pictures,” painted motifs were also added to the covers of books. Perhaps we might call these “cover paintings.” Many examples survive, the majority of which dates from the 17th century.

Watch the video to see examples of shita-e.

In the video, around 2:30, the word “white horse” appears in the text, and the image of a horse is drawn on the scroll as shita-e. See the following image to see the Japanese word for “white horse”.

book fig.1 White horse in the text and in shita-e

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