Summary of Week 2

Week 2 will have given you an idea of the great variety of decorated papers used in traditional Japanese bookmaking.

There are also many less common types of paper that we have not been able to look at, so no one can really say for sure how many different types of paper were used.

Why this variety? The first thing that comes to mind is the love of books of premodern Japanese people. In many if not every culture, love for books has inspired people to use their skills and creativity to create books of great beauty; and yet, this seems to be particularly true of traditional Japan.

The bookmaking traditions of countries that developed under the cultural influence of China show a strong tendency toward standardization. By contrast, Japanese book culture stands out for the incredible variety of binding methods and paper types. The two are, of course, closely interconnected. In China and Korea, where printed books came to dominate the market early on, binding styles optimized for print and paper types suited to large-scale production were preferred. But in Japan manuscripts remained in use for much longer, so binding styles and papers continued to vary widely depending on the content of the book and its anticipated use.

The variety and beauty of the papers used and the elaborate techniques used to decorate them is thus a unique trait of premodern Japanese books and one may be tempted to see in it something distinctive about Japanese culture as a whole.

Paper types naturally reflect the tastes and skill level of the people who made them. Moreover, because decorative styles fall in and out of fashion, they also reflect the time when they were in use. For example, the revival of Heian-period decorating techniques in the early Edo period (17th century) tells us how fascinated with Heian court culture the people of Edo Japan were.

The study of paper is an important area of book history because no serious study of books is complete without considering the source materials and the evolution of manufacturing techniques. Besides introducing you to the variety and beauty of Japanese decorative styles, we hope that what you have learned in Week 2 will make you want to learn more about traditional Japanese culture and, why not, inspire you to look at the material aspects of the books around you.

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This article is from the free online course:

The Art of Washi Paper in Japanese Rare Books

Keio University