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Skip to 0 minutes and 4 secondsHere we take a first look at the variety of shapes and formats of traditional Japanese written texts. Please take a look. What you see here is a selection of texts made in Japan at different times over a period of one thousand years between the 8th and 19th centuries. As you can see, they differ widely in shape, size, etc. There is also considerable variation in the design and color of the covers. Such variety is not found in China and Korea, and can therefore be said to be unique to Japan. I am of the opinion that knowing about the distinctive features of a country’s bookmaking tradition can lead to a better understanding of that country’s culture.

Skip to 1 minute and 11 secondsIn the upcoming sections, I will explain the various bookmaking methods used in traditional Japan.

Japanese books and writing

Traditional Japanese books come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, designs and production methods. Such variety is not found in nearby countries like China and Korea, and reveals as much about Japan’s unique book history as it does about Japanese culture as a whole.

Books and history

Hekianshō Fig. 1. Hekianshō [7], Click to take a closer look (Left) (Center) (Right)

Books are part of the flow of history. This is a 1481 copy of the waka commentary Hekianshō (Notes on False Views) (Fig.1) in the hand of Asukai Masayasu, a prominent waka poet, scholar, and calligrapher of aristocratic stock. The beauty of the writing matches the quality of the hishi paper. When the book was made, Japan had just come out of the Ōnin wars, which lasted for eleven years from 1467 to 1477. Civil war had turned Kyoto into a wasteland of ruins and ashes, and yet, books like this one, which served no real practical function, continued to be produced. To crave this elegant object even at a time of turmoil was probably one of the provincial warlords who had come out victorious from the struggle. In many ways, this beautifully-made book symbolizes the love and admiration for aristocratic culture of these professionals of warfare.

Watch the video that gives a firsthand look at this extraordinary variety (of scripts, visual appearance, etc.). A more detailed explanation will be given over the following steps.

Think of the book that you discussed in Step 1.2. Is there anything that you notice now about the book that you did not notice before (i.e., size, shape, design)? Share your thoughts in the comments area.

Japanese History Overview

This is a list of the main period of Japanese history. This may be a useful reference as we proceed in the course.

Period Name of Era
mid-3rd c. CE to 7th c. CE Kofun (Tomb period)
592 - 710 Asuka
710-794 Nara
794 - 1185 Heian
1185 - 1333 Kamakura
1333 - 1392 Nanboku-chō (Southern and Northern Courts period)
1392 - 1573 Muromachi
1573 - 1603 Azuchi-Momoyama
1603 - 1868 Edo
1868 - 1912 Meiji

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This video is from the free online course:

Japanese Culture Through Rare Books

Keio University