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Early printed illustrated books

Printed illustrated books appeared not too long after their handwritten counterparts, about which you learned in Week 2. You are also already familiar with the history of printed books in general, so here I will only focus on early printed illustrated books.

The very earliest specimens are two Buddhist texts in scroll format, namely the Yūzū nenbutsu engi (Origins of the Yūzū Nembutsu Sect, 14th and 15th c.) and the Kōya daishi gyōjō zue (Illustrated Biography of the Great Master of Mount Kōya, 16th c.) However, as no other similar books were made after them, they must be considered a one-off exception. Illustrated printed books proper appeared at the beginning of the 17th century and rapidly caught on as a result of the boom of commercial publishing.

The very first printed illustrated book was the Saga-bon Ise monogatari (Saga-version Tales of Ise) (Fig.1). Its publication was truly an epoch-making event as it was the first book in kana ever to be printed. The name “Saga-bon” (Saga books) refers to the set of large-type luxury books published in the Saga area of Kyoto by the wealthy merchant and art connoisseur Suminokura Soan (1571-1632). It is fair to say that the Ise is the most representative work of the set.

Saga-bon Ise monogatari Fig. 1. Saga-bon Ise monogatari [1] , Click to take a closer look (Left) (Right)

It is a beautifully made book with pages of five different colors. However, it is important to bear in mind that printed illustrated books would not have appeared had handwritten illustrated books not paved the way for them during the previous decades.

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This article is from the free online course:

Japanese Culture Through Rare Books

Keio University