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, Click to take a closer look

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

Books on the table in the video

For those who are interested in the books on the table shown in the video, please click the book titles to take a closer look.

books on the table

1. Tanzaku Tekagami 2. Kunshin zuzō 3. Heike monogatari
4. Itsukushima mōde-ki 5. Eiga no taigai 6. Kin’yōwakashū
7. Genji monogatari keizu 8. Kise inhon-kyō 9. Genji monogatari hiketsu
10. Taketori monogatari 11. Daihannya haramitakyō 12. Shibunritsu
13. Hekianshō 14. Kokinwakashū 15. Hokekyō tanji
16. Jōkan Seiyō 17. Genji kokagami 18. Kyō ōezu
19. Baien kishō (*1) 20. Shūko jisshu-kō 21. Shin Kokinwakashū
22. Waka hishō 23. Heike monogatari 24. Chūjōhime
25. Meisho buri Kon’nōzakura    

*) Note that the book No.19 is a different version of the same book with the one introduced in the video although they are identical in the content.

Explore more about books

As mentioned in Step 1.1, you can view the images of most books—introduced in this course—in larger size by clicking the links marked Click to take a closer look. The link takes you to an online library, “Narrative Book Collection” (NBC) where you can enjoy quality images and detailed information but it gives you more than that.

How does ‘Narrative Book Collection (NBC)’ work in this course? Give it a try!

In NBC, you have Bookshelf view where you can search and collect and compare books with specific features, and Book view where you can take a closer look at a selected book. All books in NBC correlate with the course contents, and you can explore various types of narratives alongside the course.

Here is a tutorial. Give it a try before you start learning more about books through the course.

  1. Click “24. Chūjōhime in the table above for example, then you’ll see the NBC’s Book view (fig.1).

    nbc screen1 Fig. 1. Narrative Book Collection - Book view

    In the Book view, you can see a) a list of digitized images of the book (all selectable), b) an image with Japanese title and imprints, c) detailed description of the book, d) zoom link that allows you to view higher resolution image, and e) clickable link icons that leads you to the unique Bookshelf view.

    Some terms may be unfamiliar to you at this moment, but no worries. You will learn and understand throughout the course, and NBC is available at any point during the course.

  2. After you view, read, and enjoy a) to d), let’s explore the book in the Bookshelf view. As shown below (fig.2), most books have 6 viewpoints—Genre, Typology, Timeline, Color, Size, and Content—that leads you to the Bookshelf view, where you can see books in sorted by your interest.

    nbc screen2 Fig. 2. Narrative Book Collection - Bookshelf view

    In this example, Let’s click on ‘Genre’ icon and take a look.

  3. Now you’re looking at the Bookshelf of NBC. Since Chūjōhime is categorized as ‘Illustrated Tales’, the listed images are all (pre) classified as ‘Illustrated Tales’.

  4. As a next step, why don’t you go back to Book view once, then click ‘color’ icon? Then you’ll see the books with similar color in the Bookshelf now.

    nbc screen3 Fig. 3. Narrative Book Collection - Bookshelf view, chosing color

    In this way, you are able to explore the collection—which is classified under the same category—from 6 different viewpoints, and enjoy compare/contrast books.

  5. Next, let’s try a cross-search

    In the Bookshelf view, you can add filters to all the six viewpoints. Let’s slide the timeline slider, then click on 2 viewpoints and look for 1) illustrated books which were 2) published during Edo period, and 3) bound in Fukurotoji (pouch binding) style. All selected filter settings appear on the top, so you can easily add/remove all settings.

    nbc screen4 Fig. 4. Narrative Book Collection - Bookshelf view, cross-search

    Through this course, you’ll learn all the binding styles of Japanese old books. For example, Fukurotoji you just selected, is introduced in Step 1.12.

  6. Take a close look to each book.

    If you find an interesting book in the Bookshelf, click the book image (that strikes you), and look into the details on Book view again and enjoy closer look. For further details, there is a button link in c) detailed description (fig.6), that takes you (back) to the correlated FutureLearn course step.

    nbc screen5 Fig. 5. Narrative Book Collection - Take a closer look by Book view

    nbc screen5 Fig. 6. Narrative Book Collection - Going to FutureLearn Course Step

    In NBC, we provide approximately 150 book titles with more than 650 high-resolution images.

    Feel free to ‘customize’ the Bookshelf by yourself and explore the collection from various viewpoints, and take a closer look, going back and forth. We hope that this NBC assists you to further engage with rare Japanese books.

Let us know in the comments

How was your experience of exploring books through Narrative Book Collection? Last but not least, in the Bookshelf, you are able to share filter settings via URL. By clicking on the ‘Share your Findings’ button in the upper right corner, you can save and share your findings (current filter settings) online.

Feel free to share links and leave comments on any step with reactions, feedback or questions about the course contents as well as NBC.

We hope NBC will enrich your journey through rare books in this course.

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This video is from the free online course:

Japanese Culture Through Rare Books

Keio University