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Manuscripts of tales

Now let us look at the case of fictional tales (monogatari). The overwhelming majority of them were bound in mutsuhan-bon (sixth) format. Let us examine a few items in Keio University Library’s collection.

Mutsuhan-bon, the standard format of the Tale of Genji

The first item (Fig.1) is a fragment from the Yadorigi (The Ivy) chapter of the Tale of Genji which chronologically belongs to the earliest group of extant Genji manuscripts. The copy of the “Wakana jō” (New Herbs, Part I) chapter that we discussed earlier as an example of mutsuhan-bon is an early 16th century manuscript. Ever since Kamakura times, the mutsuhan-bon was the standard format of Genji manuscripts.

fig1 and fig2 (Left) Fig.1 “YadorigiMutsuhan-bon Click to take a closer look
(right) Fig.2 “Utsusemi”, Yotsuhan-bon Click to take a closer look

Tales in yotsuhan-bon

Fictional works bound as yotsuhan-bon are rather rare. Fortunately, Keio University Library happens to own some examples. This one is also a fragment of the Genji (Fig.2). One notices the luxurious quality of the paper and the way the writing is generously laid out on the page in just six lines per page. The next example is eight lines per page (Fig.3) and the paper is also of extremely fine quality. Both pieces are written in beautiful hand and were no doubt the work of a master calligrapher. From these features, we can surmise that tales were only bound in the larger yotsuhan-bon format when they were presented to someone of high rank or on other such special circumstances.

*Suetsumuhana* Fig.3 “Suetsumuhana”, Yotsuhan-bon, Click to take a closer look

Although these are only a few examples, they point to the custom of binding works of fiction as mutsuhan-bon. By contrast, Kamakura-period waka manuscripts in tetsuyōsō binding tend to come in the larger yotsuhan-bon format. As we also know that waka texts were often bound as scrolls but works of fiction were not unless they were illustrated, it is safe to assume that yotsuhan-bon were considered more distinguished and prestigious than the smaller mutsuhan-bon.

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This article is from the free online course:

Japanese Culture Through Rare Books

Keio University