Nine old Japanese books  on the table of various sizes, formats.
Nine old Japanese books introduced in this step

Format and content of early-modern printed books

Early-modern books come in standard formats and to some extent it is possible to tell the content of the book from its size, although there are exceptions. In this step, we will go over the main book formats and the type of content they were typically used for.

The figures below represent the basic sizes of traditional Japanese books introduced in this step.

Various sizes of old Japanese books introduced in this step

1. Ōhon (large books, 20 x 27 cm)

Nihon shoki(Chronicles of Japan), Kan’ei-era edition Fig.1. Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan), Kan’ei-era edition , Left: Opening section, Right: Cover page
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Format:

The size of a sheet of Mino washi (Mino paper, 39x 27 cm), folded in two. Books larger than ōhon are known as toku-ōhon (extra-large books).

Content:

Mostly the classics and scholarly subjects (Confucianism, Chinese studies, Buddhism, waka, poetics). Being the largest among the scholarly formats, it was used for books on subjects traditionally considered prestigious and authoritative.

2. Toku-ōhon (Extra-large books)

Japanese old book in the box Fig.2. Shūko jisshu-kō (Collected Antiquities in Ten Categories, 1800), with box
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Format:

A general designation for books larger than ōhon.

Content:

Because their large size made them somewhat harder to read, toku-ōhon were mostly used for pictures and maps. They were typically produced by the presses of provincial daimyō, who viewed booksize as a symbol of power.

3. Hanshibon (half-size Books, 17 cm x 24 cm)

Japanese old book Fig.3.Yamato zokkun, hanshi-bon, Kaibara Ekken
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Format:

The size of a sheet of hanshi paper (33x24 cm) folded in two.

Content:

Introductory-level books on scholarly subjects such as Confucianism, Buddhism, Native Studies, and history. More generally oriented than the ōhon, they tend to focus on educational, illustrated, and haiku-related books.

4. Chūhon (medium-size books, 13x 19cm)

Japanese old book Fig.4. Meisho buri kon’nōzakura, Tomikawa Ginsetsu, Chūhon
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Format:

Half the size of a ōhon, equivalent to the size of a sheet of Mino washi paper folded in four.

Content:

Mostly popular novels such as kusazōshi and guides to the pleasure quarters (e.g. Yoshiwara saiken); travel guides, books on cooking, and other such light, “how to” books.

5. Kohon (small books, 12x 17 cm)

Japanese old book Fig.5. Kabun yōgo, kohon
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Format:

Half the size of the hanshibon, or,one fourth of a sheet of hanshi paper.

Content:

Typically used for pocket-size, easy to carry waka and kanshi lexica for use by poets; light or humorous books (e.g. sharebon, hanashibon) and haikai-related books.

6. Toku-kohon (Extra-small books)

Japanese old book Fig.6. Kokkō shōshō, toku-kohon
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Format:

Smaller in size than a kohon.

Content:

Because their small format made them impractical for regular use, they were mostly made as ornamental objects (e.g. waka and kanshi collections by bunjin and elite figures) or were used for books on quirkier, niche subjects.

7. Tatenaga-bon (“Higher-than-wide” books)

Japanese old book Fig.7. Chikuden-sō shiwa, tatenaga-bon
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Format:

Books of narrower than usual width.

Content:

Mostly poetry collections and calligraphy copybooks by Chinese-style literati (bunjin).

8. Yokohon (“Wider-than-high” books)

Eisō satoshigusa, Yokohon Fig.8. Eisō satoshigusa, Yokohon
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Format:

Book of shorter than average height made by cutting into three (in some rare cases four) sections, instead of the usual two, the sheets of paper used to make toku-ōhon, ōhon, hanshibon, chūhon, and kohon books.

Content:

Primarily popular, fashionable books such as actors’ reviews, popular fiction and haiku books; reference books such dictionaries Who’s who books; introductory books on waka, kanshi and haiku composition.

9. Masugata-bon (Square books)

Japanese old book Fig.9. Oku no hosomichi, Masugata-bon
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Format:

Books of identical or almost identical width and height.

Content:

Few were published during the Edo period, so it is difficult to identify a single trend content-wise. In the age of manuscripts, this format was often used for beautifully decorated versions of court tales, waka collections, and Buddhist works, and its associations with these genres remained strong in the Edo period.

Summary

As this summary shows, in the early-modern period book format and content were closely related. With the exception of the oversized books and the so-called “miniature books” (mame-hon), which were not for regular use, and the comparatively rare masugata-bon, book sizes reflected the social prestige of the content (from high to low). So it can be said that in Edo-period Japan, not only society but also books were divided by class.

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This article is from the free online course:

Japanese Culture Through Rare Books

Keio University