Skip main navigation
We use cookies to give you a better experience, if that’s ok you can close this message and carry on browsing. For more info read our cookies policy.
We use cookies to give you a better experience. Carry on browsing if you're happy with this, or read our cookies policy for more information.

Skip to 0 minutes and 4 secondsHere I will talk about illustrated books. Prof. Ichinohe explained about printed books, so Here I will concentrate on printed picture books. With the introduction of movable type printing technology from Europe and from Korea at the end of the 16th century, movable type began in earnest in Japan too. The diffusion of these printed book exerted a strong influence on Japanese publishing, but there are some subtle differences to keep in mind. Let us start with these books [5] produced under the influence of books in Chinese from the Korean peninsula. As you can see, there is a border around the text.

Skip to 1 minute and 7 secondsThis border was called kyōkaku, you can also see the grid of columns between the lines of text, and it is standard in kanji-based books. At the opposite end of the spectrum were the books in the local script, the kana. This is an example [2], and as you can see, there is no border. In 1608 the first illustrated movable type edition of the Tales of Ise (Ise monogatari) was published. There is no border around the text portion, but there is one around the plates. This [3] is a different, slightly later book but it is a similar example. As you can see, there is no border around the text but there is one around the images.

Skip to 2 minutes and 19 secondsThe images are were colored by hand and the whole genre is known as tanroku-bon (red and green books) after the pigments used for coloring. These books always have a border around the images but not around the text. Next, this book [4] here is titled Sanjūrokunin utaawase (Poetry Contests of the Thirty-six Immortal Poets). Suminokura Soan (1571-1632), the man behind the series of luxurious printed books known as Saga-bon (Saga books), the first of which was the Tales of Ise we have just looked at, is thought to have been involved in its publication. It contains portraits of famous poets next to their most representative poems.

Skip to 3 minutes and 12 secondsThis kind of pictures are known as kasen-e (pictures of famous poets) and were popular since the 12th century. Traditionally these pictures did not feature a border but they do in this book we are looking at. So there seems to be a connection between the print medium and the use of the border. There is no definitive explanation as to why illustrations in printed books feature the border and those in handwritten ones do not. One intriguing possibility is that it was as a result of Western influence. Illustrations in Western books tend to feature a border. The way some of them had green and red added to them by hand also resembles the way color was applied on plates in Japan.

Skip to 4 minutes and 24 secondsSo Western influence is a distinct possibility. And so we have roughly outlined how illustrations became a common presence in Japanese printed books, but it is important to keep in mind that this occurred because of the popularity of handwritten illustrated books before them. Moving back to the border, originally it was only used for images, but as time went on, it also began to be used around the text, as in this example [1]. Why? Without the border, a printed book looks very similar to a manuscript. It is possible that early printed kana books, which do not feature the border, were meant to look like manuscripts. By contrast, books that featured a border around the text sort of flaunted their "printedness".

Skip to 6 minutes and 2 secondsIn other words, though they began life as passable replica of handwritten books gradually printed books came to be accepted as a legitimate medium in their own right. Illustrations may have played an important role in making the border around the text acceptable. If we look at this book we already saw earlier, we see that there is no border around the text, but there is one around the image. However, the image is slightly smaller than the text and there is a certain unbalance between the two pages. But as the border began to be used for both text and images, as in this example, it gradually became standard to use frames of equal size for the two.

Skip to 7 minutes and 23 secondsThis book here, it doesn’t have any illustrations, and this one are two printed versions of the same text, the Aki no yo no nagamonogatari (Tale of a Long Autumn night). They were published about 100 years apart from each other and they show just how much publishing conventions changed during this period of time. Finally, let us look at an example of a book both going against and exploiting the trend of the times. If we look inside, it is a printed book but there is no border around the text and neither is there one around the images. If we added color to the images it would look virtually identical to the illustrated handwritten Nara ehon that we saw earlier.

Skip to 8 minutes and 38 secondsIn other words, this was made as a replica of a Nara ehon. In order to make it look just like a handwritten book the borders were omitted. Although technically possible, by this point borderless printing was extremely rare. Though these may seem like minor details, it is surprising how much we can learn by paying attention to the relationship between images and the border.

Bordered plates and the use of the outer border in kana books

An important difference between printed and handwritten illustrated books is that illustrations in printed books often feature a border or frame whereas illustrations in handwritten books do not. First, read the article, and then watch Prof. Sasaki’s video explanation to see examples.

Illustrations in printed books tend to be surrounded by a border or frame whereas illustrations in handwritten books are not. This version of the Ise monogatari (Fig. 1) is an exception in that it does feature the border.

Saga-bon Ise monogatari Fig. 1. Saga-bon Ise monogatari
Click to take a closer look

Most of the so-called Saga-bon were printed with movable type but some, like Shinkokinshūshō Getsuei waka-kan (Poems on the Moon from the Shinkokinshū) (this work is preserved in Gotoh Museum collection. please refer to “See also” section), were printed using the old woodblock method (known as seihan). Not all scholars consider it part of the Saga books, but there are other examples, such as the Saga-bon Sanjūrokkasen (Fig.2). It follows in the tradition of portraits of famous poets accompanied by their most representative poems (known as kasen-e, literally, “poet-pictures”), which dates back to at least the twelfth century. Literary countless poet-pictures survive, in scrolls, books, or as individual images(Look at manuscripts of Hyakunin isshu (Fig.3.)).

But whereas images of the poets in earlier works do not feature the border around either the images or the text, the Saga-bon version does.

*Saga-bon Sanjūrokkasen* Fig. 2. Saga-bon Sanjūrokkasen
Click to take a closer look

Ogura hyakunin isshu Fig.3. Ogurayama hyakunin isshu
Click to take a closer look

We do not know for certain why illustrations in printed books always featured a border. It may have been for some unknown technical reason, but that is unlikely to be the only explanation. One intriguing hypothesis is that it was as a result of Western influence. European printed works, the history of which began in 1455 with Gutemberg’s Bible, were usually in book format, and featured bordered images. The introduction of firearms in 1543 marked the beginning of a time of great interest in all things Western, including books. However, due to the persecution of Christianity almost no European books from this period survive, so it is difficult if not impossible to determine whether a connection exists. Considering that book-style illustrated books appeared roughly at the time of maximum circulation of Western books in Japan, the possibility of direct influence seems likely enough, but it is impossible to say more.

Interestingly, as of a certain point the use of the border around images seems to have begun affecting the printed text as well. Ever since the early days of movable type printing at the beginning of the Edo period, printed books in hiragana did not feature a border around the text (called kyōkaku, Korean kwangg-wak ). However, books in Chinese or Sino-Japanese did, as it was usual in China and Korea, and so did books written in katakana, the script traditionally used to annotate Chinese texts. In a sense, the border was a sort of hallmark of printed books. Recent research has shown that the book below was one of the so-called Saga-bon (Fig.4. Shiji [J. Shiki, Records of the Grand Historian]). As you can see, it does feature the outer border.

By contrast, books without borders were more visually akin to manuscripts, and it is likely that the earliest printed kana books were made as replicas of manuscripts. We know that printed replicas of manuscripts were quite popular in Europe, for instance.

Shiji Fig.4. Shiji (J. Shiki)
Click to take a closer look

The text of this book Tawara Tōda monogatari (The Tale of Tawara “Rice-bag” Tōda)(Fig. 5) looks almost handwritten; what gives it away as a printed book is the border around the image.

Tawara Tōda monogatari Fig.5. Tawara Tōda monogatari
Click to take a closer look

As you can see, the top part of the frame is slightly more indented than the text (a feature which we first see in the Saga-bon Ise monogatari). Indeed, if one looks at both text and image at the same time, there is a certain lack of balance. It is difficult to say for certain if the two phenomena are related, but as of the second half of the 17th century, not only did the border begin to be used around the text portion in more and more kana works, but in all cases in which the type and the images were produced at the same time (text and images were not always made together; sometimes illustrations were added to texts that initially did not have any, or they were made anew to replace older ones), it was standard to use frames of equal size for both . This book Tsuru no sōshi (The crane’s tale) (Fig 6.) is an early example featuring practically perfectly aligned frames for both text and images.

Tsuru no sōshi Fig.6. Tsuru no sōshi
Click to take a closer look

The eventual adoption of the text border in printed books in kana can be said to mark the end of the attempts to associate printed books to manuscripts and the final acceptance of the printed book as a legitimate medium. Though very rare, there are a few examples of mid-17th century kana books without the border. They are a series of 23 books called Otogi bunko (Collection of Tales), although it is unclear if the blocks were all made at the same time (Fig.7 Otogi Sōshi Issun bōshi) From such features as the landscape orientation of the page and the design of the covers, we can tell that they were created as faithful replicas of the horizontal Nara ehon. One item in the set, the Tale of Bunshō (Bunshō-zōshi), even features hand-colored illustrations. By replicating all the features of manuscript books, the makers probably meant to maximize the appeal of the product at a time when the book market as a whole was moving away from manuscript replicas.

Tsuru no sōshi Fig.7. Otogi Sōshi Issun bōshi
Click to take a closer look

Books introduced in the video

Books on the table

6. Nosezaru Sōshi 5. Akinoyonaga monogatari 4. Akinoyonaga monogatari
3. Tsukishima 2. Sanjūrokkasen 1. Shiji

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Japanese Culture Through Rare Books

Keio University

Contact FutureLearn for Support