Skip main navigation

Adding dye to Japanese paper

To make books more beautiful, Japanese bookmakers use a variety of methods, one of which is to add color to the paper itself. Let's explore.
As we learned in Week 1, washi varies by source material and production method. In addition, traditional paper makers also applied color to the papers to make books more visually attractive. Here we have some examples of books with covers of different color. Various dyes, some vegetable based and others from minerals, were used for coloring. The most common color in traditional Japanese books is this brown here. This blue here is also very common. This brown is from the kakishibu, a tannin obtained from the fruit of the persimmon tree. The blue is from ai (indigo). This purple here is relatively rare and is obtained from the murasaki plant (Lithospermum erythrorhizon).
This black here is from ink while the red color of this cover comes from mercury. These are just some of the colors that traditional papermakers used to color paper. In the following Steps, I will introduce various paper-coloring techniques.

This was done for a variety of reasons and using different methods.

In the video for this step, you’ll also see the paper coloured with paints made from minerals.

Main pigments

  • For yellows: ōbaku or Kihada (Phellodendron amurense) commonly called Amur Cork tree – used in the paper for sutras and religious texts. Its bitter flavour is thought to repel insects.
  • For browns: kakishibu (persimmon extract): produce a reddish-brown colour that gets more intense with repeated applications. When applied in generous amounts, it is thought to repel insects.
  • For browns: chōji , a tree in the family Myrtaceae, Syzygium aromaticum. Cloves are the aromatic flower buds of this tree. The liquid made from the boiled down dried bud is used for dyeing.
  • For blues: ai (indigo): it can be made darker through repeated dyeings.
  • For reds:benibana (safflower, Carthamus tinctorius): it’s also used for rouge. For dyeing, the flowers at the tip of the stem is also called suetsumuhana meaning picking a flower on the top edge.
  • For purples: Murasaki plant: Boraginaceae, perennial plants. The liquid made from their root is used for dyeing. Purple is recognized as a noble colour. But this colour fades away easily when exposed to UV rays.

These are just a few examples of dyeing. Paper dyeing technology has a parallel with cloth dyeing technology. You might want to learn about Japanese dyeing in general to get a better understanding of paper colouring.

Books introduced in the video

book index

  1. Heike Monogatari
    Click to see the image and information
  2. Mottomo no sōshi, Kan’ei 11 (1634)
    Click to see the image and information
  3. Kanke Bunsō, early Edo period
    Click to see the image and information
  4. Shibi-inkycō
    Click to see the image and information
  5. Kindai shūka, Eishō 12 (1515)
    Click to see the image and information
  6. Henjō Hokkishō Rysōshū
    Click to see the image and information
  7. Gokanjo, Genwakanei
    Click to see the image and information

If you’d like to learn more about the art of Washi paper in Japanese rare books, check out the full online course from Keio University, below.

This article is from the free online

The Art of Washi Paper in Japanese Rare Books

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education