Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £29.99 £19.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more


Here I will go over the types of paper used in traditional bookmaking. Books are made of paper, so knowing about the paper used to make them is paramount to properly understand books. The Chinese history Hou Han Shu (J. Gokanjo, Book of the Later Han) states that paper was invented in 105C.E. by a man called Cai Lun (J. Sairin). However, specimens dating from earlier times have been found in tombs in China, so the invention of paper must date from the pre-Christian era. From China, paper spread to Japan. Chinese papermaking methods were adopted and later refined and developed locally, leading to a great variety of different types which were then used to make books.
There are so many different types of paper that it would take a whole course to cover them all, so this discussion will be limited to the main paper types used in Japanese bookmaking. I want to start with this book [1] which was made with the first type of paper to be brought to Japan from China. I will talk about the content of the book later. The first part has been restored so I am going to go straight to the latter part. The paper used in this section is called mashi and is made from hemp (asa).
Traditional paper was made by mixing vegetable fibers with glue, spreading them into thin sheets, and leaving them to harden, and the first plant to be used was hemp. However, mashi paper gradually fell into disuse in the Heian period (794-1185), and a different type of paper came to be used in its place, which is the one used in this book [2]. Again, I will talk about the book itself later. There is significant damage from insects. It is made from the kōzo plant (paper mulberry) and it is called kōzo-gami, or, using the onyomi reading, choshi.
The paper mulberry can grow to a very large size and it is very easy to cultivate, so it is still very popular today as a type of Japanese paper (washi) and has been in use for a long time. This book here [3] was also made with kōzo-gami (choshi). The mulberry fibers are long, so the paper made from them is very soft. Because of the length of the fibers and the gaps between them, ink penetrates very easily, so it is unsuited to book designs like this one that has text on both sides of the page [4]. Kōzo paper is not good for double-sided writing as ink penetrates very easily The best kind of paper for double-sided writing is the hishi.
The “hi” in the word hishi simply means “beautiful” (shi is the on’yomi of kami [paper]) so it has nothing to do with the material it is made of. Hishi is made from the gampi plant (Wikstroemia Sikokiana) which still today is impossible to grow in a nursery, it can only be sourced in the wild and therefore is only available in extremely small amounts. However, the paper obtained from it has a distinctive glossiness and transparency to it which makes it extremely luxurious. Moreover, because the fibers are short and closely connected, it is not as absorbent, and so it can be used on both sides.
Compared to kōzo paper (choshi), which is soft, hishi feels hard to the touch and when you turn the pages it produces this characteristic crackling sound. Another characteristic is that compared to kōzo paper, which is relatively light, hishi feels full and heavy. Next, from the gampi, which cannot be grown in a nursery, we move on to a type of paper which is often used in its place [5], and which is made from the mitsumata plant (Edgeworthia chrysantha). It is very thin, and it also makes the characteristic sound when you turn the pages.
It is very thin, so it is, page per page-this is a book [6] made with kōzo (mulberry) paper- about half the thickness of a book made with a different type of paper. Mitsumata paper is not always thin but the thin type was the most widely used variety. So we have looked at four types of paper but each type, for example the kōzogami, can come in thin or thick sheets, or can be processed in different ways to produce different effects, so there is indeed a vast variety.
Looking at the way paper was processed, for example in this book [7] you see that blue and purple patterns were applied to the paper, this kind of decorated paper is called “cloudy paper” (uchigumori-gami) or “cloud paper” (kumogami). In some cases the patterns were stamped on, in other pictures were hand-drawn using real gold or silver, Besides these, there is also this kind of item. The paper used in this book [8], I wonder if you can see it, you should see that it kind of sparkles. The reason is that before writing on it the surface of the leaf was coated with a mixture of glue and ground mica rock to obtain this characteristic sparkle.
Moreover, you can’t see it just by looking at it, but if you actually hold the book it is very heavy. The paper is basically from the same family as the kōzogami, but fine rock dust was added to the fibers in order to fill the gaps and make the surface smoother. This kind of paper is called maniaigami. Maniai means “makeshift”, “substitute”, and it was used as a substitute for gampi paper (hishi), because gampi is so rare and precious. And then there is also the sparkling paper made using mica rock that I mentioned earlier.
One more type I want to show you is this paper here [9], I am not sure if you can see it, underneath the writing you should be able to see the patterns. Not the red line, but these drawings in gold and silver. They were made using real gold and silver paint known as kindei and gindei literally, “golden mud” and “silver mud” respectively. The decorations were made on the leaves before they were written on. Such patterns are called shitae (underpaintings).
There are many different varieties of this kind of decorated paper, and we will no doubt come across some of them as we talk about specific books, but I trust that you now have a sense of the variety of paper types used in traditional Japanese bookmaking.










1. 四分律 2. 法華経単字 3. 平家物語
4. 僻案抄 5と6. 拾遺和歌集 7. 厳島詣記
8. ふんしやう 9. 源氏物語系図  


このコースに掲載されている貴重書に使用されている紙に迫ったコース「The Art of Washi Paper in Japanese Rare Books(古書から読み解く日本の文化3 和本を彩る紙の世界)」を提供しています。 このコースでは、日本の貴重書で用いられている紙(和紙)や、装訂、デザインについて学びます。

This article is from the free online

古書から読み解く日本の文化: 和本の世界

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now