Skip main navigation

Japanese Books: Exploring the Diverse Styles and Letters

In this article, Prof. Sasaki introduces the varieties of Japanese books to show how diverse its styles and letters are.

Traditional Japanese books come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, designs and production methods. Such variety is not found in nearby countries like China and Korea, and reveals as much about Japan’s unique book history as it does about Japanese culture as a whole.

Books and history

Hekianshō Fig. 1. Hekianshō, Click to take a closer look

Books are part of the flow of history. This is a 1481 copy of the waka commentary Hekianshō (Notes on False Views) (Fig.1) in the hand of Asukai Masayasu, a prominent waka poet, scholar, and calligrapher of aristocratic stock. The beauty of the writing matches the quality of the hishi paper. When the book was made, Japan had just come out of the Ōnin wars, which lasted for eleven years from 1467 to 1477. Civil war had turned Kyoto into a wasteland of ruins and ashes, and yet, books like this one, which served no real practical function, continued to be produced. To crave this elegant object even at a time of turmoil was probably one of the provincial warlords who had come out victorious from the struggle. In many ways, this beautifully-made book symbolizes the love and admiration for aristocratic culture of these professionals of warfare.

Watch the video that gives a firsthand look at this extraordinary variety (of scripts, visual appearance, etc.). A more detailed explanation will be given over the following steps.

Japanese History Overview

This is a list of the main period of Japanese history.

Period Name of Era
mid-3rd c. CE to 7th c. CE Kofun (Tomb period)
592 – 710 Asuka
710-794 Nara
794 – 1185 Heian
1185 – 1333 Kamakura
1333 – 1392 Nanboku-chō (Southern and Northern Courts period)
1392 – 1573 Muromachi
1573 – 1603 Azuchi-Momoyama
1603 – 1868 Edo
1868 – 1912 Meiji

Books on the table in the video

For those who are interested in the books on the table shown in the video, please click the book titles to take a closer look.

books on the table

1. Tanzaku Tekagami 2. Kunshin zuzō 3. Heike monogatari
4. Itsukushima mōde-ki 5. Eiga no taigai 6. Kin’yōwakashū
7. Genji monogatari keizu 8. Kise inhon-kyō 9. Genji monogatari hiketsu
10. Taketori monogatari 11. Daihannya haramitakyō 12. Shibunritsu
13. Hekianshō 14. Kokinwakashū 15. Hokekyō tanji
16. Jōkan Seiyō 17. Genji kokagami 18. Kyō ōezu
19. Baien kishō (*1) 20. Shūko jisshu-kō 21. Shin Kokinwakashū
22. Waka hishō 23. Heike monogatari 24. Chūjōhime
25. Meisho buri Kon’nōzakura

*) Note that the book No.19 is a different version of the same book with the one introduced in the video although they are identical in the content.

Explore more about books

You can view the images of most books in larger size by clicking the links marked Click to take a closer look. The link takes you to an online library, “Narrative Book Collection” (NBC) where you can enjoy quality images and detailed information but it gives you more than that.

Narrative Book Collection (NBC)

In NBC, you have Bookshelf view where you can search and collect and compare books with specific features, and Book view where you can take a closer look at a selected book. All books in NBC correlate with the course contents, and you can explore various types of narratives alongside the course.

Here is a tutorial. Give it a try.

Click “24. Chūjōhime in the table above for example, then you’ll see the NBC’s Book view (Fig.1).

  1. nbc screen1 Fig. 1. Narrative Book Collection – Book view

    In the Book view, you can see a) a list of digitized images of the book (all selectable), b) an image with Japanese title and imprints, c) detailed description of the book, d) zoom link that allows you to view higher resolution image, and e) clickable link icons that leads you to the unique Bookshelf view.

    Some terms may be unfamiliar to you at this moment, but no worries. You will learn and understand throughout the course, and NBC is available at any point during the course.

  2. After you view, read, and enjoy a) to d), let’s explore the book in the Bookshelf view. As shown below (Fig.2), most books have 6 viewpoints—Genre, Typology, Timeline, Color, Size, and Content—that leads you to the Bookshelf view, where you can see a collection of books sorted by viewpoints.

    nbc screen2 Fig. 2. Narrative Book Collection – 6 viewpoints in the Bookshelf view

    In this example, Let’s click on ‘Genre’ icon and take a look.

  3. Now you’re looking at the Bookshelf view of NBC. Since Chūjōhime is categorized as ‘Illustrated Tales’, the listed images are all (pre) classified as ‘Illustrated Tales’.
  4. As a next step, why don’t you go back to Book view once, then click ‘Color’ icon? Then now you’ll see the books with similar color in the Bookshelf view (Fig.3).

    nbc screen3 Fig. 3. Narrative Book Collection – Bookshelf view, choosing Genre (left) / Color (right)

    In this way, you are able to explore the collection from 6 different viewpoints, and enjoy various aspects of the books.

  5. Next, let’s try a cross-search

    In the Bookshelf view, you can add filters to all viewpoints. Let’s slide the timeline slider, then click on 2 viewpoints and look for 1) illustrated books which were 2) published during the Edo period, and 3) bound in Fukurotoji (pouch binding) style. All selected filter settings appear on the top, so you can easily add/remove all settings (Fig.4).

    nbc screen4 Fig. 4. Narrative Book Collection – Bookshelf view, cross-search

    Through this course, you’ll learn all the binding styles of old Japanese books. For example, Fukurotoji you just selected, is introduced in Step 1.12.

  6. Take a close look to each book.

    If you find an interesting book in the Bookshelf view, click Take a Closer Look and look into the details on Book view (Fig.5). Then, to further explore, there is a button link in c) detailed description (Fig.6), that takes you (back) to the correlated FutureLearn course step.

    nbc screen5 Fig. 5. Narrative Book Collection – “Take a Closer Look” leads you to Book view

    nbc screen5 Fig. 6. Narrative Book Collection – Link to FutureLearn Course Step

    Feel free to ‘customize’ the Bookshelf view by yourself and explore the collection from various viewpoints. We hope you enjoy the wide variety of rare books in both Book view and the Bookshelf view.

This article is from the free online

Japanese Culture Through Rare Books

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