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Types of paper used in traditional bookmaking

Prof. Sasaki explains the types of paper used in traditional bookmaking.
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.

Books are tools for preserving words and images.

Paper is obviously the basic ingredient to make books. First, read the article. Then, watch Prof. Sasaki show you and explain how each paper type was used to make books.

The Chinese history Hou Han Shu (Book of Later Han, J. Gokansho) states that paper was invented in 105 by a man called Cai Lun (J. Sairin), but it is believed that the invention of paper in fact predates the beginning of the Christian era. Paper is made by applying glue to vegetable fibers which are then spread into sheets and left to harden. According to the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan, 720), paper manufacturing was imported to Japan from the Korean kingdom of Goguryeou in 610. Over the centuries, a great variety of different plants have been used to make paper, but the four main types of fibers used in Japanese papermaking are hemp (asa), paper mulberry (kōzo), gampi (Wikstroemia sikokiana), and mitsumata (Edgeworthia chrysantha).

Mashi paper

Paper made from hemp (mashi) was the first to be invented in China and it was also the main variety in use in Nara-period Japan (710-794). In the Heian period, choshi (which is made from paper mulberry) replaced mashi as the preferred type.

Choshi paper

The paper mulberry is easy to cultivate, so choshi paper can be produced in large quantities. It is also easy to process and, for these reasons, it has been stably the most popular variety in Japanese papermaking up to the present day. Despite small differences by area and method of production, its main characteristics are the length of the fibers, its softness, and lightness. Because the ink penetrates the fibers easily, it is not suited for writing on both sides, but if the pulp is laid thickly and beaten, it can be.

Hishi paper

Hishi paper, which is made from the gampi plant (Wikstroemia Sikokiana) of the Thymelaeceae family, seems to already have been in use in the Nara period. The character hi in hishi means “beautiful.” Because gampi fibers are short and let light pass through easily, hishi paper is not only finely textured and robust, but also possesses a distinctive smoothness and transparency that makes it indeed rather beautiful. To me, it is rather reminiscent of Western parchment. It does not absorb the ink, so it can be written on on both sides. Because its yellow-terracotta color resembles that of an eggshell, it is sometimes called tori-no-ko paper (“bird’s child” or “egg” paper). Even today, gampi is difficult to cultivate artificially, so only a very small quantity of hishi is produced, which makes it more luxurious than choshi paper.

Mitsumata paper

Mitsumata paper is made from another member of the Thymelaeaceae family, the Edgeworthia chrysantha (J. mitsumata). It is said to have been produced in early times too, but it only came into widespread use after cultivation began in the mid-18th century. It was used as a substitute for hishi paper, which has similar characteristics, particularly in thin sheets, in printed books. Paper was also made from other plants, often mixed together or combined with items such as rock dust or rice flour. No matter what the variety, however, the type of paper was always chosen according to the manufacturing method and overall structure of the book.

Books introduced in the video

Note that the number in the subtitle on the video indicates the book number listed below.


1. Shibunritsu 2. Hokekyō tanji 3. Heike monogatari
4. Hekianshō 5. and 6. Shūi Wakashū 7. Itsukushima mōde-ki
8. Bunshō Sōsi 9. Genji monogatari keizu  

If you’re interested in the Paper in Japanese Rare Books

You may be interested to know that we also offer a course on The Art of Washi Paper in Japanese Rare Books. This course focuses about the history, production and design of papers used inside Japanese rare books. The course starts on April 1, 2019.

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Japanese Culture Through Rare Books

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