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Types of paper used in traditional bookmaking

Prof. Sasaki explains the types of paper used in traditional 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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