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The golden age of Nara ehon

Nara Ehon

The name Nara ehon (Nara picture books) is usually given to handwritten illustrated books produced between the late-Muromachi and early-Edo periods. Learn about the different types of binding, size, and paper used.

First, read the following article, and then watch Prof. Sasaki’s video to see examples.

Handwritten illustrated books produced between the late-Muromachi and early-Edo periods are known as Nara ehon (Nara picture books). There is no definitive theory about the origins of the term, nor about its connections with the city of Nara, but what we do know is that it dates from the Meiji period, and that these books were primarily made in the Kyoto area. They include narrative-driven works such as tales, of course, but also non-narrative texts like waka collections embellished with portraits of the poets (kasen-e) or visual representations of the poems. Although all the illustrated books we have looked at so far can be described as Nara ehon, here I want to mention a few of the non-narrative examples.

Ogura hyakunin isshu Fig.1. Ogurayama hyakunin isshu Click to take a closer look

This one, Ogurayama hyakunin isshu (Fig.1) is a version of the famous Hyakunin isshu featuring portraits of the poets.

Ōgi no sōshi Fig.2. Ōgi no sōshi Click to take a closer look

In this work Ōgi no sōshi (Fig.2), the poems appear next to fans decorated with a visual rendering of the poem. Such fans seem to have been made in real life, and users probably enjoyed seeing how the meaning of the poems had been expressed in images.

Some critics only use the term Nara ehon for illustrated books in book format while others also include illustrated scrolls in this category. Recently, the term Nara emaki (Nara scrolls) has been gaining ground for the latter.

Shuten tōshi Fig.3. Shuten Dōji Click to take a closer look

Shown here is Shuten Dōji (Fig.3), a Nara emaki dating from the golden age of the Nara ehon. The overall quality is particularly high, and it was no doubt meant to stand out from the mass of similar books produced at this time.

Nara ehon were usually bound in fukurotoji format. Up to the mid-17th century, the paper used was the luxurious hishi, but from this point on a cheaper variant made by adding rock dust or clay to the pulp and called maniai-gami came to be used as a substitute with increasing frequency. The name maniai-gami means literally “makeshift paper.” The illustrations in books made with this paper tend to be less detailed and to feature fewer colors, and the overall feel is that of a second-rate kind of illustrated book. This book “Hashihime” (Fig.4) is a representative example.

Hashihime Fig.4. Hashihime Click to take a closer look

A lot of illustrated books made with maniai-gami have alignment marks at the top and bottom of every line. These were holes made with a needle in order to align the lines of text (a process known as hari kentō, or, needle layout). There seems to have been no fixed rule as to the number and location of the holes (sometimes they appear only on every other line, sometimes there is no hole at the top of the line, etc.). Although we do not know when the technique began to be used, it is clear that maniai-gami books were not the first books to be made using it, as the same marks can also be found in late-Muromachi period items, including non-illustrated ones.

Books introduced in the video

1. Bunshō Sōsi 2. Bunshō Sōsi 3. Chūjōhime 4. Taketori monogatari
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Japanese Culture Through Rare Books

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