Skip main navigation

About the positioning of the title

The position of the book title on the cover page tells important information. Watch Prof. Sasaki show examples.
Here I will discuss the cover title (gedai). First of all, please look at these books. I think by now you know what type of binding this is. They are all multi-section (tetsuyōsō) books. The covers all look different, which is one of the distinctive features of traditional Japanese books. Is is where the title is. Because it is on the cover, in Japan it is called “cover title” (J. gedai, lit. “outer title”). Looking inside the book, there is another title (well, some books have it, some do not), which is called naidai (inner title) to distinguish it from the outer, cover title. The inner title can come in different positions, but in this section I want to focus on the cover title.
The binding is the same for all of these books but as you can see the title appears in different positions. In these three books, looking at them from where you are, the title is on the left, in the top left area. By contrast, these two here have the title in the center area. So as a rule, the cover title comes either on the left or in the center of the cover. But why do some books have the title on the left side of the cover and some in the center?
Let us start by saying that these books with the title on the left are all waka-related texts (collections, poetic treatises, etc.), whereas the ones here with the center title are all tales (monogatari). In other words, in waka works the title usually comes on the left but in tales it comes in the center. This principle was already noted in this Kamakura-period calligraphy handbook. The relevant part is here, in this section titled “How to write on books.”
It explains what to pay attention to when inscribing a book, and at the end, in the smaller writing here, it says that when inscribing a book of poetry the outer title should be written on the left, whereas in tales it should be written in the middle. In other words, these books here comply with a rule from the world of calligraphy. That may be so, but why did waka-related works have the title on the left and tales have it in the center? That we have yet to explain.
As you know from having read the article, some kinds of works were bound as scrolls but some were not; the general principle was that waka-related works were made into scrolls but fictional tales were not unless they contained pictures. Here I have an example of a scroll (in this case, a Buddhist sutra). We begin to notice some kind of connection between the custom of binding only some kinds of texts as scrolls and the position of the title strip on the cover of books. If we unfurl the scroll—to actually read it you would look at the other side—but if we look at the cover, we see that the title is in exactly the same position as it appears on these book-style items.
In scrolls the title always comes on the left-hand part of the cover, so essentially the same as in these books. That is to say, the left positioning of the cover title on books tells us that the content of that book was considered “scroll-worthy”, so to speak. By contrast, the center positioning marked content unsuited to scroll binding. As time went on this rule was not always observed. It continued to be followed in books manufactured by illustrious families interested in preserving the family traditions, even as late as the Edo period, but there were also those who ignored it. One example is this version of the Hamamatsu chūnagon monogatari (The Hamamatsu Middle Counsellor, 11th c.), a Heian-period romance.
As a work of fiction, it would not ordinarily be bound as a scroll. In this book, the title-goes-in-the-center rule is observed, but in this example it is on the left. They are two copies of the same work but the title comes in different positions. So there are exceptions, but at least as far as old manuscripts in multi-section binding are concerned, the position of the cover title is important to determine the kind of content of the book or its grade as an artifact.

The way the title is positioned in traditional Japanese books is rather distinctive. First, read the following article, and then, watch Prof. Sasaki explaining in more details by showing you examples.

Gedai and Naidai

In China and Korea, where printed books came to dominate from early on, the title normally appeared inside the book, right before the text. This is called naidai (inner title) in Japanese, to distinguish it from the title on the cover, which is known as gedai (outer or external title). Many Japanese books do not feature an inner title, and as covers were often replaced, it is not uncommon to come across books without a title altogether. Such books are often known by an alias or working title; in many cases, the only way to determine their content is to read the text.

Titles of tales

Whereas most poetry collections do bear titles at the beginning of the text, prose tales do not. As we saw earlier, tales were not bound as scrolls because they were considered less valuable, and the fact that they were left untitled confirms this. Likely because they were not given formal titles to begin with, works of fiction were known by several different names. The tenth-century Tales of Ise (Ise monogatari), for example, was also known by the alternative title of Zaigo chūjō nikki (The Diary of the Ariwara Middle Captain). The Taketori monogatari (Tale of the Bamboo Cutter), Japan’s oldest prose tale, was commonly known as the Taketori no okina monogatari (The Story of the Old Man Who Cut Bamboo). Manuscripts of the 11th century Tale of Genji usually have the titles of the individual chapters on each scroll but no overall title. In the rare cases that a general title does appear on the cover, it is usually a variant of what we now use, such as The Tale of the Shining Genji (Hikaru Genji monogatari).

Placement differs by genre

How the title was positioned on the cover also differs by genre. In waka collections, the title tends to appear on the left-hand side of the cover(Fig.1) whereas in prose tales it is usually placed in the center(Fig.2).

2 different types of possition of the title Left: Fig.1 Kinyō wakashū (title on the left top corner)
Click to take a closer look
Right: Fig.2 Hamamatsu chūnagon monogatari (title in the center)
Click to take a closer look

The eminent late-Kamakura calligrapher Sesonji Yukifusa (?-1337) notes this custom in his collection of teachings, Yūhitsu jōjō(Fig.3).

*Yūhitsu jōjō* Fig.3. Yūhitsu jōjō, Cover and a page includes lines where Sesonji Yukifusa wrote about the positioning of titles
Click to take a closer look

Interestingly, this difference has to do with the positioning of the title in scrolls. When the scroll is unfolded, the title appears on the outer side, on the left-hand side of the cover(Fig.4).

scroll Fig.4. Daihannya haramitakyō, scroll
Click to take a closer look

No other place would be suitable because if placed in the center, the title strip would be at least partially covered when the scroll is rolled up. Positioning the title on the left-hand side of the cover in book-style formats was most probably a way to signal that the book itself was of comparable value or quality to a scroll, or that its content was important or prestigious enough to be bound as a scroll. By contrast, the center positioning indicated that the text inside would not, in ordinary circumstances, be bound as a scroll. These unspoken rules were observed fairly strictly up to the 17th century, but exceptions become increasingly common following the onset of commercial publishing in the Edo period.

Books introduced in the video

books on the table

1. Genji monogatari “Fujibakama” 2. Genji monogatari “Hanachiru sato” 3. Kin’yōwakashū
4. Atsutada shū 5. Kindai shūka 6. Yūhitsu jōjō
7. Daihannya haramitakyō 8. Hamamatsu chūnagon monogatari 9. Hamamatsu chūnagon monogatari
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