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About the positioning of the title

The position of the book title on the cover page tells important information. Watch Prof. Sasaki show examples.

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)
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Right: Fig.2 Hamamatsu chūnagon monogatari (title in the center)
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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
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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
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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

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
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Japanese Culture Through Rare Books

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