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Shapes and sizes of manuscripts

Watch the video Prof. Sasaki explains the relationship between paper and the book size.
Here we will go over the physical shape of manuscripts. Please take a look. All the books here are in multi-section (tetsuyōsō) binding. Forget for a moment what we said earlier about the title, and disregard these more unusual items over here, I think you can see that, essentially, traditional manuscripts come in two main shapes, this elongated, rectangular shape here and a square shape. The size can vary slightly by period, but generally speaking, there are two main making processes, one for the rectangular books and one for the square ones. Let me explain how the two differ. Here we have a sheet of modern white paper. Let us pretend that this is the paper that was used to make these books here.
To make one of the rectangular books you first fold the leaf in two. You then proceed to cut it along the fold. You then place the two identical halves on top of each other, fold them in two and then bind them as a multi-section book. The size is smaller than the actual size but I think you can see that you get a rectangular book. If you open it up you can see that the final size is about one fourth of the size of the initial paper leaf. Which is why the rectangular books are referred to as yotsuhan (quarter-size) books. the paper used is the same, but you fold it in three instead of two.
You then cut it along the folds, stack the strips on one another, fold them in two, and bind them according to the multi-section method. You see that you get an almost perfectly square shape. And if you now unfold it back, you see that the final size is about one sixth of the leaf, which is why the square books are called mutsuhan (sixth-size) books, mutsuhan meaning “one sixth”. Although the basic source material is the same for both types of books, there are some interesting differences. The rectangular format tends to be more common in 13th century waka-related works, whereas prose tales from the same period tend to be in the square sixth-size format.
There are exceptions, of course, but overall the basic pattern seems to have been rectangular books for waka and square books for tales. If you recall what I said earlier about genres that were bound as scrolls and genres that were not and about the positioning of the title on the cover, waka was perceived as a more prestigious genre than prose fiction. This is enough to infer that, although the binding method was the same, the rectangular shape was probably perceived as somehow more dignified and authoritative than the square one. Although the quarter-size and the sixth-size are the two main formats, many more could be obtained simply by changing the way the paper was folded.
For instance, there are rectangular books with landscape orientation, or some, like these examples I have prepared here, which are basically more compact versions of the standard rectangular and square formats. Generally speaking, however, the two main shapes are the quarter size and the sixth size. To conclude, when looking at old books, it is important to pay attention to their physical shape, not just to their content.

Although most literary works made between the late-Heian and Muromachi periods were bound in the tetsuyōsō (multisection) style, there was some variation in shape and size. How many different sizes were used? What determined the choice of one shape or size over another?

First, read the following article about the six most common formats, and then, watch Prof. Sasaki explain the details by showing you examples.

  1. Yotsuhan-bon (quarter-size books)
  2. Mutsuhan-bon (sixth-size books)
  3. Yokonaga-bon (“Wider-than-high” books)
  4. Yatsuhan-bon (“eighth-sized” books)
  5. Masugata-bon (Square books)
  6. Oversized books


Generally speaking, book size depends on the size of the paper used. Despite minor differences by place and date of manufacture, in the 16th century the size of a typical sheet of hishi paper—the one used for tetsuyōsō binding—was 54 x 37 cm. To make a book, the sheets were cut in half, stacked on one another, folded in two, and then bound together in sets of about five. The size of the resulting book was 18.5 x 27cm (as the edges were trimmed the actual final size was slightly smaller). Paper sizes seem to have been smaller in the Edo period, and so were book sizes; the majority of books are approximately 17 cm wide and 24 cm high. Kamakura-period books tend to be smaller and slightly narrower in width. As standard tetsuyōsō books made of sheets cut in half and folded in two were one fourth of a hishi paper sheet in size, they are often referred to as quarter-size books (yotsuhan-bon). This example (Fig.1) is a Kamakura-period manuscript and it is lightly smaller than usual, measuring 16 x 23.2 cm. Yotsuhan-bon are the most common type of tetsuyōsō books.

Goshūiwakashō Fig. 1. Goshūiwakashō (Later Gleanings of waka, 1086), Example of Yotsuhan-bon 16.1 x 23.2 cm, Click to take a closer look


Next in popularity are the mutsuhan-bon (sixth-size books) which are so called because the sheet was cut into three sections instead of two, and so the size of the finished book is one sixth of the original sheet (approximately 18.5 x 18 cm before the trimming). As most books in this format from the Kamakura and Edo periods are 15 cm long on all four sides, they are sometimes called masugata-bon (square books). This specimen of mutsuhanbon (Fig.2) was not trimmed, so it is slightly larger than average (17.8 x 17.5 cm).

Genji monogatari wakananoue Fig. 2. Genji monogatari, Wakananoue
Click to take a closer look


Yotsuhan-bon and mutsuhan-bon were the most common sizes, but there were also some unusual ones, like the yokonaga-bon (“Wider-than-high” books). They were made by cutting the sheets lengthwise rather than across, resulting in a yotsuhan book with wide but very “short” pages.


More common were the yatsuhan-bon (“eighth-sized” or octavo books), which were made by folding the page of a yotsuhan book in two to obtain a book one-eighth of the size of the original sheet. Books in this format were probably meant to be carried around. This particular item (fig.3) is 8.1 x 12.2 cm.

Kokinwakashū Fig. 3. Kokinwakashū, Example of yatsuhan-bon ,8.1 x 12.2 cm,
Click to take a closer look

Compact Masugata-bon

Compact masugata-bon are fairly rare. They were made by first cutting the sheets in half lengthwise and then following the procedure for the mutsuhan-bon. Although the final size was approximately one twelfth of the initial sheet, the appellation twelfth-size books does not seem to have ever been used. This particular book (Fig.4) measures 10.4 x 10.2 cm and the paper used is a type of processed kōzo paper instead of the usual hishi.

square book Fig. 4. Kokinwakashū, example of compact Masugata-bon
Click to take a closer look

Oversized books

A special category are the oversized books, which were mostly manufactured in the Kamakura area during the Kamakura period (1185-1333). There are similar items dating from the Muromachi period, but they tend to be from specific areas and periods of time. This item (Fig.5) was in particularly bad condition, so it was rebound as a musubitoji (knot binding), but even so it measures 21.9 by 28.5 cm.

Shimeisho [ca. 1289] Fig. 5. Shimeisho [ca. 1289], Example of oversized book, 21.9 x 28.5 cm,
Click to take a closer look

Edo-period books come in more or less standard formats. We will learn about this in Week 3 of the course.

Books introduced in the video

books in the video

1. Genji monogatari “Fujibakama” 2. Genji monogatari “Wakana” 3. Genji monogatari “Hanachiru sato”
4. Kin’yōwakashū 5. Atsutada shū 6. Hekianshō
7. Kindai shūka 8. Shinkokinwakashū 9. Kokinwakashū
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Japanese Culture Through Rare Books

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