Japanese Bookbinding

Here is a brief sketch of the development of the Japanese book binding trade from its early development to its commercial beginnings and eventual industrialization written by Dana Gee. The word in Japanese for bookbinding is seihon.

Papermaking was developed in China during the Han dynasty in the second century AD; the earliest recorded reference to papermaking in Japan was around 610 AD. The earliest “books” were calligraphed paper rolls. Beginning during the Tang dynasty period in China (618-907), Buddhist texts were folded accordion style, making the texts easier to handle, less fragile. The folded edges form the edges of the pages. This is called orihon in Japan, common up until the nineteenth century, and is still used. In addition to Buddhist sutras, this form was used for maps, calendars and some types of reference books.

Also developed during the Chinese Tang period, the “butterfly binding” (detchō or kochōsō in Japan) came into use, mostly for printed books. Each piece of paper was folded in half and laid on top of its predecessor; a cover was glued to the folded edges. When opened, each pair of pages “tends to stand up with an effect resembling the wings of a butterfly.”i

From the late Heian period (794-1185) onwards, another technique, yamato-toji (or techōsō) was used, mostly for manuscripts of Japanese literary works. Folded pages were placed one inside the other forming a booklet or fascicle, and thread was used to sew them together along the fold, and several of these would be joined together to make one volume.ii

By the time the book trade in Japan became established, in the Tokugawa or Edo period (1603-1867), the form known as fukuro-toji was the most common type of Japanese binding. Practised in China early as the Tang period, widespread by the Ming dynasty period (1368-1644), and transmitted to Japan in the Muromachi period (1392-1573), by end of which, in the late 16th century, it had become the standard form for printed books. Each page had printed or handwritten text on one side only, folded with the text on the outside, and placed on top of its predecessor; assembled pages are sewn together, the stitches passing through the blank margins next to the loose edges, so the sewn edges form the spine and folds form the edges of pages. This stringbound style continued through the Meiji period. For more on these and other techniques, see Kōjirō Ikegami’s Japanese bookbinding: instructions from a master craftsman.

Books were handmade and calligraphed until the advent of block printing, originating in China, with the earliest known East Asian examples produced in Japan and Korea in the eighth century. Texts produced for the reading public were not introduced until much later in the Heian period, in the eleventh century. In the Kamakura period the temples of Kyoto began printing; it was the center of printing for the next 500 years. By the Tokugawa period, most books were produced in three cities: Edo, Kyoto and Osaka. It was during this period that the rapid growth of the publishing industry created the publishing houses, guilds and book trade professions. Printing shifted from private printing under patronage to mostly commercial printing by the mid 17th century. Movable type was introduced in the mid 16th century, but woodblock printing was dominant until the 1880s.

During the Tokugawa period, the process for producing a book was a collaboration of artists and craftsmen and women. First the text would be given to the copyist, or hanshitagaki (the copy was called the hanshita). The copied text would be given to the block carver, horishi. The carved block would be passed to the printer – surishi – and after printing to another worker for page alignment. The maker of covers was the hyoshiya. Book covers would be paper with thick backing; from about the 17th century onward, design became an important part of commercialization and marketing. By early Meiji the covers were stiffer, made of cardboard. The printed pages and covers would be passed to a binder who sewed them together (seihongyousha or seihonya – the first word refers more to the individual, although it can refer to the business; the second word refers more to the shop – it is a question of emphasis).iii  The word shitateya was generally used for a person who finished off sewing jobs and the word shitate was sometimes used for the final stages of production of books including covers and sewing.iv  A book having soft covers would have a chitsu, or wrap-around box, made of stiff cardboard covered in cloth. Then the completed work (with printed protective paper wrappers, beginning in the second half of Tokugawa) would be sent to the bookseller.v

In the Tokugawa period, book covers began to evolve from simple undecorated colored paper to more artistic design work. Sometimes the color of the cover would be based on content. In Edo in the 18th century it was common for lighter genres of fiction to have different color covers, the genre names derived from the color: akahon “red books” and kibyoshi “yellow covers.”vi In the seventeenth century, literary works began to regularly include illustrations; artists were named in colophons. Book cover designs became more elaborate, with embossed or burnished paper designs, and later color woodblock prints from popular ukiyo-e artists. In the 19th century, lavish color woodblock covers were made for the elaborately designed illustrated popular fiction books called gōkan.vii

With larger firms, all the book trade craftspeople would work together in-house – “but smaller-scale publishers contracted some parts of the process out to sub-contracting specialists like block-carvers and binders, and cover-makers ran their own separate firms from the early seventeenth century onwards.”viii Bookbinders did not get credit like publishers/booksellers, artists or designers. Sometimes copyists and block carvers were named in colophon, but rarely binders.

Women worked as binders during the Tokugawa period. Peter Kornicki, in The book in Japan: a cultural history from the beginnings to the nineteenth century, says: “… although the whole process of production and distribution of books is commonly presented as if it were exclusively male, this picture needs some correction … it seems that bookbinding was often undertaken, at least in 19th century, by women in the publisher’s household, and there is a record in a book published in 1716 to the effect that copyist responsible for the clean copy or hanshita was a woman. … a few women were active as publishers and booksellers, having inherited the family firms when there were no male heirs available.”ix Other binders transitioned to different roles; Honda Ichijirō, head of the publishing house Unkindō, came from a bookbinding family.x

The transition from all hand work to kikai zuri , or machine printing, didn’t start in earnest until the 1880s; books transitioned from monotypes to hybrids with woodblock, or collotype under-images with woodblock printing on top, to fully machine printed materials, perfect bound Western style. Traditional binding is still practiced. Here are some illustrations of different styles of book covers:

1690: NAKAMURA Tekisai. KINMO ZU-I 14 vols in 5.

1690: NAKAMURA Tekisai. KINMO ZU-I 14 vols in 5.


1753: Wang Kai, et al. KAISHIEN GADEN.

1753: Wang Kai, et al. KAISHIEN GADEN.


1850:  Utagawa YOSHIUME. Kotowaza HESO NO YADOGAE.

1850:  Utagawa YOSHIUME. Kotowaza HESO NO YADOGAE.





Hon No

1952: Onchi Koshiro, HON NO BIJUTSU, (a page from) his text on book design.

By Dana Gee

With thanks to Charles Vilnis and the staff of Boston Book Company, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, for information, images, cataloging and resources, and to Peter Kornicki for his correspondence regarding the terms for various tradespeople.

All book images copyright Boston Book Company.

Print and electronic resources consulted:

Hioki, Kazuko. “Japanese printed books of the Edo period (1603-1867): history and characteristics of block-printed books.” Journal of the Institute of Conservation Volume 32, Issue 1, (2009): 79-101. Web. 4 June 2015.

Ikegami, Kōjirō, adapted by Barbara B. Stephan. Japanese bookbinding: instructions from a master craftsman. New York: Weatherhill, 1986.

Johnson, Scott. “New colors, a new profession & a new idea: zuan enrich Kyoto design books.” Andon 97. p. 117 -120?

Jun, Suzuki & Ellis Tinios. Understanding Japanese woodblock-print illustrated books: a short introduction to their history, bibliography and format. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Kornicki, Peter Francis. The book in Japan: a cultural history from the beginnings to the nineteenth century. Leiden: Brill, 1998.

Matsubara, Musayo. Bookcover design in Japan 1910s-40s (Taishō Shōwa no bukku dezain). Tokyo: PIE Books, 2005.


i Kornicki 43

ii Kornicki 44

iii Charles Vilnis, 6/6/2015.

iv Peter Kornicki, 6/7/2015.

v Kornicki 47-48

vi Kornicki 57.

vii Hioki.

viii Kornicki 48

ix Kornicki 178

x Johnson 123