Understanding Japanese Woodblock Printed Illustrated Books

Tinios covers 1Ukiyo-e or images of the floating world exist in various formats. Paintings and individual sheet prints are the best known examples. But the world of 17th to 19th century Japan is also depicted in book format: in woodblock printed illustrated books. Famous illustrated books are for example Utamaro’s A Selection of Insects, A Picturebook (Ehon musha erami, 1788) and Hokusai’s One Hundred Views of Fuji (Fugaku hyakkei, 1834-35). And where some prints can look as poor works of art as their colors have faded terribly over time, illustrated books frequently have pristine color illustrations, due to their limited exposure to sunlight.
In Understanding Japanese Woodblock Printed Illustrated Books. A Short Introduction to Their History, Bibliography and Format, the authors Ellis Tinios and Suzuki Jun address the world of the Japanese woodblock printed illustrated book in great detail. They provide a handy and informative analysis of the subject. The book is intended for scholars, curators, collectors and librarians and as the back cover informs us, aims to ‘assist in evaluating, describing and conserving the books in their care’.

Tinios techniqueUnderstanding Japanese Woodblock Printed Illustrated Books consists of three sections. It starts with a history of the illustrated woodblock printed book and its publishing industry in the Edo and Meiji periods (1603-1912). Here we read amongst others about moveable type printing and how ‘by the middle of the seventeenth century, commercial publishers had turned their backs on this technology to rely exclusively on cut woodblocks’ (p. 18), a tradition which lasted as the dominant publishing medium until the third quarter of the 19th century (pp. 30; 33). In a separate block text the authors elaborate on the distinctions in terminology used to describe illustrated books, such as ehon and gafu. And they explain the difference in nuance when talking about a book with illustrations or an illustrated book. Furthermore, the first section includes a description of the production technique of woodblock printing, along with print run figures and information on the publishing guilds.

The second section of the publication concentrates on a book’s bibliographic data, component parts and physical properties. One by one all elements of illustrated books are introduced (29 in total with sub-sections), from tables of contents, colophon pages, prefaces to cover styles, wrappers, binding types, printing techniques and more.

The third section presents six case studies. Here “attention is given to the manipulation of content to increase, or prolong, sales. Differences between early and late paintings are also explored” (p. 91). And in the back matter of the book, there is a short list of recommendations how to handle and store Japanese woodblock printed illustrated books and an annotated bibliography. The book is richly illustrated throughout.

After reading this work by Tinios and Suzuki, you will absolutely have increased your knowledge on illustrated woodblock printed books and have a good guide book to take at hand when examining illustrated books.

Ellis Tinios & Suzuki Jun, Understanding Japanese Woodblock Printed Illustrated Books. A Short Introduction to Their History, Bibliography and Format, Leiden: Brill, 2013. ISBN 9789004258310. 136 pages, with 82 illustrations.