Japanese illustrated books

The first high-quality printed books on secular themes in Japan date to about 1600. Some books were produced using moveable type between 1590 and 1650, but the text and illustrations of the vast majority of Japanese books were cut directly into a wooden block.

Many of the schools and styles of Japanese art during the Edo period (1600-1868) are represented in illustrated books. Besides the large numbers of Ukiyo-e school illustrations, there are works in the style of, for example, the Rimpa, Nanga or Maruyama-Shijō schools. In many cases, through the combined efforts of the designer, carver and printer, the illustrations can hardly be distinguished from brush paintings.

There are a number of different types of books: the gafu ('drawing book') was usually produced by a single artist to give didactic examples of his individual style. Artists could also combine with poets, novelists and travellers to produce illustrated kyōka and haiku collections, kibyōshi ('comic illustrated novels'), travel guides and shunga erotic books and manuals. Popular titles were probably printed in editions of thousands, and books were often reprinted if there was a demand, though the date on the colophon was not necessarily changed. Especially popular books such as Hokusai's Manga had multiple editions. Conversely it is quite likely that some of the real luxury productions, such as Utamaro's Shiohi no tsuto ('Shell book') were strictly limited editions.

There were around 2000 publishers in Edo during the course of the Edo period. They obtained the necessary supplies of paper - usually kōzō made from mulberry bark - and arranged the binding. Finally, they also functioned as booksellers, often having a bookshop at the front of their workshop.

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