Ehon are old, illustrated Japanese books. Although they are very similar to ukiyo-e - Japanese woodblock prints - ehon are still pretty much undiscovered as collector's items. This article is a short overview of ehon for those who are not familiar with the subject.
What is the difference between ehon and e-hon? None at all. These are only different writings, which can often be found in adaptations of Japanese words or names - much to the distress of Westerners. Hon means book in Japanese and e stands for picture.
The roots of Japanese printing are in China. China had invented paper and techniques to copy written text or images several centuries before the Europeans.
Early documents were written on scrolls. Like in Europe, these early 'books' were of religious nature. Writing, publishing and reading were reserved for monks and priests.
The great boom of Japanese book publishing and printing came during the Edo period (1603-1868). Novels and picture books became popular - not to forget shunga books with explicit erotic images.
The next upswing for book publishing came with the Meiji era, during which Japan opened itself towards the West. In 1872 compulsory elementary school was introduced, and by and by a larger part of the population stepped out of the darkness of illiteracy. Novels about love, life and family became popular especially among women.
As the average Japanese housewife could not afford to buy books, rental book stores soon popped up everywhere in Japanese cities.
The techniques used to produce books, were the same that were used to produce single sheet woodblock prints as known by collectors of ukyio-e and by art lovers all over the world. Each page was cut into a woodblock and printed by wetting the block with ink and pressing a sheet of paper against the block. For multi-color printing several blocks had to be carved - one for each color.
With the Meiji period, Western lithographic or photo-mechanical printing techniques gradually replaced the old way of printing by carving woodblocks.
When speaking of materials, the paper and the dyes have to be mentioned. While papers in the Western cultures were made from rags and wood pulp, the Japanese paper is obtained from wood of the mulberry. There are hundreds of different Japanese paper variations and names. The common name for all Japanese papers is washi.
Washi is the result of a very laborious process of paper-making. In general it is superior to Western papers in terms of durability and purity.
The Japanese used vegetable colors until around 1860. From then on the natural vegetable colors were replaced by aniline colors. Early aniline dyes imported from Germany were poor in quality and had the tendency of "bleeding" - colors running out, mainly the red. Vegetable colors on the other hand have the disadvantage of fading over the course of time.
An ehon was the result of the same team of skilled persons that we know from the production process of ukiyo-e - the publisher, the artist, the carver, the printer and in addition a writer.
The majority of the Japanese books were published in the sewn format. The single pages were folded at the fore edge and kept together with a string using four or five binding holes.
The starting page of a Japanese book is what Westerners would consider the last page. Lay down the book with the binding holes and strings on the right side and you have the book cover! Text is read not from left to right, but from top to bottom.
Another format of Japanese books are accordion structures with a few variations. Westerners call them albums - maybe because they were the preferred format of books with images only. The Japanese call them cho.
Author: Dieter Wanczura