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Japanese Culture Through Rare Books

Keio University via FutureLearn


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Discover the rich history of Japanese literature

[What’s new]The Educators/Hosts will facilitate this course for about three times a year. Our next facilitation period is 28 Nov - 25 Dec, 2022. We look forward to your active participation!

A book is a tool for preserving words and images. Through books, an abundance of information, including the knowledge and experiences of the people of the past, has been handed down to the present. But books are more than records of words and images. Their form, appearance, and even the scripts and styles used tell us about the fashions and technologies of the times that produced them. By studying old books, we can learn a great deal about the geographical areas in which they were made, the historical background, and the individuals and groups involved in their making.

While displaying remarkable similarities with books produced in other areas of the Sinitic cultural sphere, Japanese books also possess some unique features, starting with their sheer diversity of form and appearance. Using a wealth of multimedia content, we will take a journey through the wonderful world of traditional Japanese books.

Keio University’s Book Collection

Keio University’s Institute of Oriental Classics is a unique institution specialized in rare East Asian books. The Institute’s extensive collection comprises 163,000 items, and is open to the public as a specialized library. In this course we will make use of this rich collection and rely on the expertise of specialists and researchers who have been working for the preservation and study of these resources. Using state of the art media resources, you will familiarize yourself with not only the content of traditional East Asian books, but also with their physical appearance, format, binding method, script, and cover style.

Learn about bookbinding styles and their influence on Japanese literature

In the first week of the course, you will be introduced to the main bookbinding methods used in traditional Asia, and to the practice of rebinding books. We will also discuss the influence of Chinese bookbinding methods on early Japanese books in all their various shapes and forms.

Explore old Japanese manuscripts and illustrated books in high-resolution images and videos

In the second week of the course, we will focus primarily on the different types of manuscripts and illustrated books that were used for waka (classical Japanese poetry) and prose tales (monogatari) from the 9th century through the 17th century. High quality images and video recordings of materials in Keio University’s book collection and beyond will give you a real sense of the look and feel of these precious objects.

Discover the role of book publishing in the development of Japanese literature and scholarship

In the final week of this course, we will look at how the introduction of movable-type and woodblock printing in the 17th and 18th centuries helped books spread widely across social classes, and how this democratization of books affected Edo culture and learning.

The Japanese version of this course is available.

This is an introductory course and is open to anyone with an interest in the history of Japanese books. A basic knowledge of the history of Japan and Japanese literature will be helpful but is not required.

This course can also be studied alongside two companion courses, Sino-Japanese Interactions Through Rare Books and The Art of Washi Paper in Japanese Rare Books.

The course makes use of a number of visual resources which may unfortunately make some of the activities not accessible to learners with visual impairment. Course videos will be in Japanese with English subtitles.


  • The relationship between visual appearance and content in Japanese books
    • Japan, Country of Books
    • Japanese books, writing, and papers
    • Binding styles
    • Summary of week 1
  • Manuscripts and illustrated versions of the Japanese classics
    • Introduction
    • Rebinding and format changing
    • Relationship between format and content
    • Waka and monogatari manuscripts
    • A short history of illustrated manuscripts
    • Summary of week 2
  • Scholarship and publishing in the Edo period
    • Introduction to week 3
    • History of printing and publishing in Japan
    • The rise of printed illustrated books
    • The spread of books
    • Book publishing and the development of scholarship
    • Summary of the course

Taught by

Takahiro Sasaki



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4.8 rating at FutureLearn based on 37 ratings

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