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Thu, Oct 17, 2019

A beginner’s guide to Japanese art: How to read and handle emaki

An emaki picture scroll (By Tamayo Samejima)
By Tamayo Samejima

Have you ever seen emaki picture scrolls displayed in art museums?

Emaki is made from several sheets of washi paper joined together and wound around a jiku roller as you may already know.

They are often showcased unrolled and laid out in a display case you have to peer into. However, emaki is not something that should be viewed in that fashion. It is something you take pleasure in by holding it with your own hands.

How is that done, though? We shall see.

First of all, let me explain the general structure of an emaki.

An emaki usually consists of two parts: kotobagaki, the text which tells the story, and the illustrations depicting the various scenes from the story. Kotobagaki and the illustrations appear alternately as the story develops.

Kotobagaki and illustrations are rendered on washi or silk cloth, called honshi.

Honshi are very thin and easy to tear, and are fortified with extra paper pasted on the back. This is called urauchi, or backing.

The cloth that comes to the surface of the emaki when it is rolled up is called hyoshigire.  The cloth used is chosen based on whether its design matches what is told in the emaki.

Daisen, a title strip for the emaki, is sometimes pasted on the surface. Pretty much like a cover of a book, isn’t it?

The first thing you see when you open an emaki is the mikaeshi, which is the pretty paper pasted on the back of the hyoshigire.

The roller used to wind the emaki is a wooden stick called jikugi. It is attached to the emaki at its very end (If we were talking about a book, this would be the last page). Jikugi is usually made of Japanese cedar. However, the parts sticking out from above and below when the emaki is rolled up are occasionally made of ivory or koboku, which is fragrant wood.

The lace extending from the other end of the emaki is called makio and is used to tie up the emaki after it is wound up around the jikugi.

As with books bound with elaborate care, making emaki involves carefully selecting cloth and other materials to match the story told in it.

Let’s pretend we’re Heian aristocrats!

Now that you know the structure of emaki, why not try and open one? Just pretend you are an aristocrat from the Heian period (794 to the late 12th century)!

(By Tamayo Samejima)
  1. First, place the emaki on a flat surface such as that of a floor or a desk.
  2. Untie the makio and open the emaki just a little bit to find the mikaeshi. Tie a small knot with the makio.
  3. Wind in the mikaeshi using both hands and then place the emaki on your right-hand side.
  4. Hold the part wound in with your right hand and the part rolled around the jikugi with your left hand, and then spread your arms shoulder-width apart.
  5. The first scene is now shown. Enjoy the kotobagaki and the picture.
  6. When you are done with the first scene, go to the next! Wind in the part you just read with your right hand, and again, place the emaki on your right-hand side to unfold the next scene with your left hand. Repeat this movement to keep on reading.

The story progresses from right to left as you move your hands, and it may feel as if you are flipping the pages of a comic book. You can read the emaki at your own pace and immerse yourself in the story.

Keep in mind that the progression “from right to left” is a key to appreciating Japanese art. Japanese scripts are traditionally written vertically and progress from right to left. But wahon – books bound using watoji technique, or Japanese style bookbinding – are not the only things seen in that fashion. Paintings and drawings on fusuma sliding doors and byobu folding screens also are often rendered so as to be viewed from right to left.

Here’s a quiz: How large is an emaki ? If you have seen one before in a museum, think about that.

The answer: Typically, about 30 to 40 centimeters top to bottom. And it can be about nine-to-12-meters long, experts say. There is a very small type of emaki called koe, meaning small pictures, which is less than 20 centimeters tall. You can probably enjoy reading it on the train if you use both hands!

When you have finished reading the emaki, the next thing you have to do is to put it away neatly.

First, you have to rewind the emaki around the jikugi in your left hand. When you are done doing that, wind the makio around the emaki several times. Then tie a noose at the end of the makio. Make the noose thread through the lace wound around the emaki to bind it not too tight, not too loose. Put the emaki back in the wooden box or wherever it belongs, and that’s it.

By the way, when did they start making emaki?

Experts say it started in the middle of the Heian period, or the beginning of the 11th century, at the latest. The oldest emaki in existence is the “Genji Monogatari Emaki” (The Tale of Genji Illustrated Scrolls) from the first half of the 12th century, which was read by the aristocrats and court ladies of the time, who lead elegant lives.

Finally, let me introduce you to an excellent work of art.

The “Illustrated Tale of Zegaibo” was recently on display at the “Commemorating 30 years of Conservation Projects by the Sumitomo Foundation; New Life for Timeless Art” exhibition (Sept. 6 to Oct. 14, 2019) held in Kyoto at the Sen-oku Hakukokan Museum. The picture stroll was made based on a story of tengu, or mountain goblins, from the “Konjaku Monogatarishu” anthology of tales from the past. The tengu depicted here are not the typical long nosed, red-faced goblins people think about today. They look like birds. Cuter than scary, aren’t they?

Illustrated Tale of Zegaibo; Nanbokucho period, 14th century;
Important cultural property; Sen-oku Hakukokan Museum, Kyoto

Let me give you a quick summary: Zegaibo, a tengu from China brags about having strong powers, but suffers a humiliating defeat to Hieizan (Enryakuji) monks. However, Zegaibo is taken good care of by local tengu, and feels reluctant to leave after a send-off party. A somewhat helpless but lovable character, don’t you think?

Do you see the script in the drawings? It is called gachushi. It’s like the balloon you see in comic books, isn’t it?

Here, the tengu are vividly drawn and nature is depicted delicately. It’s quite moving when you think nobles in the Nanbokucho period (14th century) actually held the emaki in their hands to enjoy reading it.

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Art writer, translator, ink wash painter


After graduating from Gakushuin University (aesthetics and art history major), Samejima furthered her studies at the Camberwell College of Arts in London. She has been involved in writing scripts for audio guides used in art exhibitions, as well as writing articles and columns for newspapers and other publications on artwork and art exhibits. She also translates exhibition catalogs and art books. She has put on solo ink wash painting exhibitions and performances in Japan and abroad, and has presided over ink painting classes in Tokyo.



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