The illuminated manuscripts of medieval Japan

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Originally submitted as an entry to the West Kingdom Royal Arts and Sciences Championship, October 4, 2008

In Japan between the 10th and 16th centuries, large numbers of emaki, literally “painted roll” were produced to educate, record, and entertain. As with Buddhism, tea, sericulture and writing, the Japanese adopted a Chinese concept and turned it into something uniquely Japanese in execution.  

The Japanese assimilation of Buddhism and other aspects of Tang Chinese culture had a huge impact on the development of many aspects of its own native culture. Perhaps it is not surprising that the oldest surviving emaki in Japan are owned by the Jobon Rendai-ji temple in Kyoto. The E Inga-kyo (Illustrated Sutra of Cause and Effect), dating from the  mid eighth century, is a copy of early sixth century Chinese hand scrolls about the life of Buddha. 


A brief word about media: Japan had papermaking technology of very high quality. (“Rice paper” is a misnomer. Mulberry, gampi and mitsumata fibers account for the fiber content in traditional Japanese paper making.) Emaki were executed on paper which was pasted together lengthwise to form a scroll which would be read/viewed from right to left. Lengthy stories might require multiple scrolls to tell, which is one of the reasons surviving emaki are often incomplete. 

It’s possible that Tang hand scrolls on secular subjects were also imported and copied at this time, but there’s a gap in the Japanese end of the physical record. After the  E Inga-kyo, there are no surviving emaki until the twelfth century. While no other emaki appear this early, there are references to illustrated scrolls of poetry collections and stories in contemporary literature. Murasaki Shikibu, author of Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji), called emaki as “dazzling to the eyes.” She describes the elegantly decorated paper,  braided silk cords and patterned silk scroll covers. Emaki based on literary works “are superior to other scrolls because the pictures are exquisite and charming.”[1] 

Murasaki-hime cannot have been wrong. Though we are deprived of extant emaki from her lifetime, one begins to see surviving emaki from the late Heian period (specifically the twelfth century) and after on a variety of subjects: religious, literary and historical. Many are designated as National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs, not only because of their beauty, but because of their historical importance.  

Murasaki’s own romance, the epic Tale of Genji, her diary, Murasaki Shikibu Nikki, and diarist Sei Shonagon’s Makura No Soshi (The Pillow Book) were popular reads of the Heian period (794 – 1185 CE) and after, all rendered in the emaki format. The Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya owns fragments of two of the earliest Genji Monogatari emaki, one of which is the earliest surviving version of the manuscript itself. 


The Genji emaki is painted in classic and colorful Yamato-e (“Japanese painting”) style, the text in elegantly flowing hiragana calligraphy on fine paper decorated with glitter: tiny bits of gold and now-blackened silver foil sprinkled on the paper surface. Close examination of some of the images suggests to my eye that the painting may not have been completed. In the 49th quire “Yadorigi” where Genji serenades a lady from the veranda, the plants at the far left of the scene are no more than sketch lines. 

The human figures are stylized, reminding one of the famous Alfred Hitchcock caricature, capturing a face with a few lines. (This style remains associated with emaki depicting stories of aristocratic life, though we shall see members of other classes drawn very differently in emaki on other subjects.)

Interiors are shown as if the roof had been lifted off. Given the long, narrow, right-to-left format of the emaki, this treatment of indoor scenes permit the reader to see what is happening to the characters in those rooms; playing games with linear perspective that serve the narrative and emphasize the characters over environment.


Religious subjects are well represented by the surviving emaki. Buddhist hell and karmic retribution are the themes of the horrific Jigoku Zoshi (Scroll of the Hells, right) and there are two different surviving Gaki Zoshi (Scroll of the Hungry Ghosts, below). Better translated as “hungry spirits,” these are souls reincarnated into an existence of constant hunger that drives them to eat human waste and corpses. Yet even they may be saved by Buddha. This writer confesses the Gaki Zoshi owned by the Tokyo National Museum holds an odd fascination because of its depictions of such every-day occurrences as what goes on during childbirth or peasants relieving themselves on a street corner, oblivious to the grotesque spirits in their midst.


Other religious emaki tell of the founding of temples or shrines, or of the lives of holy men, such as the Kokawadera Engi (Legend of Kokawa-dera Temple) about the intervention of Kannon, the bodhisattva of Compassion, or the Ippen Shonin Eden, which depicts the life of Ippen, the priest who founded the Ji sect of Buddhism. 


Some of these religious scrolls hold great interest for the re-enactor. Scenes of people flocking to hear a famous holy man preach can hold a wealth of detail on clothing. 


Even medicine falls within the realm of the emaki, as in the Yamai no Soshi (Diseases and Deformities).


The preceding scrolls all employ color in telling their tales. There are, however, scrolls done almost entirely in ink, in a style generally called hakubyo. The Choju Giga (Scroll of Frolicking Animals) is a comic masterpiece of lively animals aping (pun intended) the behavior of humans.


A more delicate style using subtle lines in ink appears in the Makura no Soshi emaki and poetry collections, such as the Shihon Hakubyo Takafusa Kyo Tsuyakotoba emaki


The epic sweep of history is not be neglected. The Heiji Monogatari emaki depicts episodes from the Heiji disturbance of 1159. One version resides in the Tokyo National Museum and another belongs to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (click to connect to an interactive scroll viewer).

Takekaza Suenaga, a veteran of the campaigns against the attempted Mongol invasions of the late 13th century commissioned emaki recording the events. (Professor Thomas Conlan’s In Little Need of Divine Intervention examines the emaki commissioned by Takezaka and other records to prove that the Japanese were capable of successfully fighting the Mongols without the miraculous aid of a Divine Wind. Professor Conlan is also responsible for an interactive website where the Mongol invasion scrolls can be viewed, including several later reconstructions

Hand-calligraphed, hand-painted emaki were eventually replaced by cheaper, mass produced wood-block prints and books which became the rage in the Edo period (1603 – 1853 CE).

Whether one is searching for a good story, beautiful art, evidence of material culture, clothing and aspects of daily life, or corroboration of other historical sources, the emaki are worthy of their designations as Important Cultural Properties and National Treasures – and of our attention. 

 Footnote:    [1] Okudaira, Hideo. Narrative Picture Scrolls: Arts of Japan 5 , Elizabeth Grotenhuis, translator (New York and Tokyo, Weatherhill                                   Shibundo, 1973.), p. 23.


Okudaira, Hideo. Arts of Japan 5: Narrative Picture Scrolls, Elizabeth Grotenhuis, translator (New York and Tokyo, Weatherhill Shibundo, 1973.) ISBN 0834827115. 

Okudaira, Hideao. Emaki: Japanese Picture Scrolls (Vermont and Tokyo, Charles Tuttle Company, 1962). 

Conlan, Thomas. In Little Need of Divine Intervention: Takezaki Suenaga's Scrolls of the Mongol Invasions of Japan (Cornell East Asia, No. 113. 2002) ISBN 978-1885445131.

Pre-17th century emakimono from the Tokyo National Museum:

Detached segment of caricatures of animals and humans, Scroll A. Heian period, 12th c. Important Cultural Property A8

Detached segment of Kegon Gojugo-sho Emaki (illustrated stories about the boy Sudhana's pilgrimage to fifty-four deities and saints). Heian period, 12th c. Important Cultural Property A10493 and A10494 

Gaki Zoshi (Scroll of hungry ghosts). Heian period, 12th c. National Treasure A10476 

Jigoku Zoshi (Scroll of the Hells). Heian period, 12th c. National Treasure A10942 

Kitano Tenjin Engi (legends about the origin of Kitano Tenjin Shrine), Koan era version. Kamakura Period, 13th century. Important Cultural Property A227 

Detached segment of Murasaki Shikibu Nikki Emaki (illustrated diary of Lady Murasaki). Kamakura Period, 13th century. Important Cultural Property A12091 

Heiji Monogatari Emaki (illustrated stories about Heiji Civil War). Kamakura Period, 13th century.National Treasure A9976
There is another version in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts from the same period. 

Ippen Shonin E-den (biographical stories of the priest Ippen), Vol. 7. Kamakura Period, dated 1299. National Treasure A10944

Fudo Riyaku Engi Emaki (the priest Shoku's devotion to his master in serious illness). Nambokucho period, 14th century. Important Cultural Property A10480

Pre 17th century emakimono from the Kyoto National Museum: 

Portraits of Court Nobles. Kamakura Period (13th Century) Important Cultural Property AK 233

Gaki-zoshi (Scroll of the Hungry Ghosts). Heian Period (Late-12th Century) National Treasure AK 229

Yamai no Soshi (Diseases and Deformities). Heian Period (12th Century) National Treasure

Legend of Kokawa-dera Temple Handscroll. Late-Heian Period (12th century) National Treasure (Kokawa-dera Temple, Wakayama) 

Tosa Mitsunubo’s Tsuru no Soshi (Tale of a crane). Muromachi Period (late 15th – early 16th century)

Heike Monogatari (Tale of the Heike). Muromachi Period (late 15th – early 16th century)

Other online emaki:

Yoshizawa, Masakazu. A modern redrawing of the 12th century Choju Giga scroll. 

Conlan, Thomas, et. al. Takezaki Suenaga’s Scrolls of the Mongol Invasions of Japan, Bowdoin College, 2003. 

Heiji Monogatari Emaki (Tale of the Heiji Rebellion), Bowdoin College, 2006. 

Copyright 2008, Lisa A. Joseph


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