March 23, 2009

Katazome (stencil dyeing), book covers and Nagai Kafu

Katazome or "stencil dyeing" is traditionally an art form used when designing kimonos.
However, over the years it has evolved into an art form of its own.  

Young artists are using non-traditional motifs to transform the art of dyeing paper with stencils thus bringing it to a wider audience.  One of these young artists is Seki Mihoko.  She is currently working in Kyoto.
I had seen her work on occasion in stationery stores but I never thought to find out who she was. ...until a friend of mine gave me these beautiful pieces of wrapping paper.
They would look very nice in frames and I'm seriously thinking about doing that so that I can hang them in our hallway.  
They would also make lovely book covers....

In Japan, if you buy a book at a bookstore, you will most likely be asked if you would like to have a book cover. (Kabaa tskue raremasuka?  or Kabaa goriyou desuka?)
Most shops have their own paper book covers with the shop's name and info on it.  They  are wrapped around your books for free.

It may not seem like a very environmentally friendly thing to do, but there are two big reasons they are still very popular.  

1.  Many Japanese people don't want other people to know what they are reading...If you are reading something "shallow" it could be embarrassing and if you are reading something that seems rather "complicated" then you would look like a "show-off".  Ah, the glorious wonders of haji-no-bunka (shamefulness as a culture)

2.  Many people read books while commuting on trains, so a book is often carried around in a bag and can get tossed around.  Book covers are nice to have on your book to keep it from getting tattered.
The three books on the left are covered with my local book shop's covers and the two on the right are ones that I made out of "washi" (Japanese paper).

Speaking of books, this might be a good time to show the inside of an old book I bought at a used book store.  

"Sumidagawa" by Nagai Kafu.  
I am not really a fan of his work but his life is rather intriguing since he lived in the US in 1903 and stayed for several years after which he spent some time in France.  It seems that he was forced to go abroad after being a bit of a "disappointment" to his father.  However, instead of studying he spent his time "looking" at the country and jotting things down. These memos turned into stories such as "Ladies of the Night" and "Midnight at a Bar".  As you can tell by the titles, Nagai seems to have been quite the swinger.  This is probably why I never really felt intrigued to read one of his books.

So, why did I buy "Sumidagawa"?  There are two reasons why I like to buy old Japanese books.

1.  They have furigana next to the kanji : they have the easily read Japanese alphabet written next to the more complicated to read Chinese characters.

2.  They look really swell.

Although the Japanese used in the days that Nagai wrote is old and rather hard to read, it is still nice to have those little markings next to the kanji to help readers like me.  I probably won't understand the whole thing without reading each sentence twice but it is an easy way to travel back in time to Japan in the early 1900s.  


Jelica said...

Those book covers that you photographed are really pretty. I would use them, even if they are not eco-friendly, to protect the book from dirty fingers, spills, and suchlike but it's not a custom to offer book covers here.

Delwyn said...

Well tonight I have learned three new things about Japan - katazome book covers and Mr Nagai Kafu... such an amazing culture...

I did buy some book covers in the Hakone Museum art gallery by one of the exhibiting artists - actually just pulled one out and it looks more like a mini document holder. It probably has a specific purpose - you will know how everything has its own little cover or bag for safekeeping.

Thanks for your post
happy Days
PS I have presumed from what you have written that your husband is Japanese, are you American Japanese?

I_am_Tulsa said...

I've always wondered if other countries offer this type of "service"! Japan can be rather excessive with wrapping things but they do keep the books clean!

Yep! My husband is Japanese and I am half Japanese half American...
I was born in the USA but have spent over half of my life in Japan now. I've had my share of 'identity crisis' but I am pretty much over that now. ;-)

I like to focus on differences and similarities between Japan and the US, but these days I am trying to take a closer look at what makes them both unique and beautiful instead!

Butternut Squash said...

I really enjoy your posts. You do a wonderful job of explaining cultural details. You must be a teacher at heart.

Jelica said...

There is a little bloggy award for you over at my blog, so pass by to claim it :)

I_am_Tulsa said...

Butternut Squash and Jelica, thank you both for the kind words! I just got home from work and am thrilled to pieces with all the warm comments. Thank you both for being an inspiration to me! I will try not to disappoint...;-)

Lori ann said...

Oh, I love this, for so many reasons! thank you for sharing with us such interesting information, i would buy these books too. Incredibly lovely. I make book covers too, for my most treasured books. I did a post on this just a little back, I think it was titled A Simple Idea. If you are interested. A really lovely post, thank you!

I_am_Tulsa said...

Thank you Lori ann!

Her post on very unique and beautiful book covers
can be found here:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post! I am learning Katazome -- from John Marshall in Covelo, CA. It's a very enticing art form for me. I'm tracking my progress and learning on my blog. It's great to learn that young people in Japan are reviving it! I look forward to exploring your blog further!