What you'll learn

  • How to examine Japanese books and scrolls
  • Different types of bindings, scroll formats, printing techniques, and basic terminology
  • Different approaches to visual and textual storytelling
  • Short stories and epic tales— plots, characters, and illustrative devices
  • How to analyze and appreciate illustrated narratives
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Course description

This course expands the definition of the “book” to include scrolls and albums, focusing on the reading experience of a variety of formats in Japan. You will begin by examining rare and beautifully preserved manuscripts in the Harvard Art Museums in an introduction exploring the material properties of Japanese books and scrolls, binding techniques, and important terminology. An examination of the illustrated scroll comes next, through a unit on the short story and visual storytelling in premodern Japan. The course concludes with The Tale of Genji , an overview of how this celebrated epic from the eleventh century was read and illustrated in every conceivable format, from scroll, to album, to printed book, into the modern era.

Drawing on the rich collections of Harvard’s libraries and museums, this course is part of a larger series on the history of books, where learners explore the book not merely as a container of content, but as significant physical objects that have shaped the way we understand the world around us.

Course outline

  • Module 1: Books, Scrolls, and Religious Devotion

    This unit offers special access to a unique group of books and scrolls and sacred objects once interred inside a thirteenth-century Buddhist sculpture of Prince Shotoku, now in the collection of the Harvard Art Museums. The works to be studied represent the most prevalent formats of Japanese books, but they display striking material idiosyncrasies that will help us understand how and why manuscripts were made, and how they could be personalized for individual readers, motivated, in this case, by religious devotion.

  • Module 2: Visual and Textual Storytelling: Short-Story Scrolls

    Enter into the storyworlds of two lively illustrated Japanese tales, The Tale of the Rat (Nezumi sôshi) and The Chrysanthemum Spirit (Kiku no sei monogatari) in the Harvard Art Museums. Both tales are illustrated in the “small scroll” ( ko-e ) format, roughly half the size of standard scrolls, resembling medieval paperbacks, and intended for personal reading and private libraries. This unit focuses on reading experience, exploring the interrelationship between word and image, and explaining how literary and pictorial conventions work together to communicate a story.

  • Module 3: “Multimedia” Books: The Tale of Genji

    Japan’s most celebrated work of fiction, The Tale of Genji , has been continuously read from the time it appeared in the eleventh-century to the present day and provides a perfect case study for exploring various book formats over the centuries in Japan. Using decorated manuscripts, richly illustrated albums, and a playful printed book of a Genji spin-off, A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Rustic Genji (Nise Murasaki Inaka Genij), this unit showcases the spectacular visual and material properties of Genji volumes that make them suggestive of “multimedia” books.

Instructor

Associated Schools

  • Harvard Faculty of Arts & Sciences

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