Ehon are part of an incomparable 1,230-year-old Japanese tradition. Created by artists and craftsmen, most ehon also feature essays, poems, or other texts written in beautiful, distinctive calligraphy. They are by nature collaborations: visual artists, calligraphers, writers, and designers join forces with papermakers, binders, block cutters, and printers. The books they create are strikingly beautiful, highly charged microcosms of deep feeling, sharp intensity, and extraordinary intelligence.
The earliest ehon were made as religious offerings or talismans, but the great flowering of ehon began in the early modern period (1600-1868) and has continued, with new media and new styles and subjects, to the present. Shiohi no tsuto (Gifts of the Ebb Tide, 1789; commonly referred to in English as The Shell Book) by Kitagawa Utamaro, one of the supreme achievements of the ehon tradition, is reproduced here. Michimori (ca. 1604), a luxuriously produced libretto for a Nō play, is also featured, as are Saito Saitō Shūho's cheerful Kishi enpu (Mr. Ginger's Book of Love, 1803), Kamisaka Sekka's brilliant Momoyogusa (Flowers of a Hundred Generations, 1909), and many more.