Gajô: Bound for glory
Since ukiyo-e are easily ripped, stained, toned, burned and devoured by bugs — ephemeral in every sense of the word beyond
simply being designed as discardable bromides — a reasonable question from a novice is why so many have survived 150 years, and
much more sometimes, in nearly mint condition.
For this supreme good fortune we must be thankful in large part to the Japanese penchant for compactly ordering and storing things, and
specifically to the phenomenon of the gajô, or privately bound 'scrapbook'.
Japanese gajô of the 19th century come down to us in assorted formats and sizes, but what they share in common is their ability
to easily display and efficiently store a personal compendium of prints.
That they also proved able to protect the artwork from a whole century of dusty, humid neglect, until rediscovered in deep storage and their
content appreciated anew, was unforeseeable — simply a miraculous boon for collectors today, and for the legacy of Japan.
Here’s how gajô-making probably worked. Having accumulated a stack of, say, 50 or 100 ukiyo-e — perhaps a
year's worth of collecting — a townsman would decide it was time to make an extended roll of them (makimono), or more commonly,
Both processes could be done at home, but especially for the latter more often a trip was made with the bundle to the local book-binding shop.
Presumably the collector would dictate a few things—the ordering of the images, and type of page arrangement (standard book form or accordion
fold-out) — and the binder would take it from there.
The ties that bind
For some unfathomable reason (slightly increased portability?) prints given to the binder invariably got either folded in the middle, or else
were trimmed, sometimes well past their margins. In addition, for added support they often came to be backed with washi, which has led
to a weakening of the pigments.
Sturdy covers were also affixed, either with glue or string-ties, the latter producing small binding holes — another demerit in condition
reports. On the happy side, though, even when prints got glued back to back, the traditional Japanese rice paste allows for easy restoration.
All this sounds rather brutal, but it is still preferable to what would have happened to the same prints in the West, where ostensibly they were
more special and valued.
Never mind the effects on the paper of being wedged in a frame between burn-causing mats and equally noxious bare wood. Merely the constant
exposure to light, as the Utamaro beauty or Hiroshige landscape hung on a wall, would have caused the natural pigments to fade irreparably or
even disappear. Thus, posterity must vote for the gajô treatment every time.
The elegant gajô
It was ukiyo-e lovers in mid-19th century Osaka that took gajô-making to art-form heights. The chûban
(half-standard) size print was the vogue, and scenes often came in sets of three or more pieces, the images occasionally designed to be arranged
one above the other as well as alongside.
This complexity presented no obstacle to the binders, who were proud enough of their work to affix name cards on the back. They simply created
various kinds of flaps so that an ensemble of even five prints could be laid out flat for viewing.
The binder could also arrange for the customer an original painting as a frontispiece, or commission a minor poet to pen a dedication.
Fig. 1 shows one such poem, the elegant calligraphy on a gorgeous endpaper facing the first print of the album, a ca. 1850 actor bust portrait
Fig. 2 in turn shows what a typical cover looks like, with a poetic-sounding personalized title that conveys the depth of the album owner's
Although evidence suggests some gajô were ready-made, bought 'off the shelf' from a binder and not personally collected over time,
in most the arrangement of images reflects the taste of a unique, long-ago soul.
Most Osaka prints are kabuki-related, for example, and by having an intact gajô we can find preferences for a particular actor,
artist or even type of drama, and also calculate the collector’s frequency of print-buying.
This brings unalloyed joy to some Edo-period researchers — yet one more gift for us courtesy of the gajô.
P.S. Also in the albums (pressed between the pages actually) is evidence of food-eating habits, personal hygiene and the insect life of the
period, but that discussion is for another time. Gajô entomology, anyone?
This article originally appeared in Daruma, no. 33, Winter 2002. Copyrighted © text
and pictures reprinted with permission.
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