The Preservation team at the National Library of Australia have recently been working with a number of amazing items that are now on display as part of the Melodrama in Meiji Japan exhibition. Many of these include stunningly beautiful and brightly coloured Japanese woodblock prints, also termed Kuchi-e (pronounced ‘koo-chi-eh’), literally translated as ‘mouth-picture’. A major part of the exhibition were the prints donated by Professor Richard Clough from 2011 to 2014. These prints were normally inserted into the fronts of literary magazines and novels during the Meiji era as ‘fold outs’ to visually tempt buyers.

The size of these novels and magazines were typically tall and narrow in format requiring the Kuchi-e illustrations to be folded into three sections to fit the closed book, which you can identify if you look closely at the prints in the exhibition! Although they were originally issued in bound form, many or most ended up dissociated from their volumes, and are now a popular collector’s item. The images often depict the lives of Japanese women, heroes, customs and rituals, or seasonal changes, also highlighting the social changes that occurred after the rapid modernisation of a previously isolated society during the Meiji era, the period between 1868-1912.

Raking light highlighting the woodblock impressions in the background and the fold line beneath the women’s faces (OJRB Pic 195 V.3)

Image: Raking light highlighting the woodblock impressions in the background and the fold line beneath the women’s faces (OJRB Pic 195 V.3 – Yuriko, catalogue record:

 OJRB Pic 169 – Kangofu (Nurse)

Image: OJRB Pic 169 - Kangofu (Nurse), catalogue record:

  OJRB Pic 380

Image: Fūzoku 32-sō Urusasō (Looking Tiresome), OJRB Pic 380, catalogue record:

  Close up of woodblock impressions on the surface of the paper visible with raking light from a torch (Fūzoku 32-sō, OJRB Pic 380)

Image: Close up of woodblock impressions on the surface of the paper visible with raking light from a torch (Fūzoku 32-sō, OJRB Pic 380, catalogue record:

In this two part blog, we’ll give you a brief insight into the makings and conservation of these magnificent prints that were produced using refined and creative techniques characteristic of ‘surimono’, or privately commissioned woodblocks.

Before conservation work or preparation of these prints for exhibition began, it was important to understand the nature and significance of the work. By understanding the paper used, the printing process itself, and the common pigments used and found on these prints, the Preservation team was able to undertake treatments that would stabilise the prints and increase their longevity while maintaining their significance and signs of use.

Handmade Japanese Paper: Washi

The Meiji prints are printed onto a traditional handmade paper called Washi (wa - old name for Japanese, and shi - from paper) produced from the bast fibres (inner bark) of the mulberry (kozo), gampi or mitsumata shrub. Kozo is mostly used for printing because the long fibres delicately weave together to make a flexible, lightweight, but sturdy paper. Characteristically it is absorbent and dimensionally stable when wet making it capable of being repeatedly wetted and rubbed during the printing process.

The process of making washi is complex and time consuming. Traditionally it is carried out in cold winter weather as the pure, cold running water prevents bacterial decomposition and gives washi its characteristic ‘crisp’ feel. 

The kozo branches are cut, steamed, beaten and stripped by hand of the outer bark. The inner white bark that is left is washed in running water, boiled in an alkali and washed again.

 Inner Bark of Kozo

Image: Inner bark of kozo – (Caserley 2013, pp. 8-9).

Remaining impurities are picked out by hand and the bundle re-beaten to loosen the fibres. 

Beating the kozo fibres

Image: Beating the cooked kozo fibres – (Caserley 2013, pp. 8-9).

The fibres are then stirred into a vat of cold water and neri (a viscous mucilaginous agent similar to the consistency of aloe vera) is added to aid even dispersion of the fibres. This helps to create a very fine sheet of paper by controlling water drainage during sheet formation.

 Beating the cooked kozo fibres Image: Using the mould to make washi (Caserley 2013, pp. 8-9).

The sheets are formed by the nagashi-zuki method, which is characteristic of Japanese papermaking. The paper maker repeatedly scoops the watery mixture onto a flexible screen in the papermaking mould. This vigorous scooping motion sloshes off excess water and interweaves the fibres into a uniformly sturdy sheet. The finished sheet of washi is added to the stack by removing the flexible bottom of the mould (the su), placing it upside-down on the stack and gently peeling it away. Excess water is removed with gentle pressing overnight. Lastly, the sheets are peeled off one by one and brushed onto traditional wooden boards or metal warming racks for drying. These papers are commonly used in conservation for their long-term properties, light weight, flexibility and strength. Japanese tissue was used to mend tears on these prints due to its likeness to the original object, and its characteristics that enable the original object to be stronger and more accessible, while not compromising the material.

As a Japanese craft, the process of making washi has been registered as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage.

Woodblock printing process

Once the paper was made, then there was a surface for the print to rest on!

This printing process traditionally involved a number of steps, each carried out by a different person. Firstly, the printer would commission an artist to draw the design, followed by a copy artist who would produce a very fine black ink copy on thin Mino paper. This was pasted onto a block of mountain cherry wood and a highly skilled block carver would carve away the wood leaving highly detailed raised lines. This block was known as the ‘key block’. Multiple copies of the key block were printed by laying paper over the inked block and rubbing firmly with a baren, or a flat padded tool made of straw and bamboo. The artist would then mark out each colour that was to be cut into a different block and carve away using the paper marked with the design as a guide. There would often be ten to fifteen layers of colour to create the final image, perfectly lined up using registration marks at the edge of each block. Typically, about 200 prints could be produced by a studio in one day, and the blocks would eventually wear out after being used for thousands of prints. Several different colour designated woodblocks that were used to create a single print can be seen in the images below and are on display in the Melodrama in Meiji Japan exhibition.

7 Woodblocks OJRB ef 19

Image: 7 woodblocks, carved both front and back except for final woodblock, contain printing ink and carving guide paper residue, OJRB ef 19, Sandaime Sanogawa Ichimatsu no Gionmachi no hakujin Onayo: hangi, Catalogue Record:


 Final image of woodblock print

Image: Final image of the woodblock print – printed with Sandaime Sanogawa Ichimatsu no Gionmachi no hakujin Onayo: hangi, Catalogue Record:

Types of Japanese thread binding    

As mentioned earlier, Kuchi-e prints are found at the front of literary magazines or monograph books of novels during the Meiji era, which may be bound together in various different ways. There are two main types of thread binding that are relatively common in Japan, with a third type that is typically Japanese.


This is the style that most westerners have embraced. While variations may be possible, there are only four basic forms: four hole basic, kangxi, hemp and tortoise. In Japan, it is customary for the four holes to be evenly spread along the binding edge.

Basic 4 hole stitching

 Image: Basic 4 hole stitching.

These decorative patterns over plain covers serve to brighten the binding. What is holding together the fascicle, or text block, are the pairs of paper twists close to the binding edge, hidden by the cover.

Yamato - toji


Image: Pattern for yamato-toji.

While the Chinese term refers to a rough binding, the yamato-toji style is certainly less than rough in Japanese binding.

This simple binding method can consist of either paper twists or ribbon that are poked through single holes made at the binding edge. The twists are pushed down and beaten flat.

 Single hole pairsSingle hole pair 2

Image: Single hole pairs- Chirimenbon / chosakusha HayashiHiroyukiJAP 1249, Catalogue record:

In Japan this binding method can be both functional and decorative. Usually there are two pairs. Alternatively two sets of four holes are used to form a cross pattern.

RB MOD 2663RB MOD 2663

Image: Two pairs of 4 holes to create cross pattern - Japanese wedding ceremonies: old and new / by Mrs. R. Curizuka RB MOD 2663, Catalogue record:

 Retchoso binding

Image: Retchoso binding

This style is unique to Japan and was reserved for Japanese writing such as Noh plays, poetry and stories; no foreign texts were bound using this method. It is similar to western style binding where folded sections are joined together at the spine as the thread is sewn through the folds. This requires four needles. The sewing pattern is a bit tricky because the starting point of the sewing is in the middle of the book and works its way towards the outside (either front or back); the threads criss-cross in a ladder-like pattern and is it imperative to tension as you go. This method is singularly tedious and is seldom used. However, like its Coptic counterpart, the volume opens flat.

Continue reading and learn about pigments, reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) and treatment of the prints in Part Two of this blog

Written by the fabulous NLA Preservation team members:

  • Sara Freeman
  • Karen Holloway
  • Erika Mordek
  • Freya Merrell


Caserley, Nancy (2013). Washi, the Art of Japanese Paper. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: Kew Publishing.

Hughes, Sukey (1978). Washi: the world of Japanese paper. Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Ueda, Tokusaburo. & Shimo, Taro. & Takei, Takeo. & Onchi, Kosaburo (1980). Zukai seihon. Tokyo.