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.