Centuries ago in Europe, books were regarded as status symbols. Before printing became widespread in the 15th century, books had been luxuries only the privileged could afford. Having books meant the owners were not only wealthy, but also literate.
Bookbinding began in the 4th century (soon after the codex replaced the roll), in order to make books more durable, as well as more attractive. Some of the earliest bindings for church-altar Bibles were elaborately decorated with jewels, gold and embroidery.
Though bookbinding is done by machine today, books in temporary paper bindings — allowing for custom binding at a later date — are still commonly sold in Europe; professional bookbinders are hired to create original volumes. Some people even enjoy creating their own bookbinding.
Japanese people, however, have little interest in bookbinding. “The Japanese do not have the same sentiment toward books [as the Europeans]. Maybe it’s a difference of cultures,” says Atsushi Ito, one of a handful of professional bookbinders in Japan.
Last year, Ito submitted his work to the prestigious Prima Nostra Internazionale di Rilegatura d’Arte bookbinding competition in Italy. He received an award, and was given the title of “maestro” of bookbinding.
Although recognized internationally, Ito explains that it is difficult to support oneself only through bookbinding in Japan. “Being a professional in this field is as hard as living on painting or writing poetry,” he says. “Bookbinding is becoming popular as a hobby [but not a profession].”
Ito became interested in bookbinding when he was an art student. His father was a wholesaler of bookbinding materials, and became a friend of Kumiko Tochiori, Japan’s pioneer bookbinder. When he visited Tochiori’s studio out of curiosity, Ito instantly became fascinated by both her personality and her work.
Until then, he had been thinking of becoming a graphic designer, but as he explained, he found bookbinding more interesting, “because it allowed me to be involved in the creative process from start to finish.”
After apprenticing under Tochiori for three years, Ito began teaching at her newly opened studio as an instructor. He worked at the studio for 10 years, and became independent seven years ago.
Bookbinding is time-consuming work with approximately 60 steps required to complete the process. It includes everything from cutting paper, folding each page in half and cutting into the stacked folded pages with a saw to stitching the pages together, hammering the book’s spine into a curve, binding the pages within the covers and sewing the spine with colorful threads, not to mention pasting the leather or other materials onto the cover. On top of all those labors, bookbinders sometimes dye leather, embroider and paint on the covers, as well.
Even for Ito, who has been bookbinding for 20 years, it takes a whole day to complete the most simple binding, and several months for a complicated one. The price for bookbinding ranges from in the thousands to the millions of yen, depending on the length of time needed to complete the binding.
“The process itself is very simple, but you have to do it very carefully and precisely, going through the steps one by one, like piling toy blocks very high. Otherwise, the book will simply fall apart,” Ito says. “I have bound nearly 1,000 books, but there are only one or two I’m really satisfied with. Bookbinding is difficult, and that’s why I like it.”