Indexing Images of Everyday Life from Medieval Japan

This post is about a very interesting reference book, An Index to Painted Scrolls: Everyday Life in Medieval Japan 絵巻物による日本常民生活絵引 (Kadokawa shoten 1964-68; Heibonsha, 1984). The project was originally conceived and carried out under the editorial supervision of Shibusawa Keizō 澁澤敬三 (1896-1963), a powerful businessman who was once president to the Bank of Japan (1944) and Minister of Finance (1945-46), but was also known as a researcher in folklore studies.

Essentially, this is an index to scenes in medieval Japanese paintings that concern daily lives of the common people, with an amazingly attentive eye to details. The book was not published until after Shibusawa’s death, but his short essay dated 1954 explains that he had initially conceived of the project more than ten years ago, when he noticed that scenes from medieval paintings could offer excellent sources for studying the lives of the common people, if only they could be “indexed” properly.1 Starting in 1955, he gathered a group of collaborators who made sketches of scenes from the scrolls, numbered individual components within these scenes, and labeled them using carefully-defined categories. In all, the group indexed 26 works (most of which are painted scrolls) from around the late Heian to the Muromachi period [date to be confirmed].


A scene with eighteen components labled.

日本常民生活絵引 総索引
A section of the index.

What makes this book especially interesting and useful is that it indexes not just objects but also actions of people — from sitting, sleeping, fighting, to doing laundries, just to name a few. In this way, the book not only makes it easier to find images of particular topics, but also makes it possible to trace chronological changes in the depiction of the mundane objects and acts of everyday life. (A few months ago, I used this index to look for images related to medieval Japanese transportaiton, and was able to locate many images of roads, bridges and boats.) It is also noteworthy that all of this was undertaken at a time when material culture as an area of investigation did not receive as much attention as it does today.

More recently, there has been a project on Systemizing Non-Textual Sources for Humanities Researh (人類文化研究のための非文字資料の体系化) based in Kanagawa University, where a group of researchers published the first two volumes of the Index in English translation under the title Multilingual Version of Pictopedia of Everyday Life in Medieval Japan. This project also created several additional indices to East Asian paintings, including three on early modern Japan, one on Qing China (姑蘇繁華図), and one on Chosŏn Korea. Most of these publications are available for download on the project website.


  1. Shibusawa Keizō 澁澤敬三, “Can Image-Indices Be Made?” 絵引は作れぬものか, in Emakimono ni yoru Nihon jōmin seikatsu ebiki 絵巻物による日本常民生活絵引 (Heibonsha, 1984), vol. 1, viii.

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