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Skip to 0 minutes and 4 secondsThe history of printing and publishing in Japan begins with the Hyakumantōdarani , dating from 770CE. This long, narrow strip of paper is a printed excerpt from a Buddhist sutra. The wooden pagoda is a container which is designed to house the tiny sutra rolled up into a scroll. According to the Shoku Nihongi , in 770 empress Shōtoku issued the command to produce one million printed scrolls of the Dharani sutra and their wooden cases, which were to be stored attemples including the Hōryūji and Tōdaiji to pray for the safety of the state. Of these, only those that were stored at the Hōryūji have survived in significant quantities. The item currently in the Keio Library collection comes from that set.

Skip to 0 minutes and 57 secondsThe Hyakumantōdarani is the oldest printed work in the world whose date of creation can be firmly ascertained in the sources. Most early printed works are impossible to date with certainty, but the Hyakumantōdarani is a rare exception in that both the actual item and references to it in contemporary records are available. Of course, there are good reasons to believe that by the time the Hyakumantōdarani was made in the second half of the 8th century, printing was already widespread in China and Korea. The copy of the Diamond Sutra now at the British Library was printed in China in 868, and is considered the world's oldest printed book.

Skip to 1 minute and 44 secondsIt was printed about one hundred years after the Hyakumantōdarani ; it features a marvelously detailed image of the Buddha at the beginning and the characters on the page are incredibly vivid. Although no artefacts dating from the time of the Hyakumantōdarani known to exist today, it is probable that printing in China had reached a considerable level of sophistication by this point and that the printing of the Hyakumantōdarani followed continental models. From the second half of the 9th century, printed and stamped images of the Buddhas, known as shūbutsu and inbutsu in Japanese, began to be produced in large quantities. inbutsu are images of the Buddha stamped onto the page using a wooden stamp.

Skip to 2 minutes and 26 secondsIn the shūbutsu , several images of the Buddha were carved on a larger block of wood and then pressed onto paper. Although different techniques were used, the end result in both cases is a large number of images of the deity on a single sheet of paper. inbutsu and shūbutsu are often found inside statues of Buddhist deities. The shūbutsu in Keio Library's collection is said to have been originally stored inside a statue of Amida at the Jōruriji temple in Kyoto. Although they involve writing, printing, and images, neither the Hyakumantōdarani nor the inbutsu and shūbutsu are books. Books are bound, and deal with a topic at some length, among other characteristics.

Skip to 3 minutes and 8 secondsAmong the items that fit this description, we can cite the first printed sutras, which date from the beginning of the 11th century. The oldest extant example is the ChūngWūishīLūn which was printed at the Kōfukuji temple in Nara in the third month of 1088. Only one copy survives, which is currently at the Shōsoin repository of the Tōdaiji temple. The Jōyuishikiron is the first of many Buddhist works to be printed in Japan from the late Heian period onwards. This phenomenon was not unique to Japan and mirrors similar trends on the continent. Examples include the first printed edition of the Buddhist Tripitaka in Sung China , and the Tripitaka Koreana in 11th century Korea. These books were not necessarily made for reading.

Skip to 4 minutes and 19 secondsLike sutra copying, sutra printing was a devotional act, a form of prayer to the Buddha, or a way to earn merit for a deceased person. As of the late Heian period, however, commentaries to these works also began to be published, so gradually we have the appearance of books intended for doctrinal study.

Bookmaking and printing in the Nara and Heian periods

In this video, Professor Ichinohe will guide us through the early history of printing and bookmaking (700-1200 C.E.). Topics covered include:

  • The oldest printed texts
  • The spread of printed works
  • The first printed books

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This video is from the free online course:

Japanese Culture Through Rare Books

Keio University