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The contribution of foreign craftsmen

From Nara, printing spread to the other temples of the Kinai region (the provinces around Nara and Kyoto), including the large temples of the so-called “new” schools of Heian Buddhism.

For example, in 1253 (Kenchō 5), under Kaiken’s supervision, the Kongōbuji temple on Mount Kōya (the headquarters of the Shingon sect) began to publish the works of the sect’s founder, Kūkai, such as the Sangō shiiki (Indications on the Three Teachings, 794), the Jūjūshinron (fig.1, A Treatise on the Ten Stages of the Mind), the Seireishū (or Shōryōshū, The Collected Works of Kūkai’s Prose and Poetry) and other texts of the canon held in special regard by Kūkai (fig.2).

Sutra Fig. 1. Himitsu Mandara Jūjūshinron, 1254-9
Click to take a closer look

wooden blcok Fig. 2. Woodblocks of Hizō hōyaku, Kūkai, Kōyasan Reihōkan Museum
(From the “Kūkai karano okurimono” exhibition catalog)
Click to take a closer look

Even Mount Hiei (the center of Tendai Buddhism), which for long had not become involved in printing preferring to enjoy its status as the main center of Buddhist manuscript culture, between 1279 and 1296, under the guidance of abbot Shōsen, embarked on a large-scale printing of the works of the sect’s founder Zhiyi (the so-called ‘Three Great Works of the Lotus’), namely, the Great Concentration and Insight (Ch. Mohe Zhiguan), the Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sutra (Ch. Fahua Xuanyi), the Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra (ch. Fahua Wenzhu), as well as six commentaries in 150 scrolls (fig.3 shows one of those).

Sutra Fig. 3. Shikanbugyodenguketsu, Eizan Edition Click to take a closer look

The texts that were used to prepare the printing blocks bear the names of 28 “carvers.” One of them, by the name of “Lu Silang [J. Go Jirō] of the Great Song,” seems to have been from China. In 1276 (Deyou 2), the Mongol army captured the Southern Song capital city Linan (modern Hangzhou), thus initiating the demise of the Song dynasty. It is quite possible that this Mr. Lu fled to Japan to escape the unrest. Also of foreign origin was “the lay priest Wu Sanlang [J. Go Saburō] of Qiantang in Song,” whose name appears in a copy of the Kobun Kōkyō (Old-Text Classic of Filial Piety) dating from 1297 (En’nin 5). The Wu were a family of scholars from the Kyoto area and were active as copiers of Chinese texts. In this manner, medieval Japanese texts in Chinese often mention the names of immigrant artisans.

The newer sects of medieval Japan, such as the Pure Land sect, were even more resolute in embracing the new medium than the traditional schools (fig.4). The Pure Land sect, for instance, seems to have produced a print edition of Genshin’s Ōjōyōshū (Essentials of Rebirth in the Pure Land, 985) as early as 1210 (Jōgen 4). If true, this would be the first work by a Japanese author ever to be printed. Near the end of the Kamakura period, in 1321, the sect also printed the Record of Words by the Kurodani Saint (Kurodani jōnin gotōroku), a collection of the sayings of the patriarch Hōnen (1133-1212), which is the first book in “mixed” kanji and kana script (kanamajiri-bun) to be printed in history.

Biwa, instrument Fig. 4. Sentakuhongan Nenbutu Shu, Chion’in
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Increasing variety of printed books

As you can see above, by the Kamakura period the temples of the Nara-Kinai area were putting out printed books at a steady pace.

Although all publishing activity at this stage focused on Buddhist content, there was a transition from texts printed for ritual and symbolic purposes to texts meant to be read and studied, such as textbooks and the works of the great patriarchs. The marks and annotations that many of the books still in existence bear provide ample evidence of this.

In the medieval period, the core canonical texts were printed either in scroll (fig.5, the traditionally more prestigious format) or in accordion (fig.6, orihon) format.

scroll Fig. 5. Kansusō(巻子装), Scroll

accordion Fig. 6. Orihon (折本),Accordion

However, commentaries and other secondary works were printed in codex format, which would later become predominant. The codex format in its many variants was initially used only for appendixes to key works or to record the notes of a lecture or liturgy, but gradually, because of its functionality and portability, it became the dominant format.

Early-medieval printed books show us the early stage of this process. Most of them are in the so-called detchōsō (fig.7, “oriental style”) binding, in which the leaves are folded, stacked on each other, and then glued together near the crease on the outer side.

decchoso Fig. 7. Detchōsō (粘葉装), Oriental style

Since both sides of the page were printed, arranging the text to be printed was an extremely laborious process. By printing on both sides, the makers of these books were probably attempting to replicate the look and feel of handwritten books, which had writing on both sides. Generally speaking, it is fair to say that during the Heian and Kamakura periods printed books were reproductions of handwritten books. It was only with the activity of the Zen presses at the end of the Kamamura period (14th c.) that printed books really became a self-standing category.

If your are interested in learning more about book bindings, papers and colorful illustrated Japanese books, please join our another free online course Japanese Culture Through Rare Books on FutureLearn!

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Sino-Japanese Interactions Through Rare Books

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