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In the Edo period, the world of Japanese publishing underwent radical changes. The first of these was that books became a mass commodity. Classes that up to this point had had little to no contact with written works now began to access them regularly. Because books gave access to knowledge, the Edo period was also a time of democratization of knowledge and learning. This is a ukiyoe [1] dating from the early 19th century. It shows a woman enjoying a book as she lies down with her head rested on a Japanese-style headrest.
Although the purpose of this print is not to promote reading among women, but rather to show that it is not desirable for a woman to be too absorbed by books and too intellectual, the point is that it shows that, by this time, reading had become a common popular pastime. The work the lady is reading is the Ehontaikōki, an illustrated fictionalized biography of Toyotomi Hideyoshi which became one of the bestselling books of the time. Hideyoshi himself happens to have had a rather significant, albeit indirect, role in popularizing books.
The key factor in the popularization of books was the introduction, between the late 16th and the early 17th century, of movable type printing, which is known in Japan as “old” movable type printing. It is so called to distinguish it from later wooden movable-type printing, which made a comeback at the end of the 18th century. The name Edo period refers to the years of the Tokugawa regime, which lasted from 1603 to 1867. But political and cultural history do not always coincide, so my brief overview will start from the late 16th century, when movable type printing was introduced and the publishing world first assumed its typical Edo-period structure. Before the introduction of movable type printing, the main printing method was woodblock printing.
Moveable type printing was first adopted in the late 16th century as a result of developments from outside Japan. The first was the encounter with Western printing technology [2]. In 1590, the Gesuit priest Alessandro Valignano brought to Japan the first Western-style printing press and began printing movable type books both in the Roman alphabet and in kana and kanji. More than 100 titles were published in the 20 odd years before the Christian faith was officially outlawed. These are known as Kirishitan-ban, or, Christian editions, and only 30 of them are extant today.
In addition to books on Christianity used for proselytizing, Christian missionaries published books in a wide range of genres including literary works such as the Heike monogatari and the Taiheiki, and dictionaries like the Rakuyōshū. The second important factor was the influx of printing technology from Korea. Between 1592 and 1598, Hideyoshi launched an invasion of Korea as part of a larger plan to conquer Ming China. Known in Japan as the “Bunroku and Keichō era wars”, this military campaign had deep repercussions on the cultures of both countries. Korea at the time possessed a sophisticated printing technology, which was brought to Japan as spoils of war.
The encounter with Western and Korean printing technology represented a major turning point in the history of Japanese books. In 1593, emperor GoYozei ordered the publication of the Xiao Jing, an important text of Confucianism. Only the records of this publication survive, but it is highly likely that it showed the influence of Korean printing techniques. From this point onward, emperors and anybody else with power and means became involved in printing. Not only the printing technology differed from earlier times, the range of books that was printed was larger and printing as a whole now occurred on a much wider scale.
Books in Japanese such as the Genjimonogatari, the Isemonogatari, the Tsurezuregusa and the historical work Nihon Shoki, which previously had been read only within small elite circles, reached wide circulation for the first time. Most books published up to the medieval period were Buddhist and Confucian works originally from China. All were in Chinese or kanbun. A small number of books in Japanese by Japanese authors were printed, but they represent a tiny percentage. In other words, before the introduction of movable type printing, publishing was mainly aimed at circulating what was considered official, authoritative knowledge in Chinese; with the onset of movable type printing, books in hiragana and literary works intended mainly for private consumption were first made available in printed form.
The first movable type books were produced by wealthy patrons, daimyōs, and temples. Elite figures who in medieval times sponsored the making of lavish manuscript books, now devoted their energies to publishing high quality print editions. A good example are the so-called Saga-bon. The Sagabon were born from the partnership between Suminokura Soan, a wealthy merchant and intellectual, and the prominent lacquer, potter, and calligrapher Hon’ami Kōetsu. They take the name from the Saga area of Kyoto where they were published. The most representative of the Saga books is the collection of noh plays entitled Kanzeryūutaibon in 100 volumes. Tamakazura [3] is one volume of the set. Wooden type cut from Kōetsu’s calligraphy was pressed on thick paper decorated using the kirazuri technique.
Of the several editions of the Kanzeryūutaibon that were printed, the one this copy of “Tamakazura” is from is in the tetsuyōsō binding and is particularly lavishly decorated. The level of ornamentation matches and perhaps even surpasses that of Heian and medieval handwritten books, making for a printed book of exceptional beauty. Clearly, the creators aimed to apply to the print medium the techniques traditionally used in handwritten books. The fact that large number of connected letter type were used to simulate the effect of the brush on the page, moreover, while partly simply a reflection of the dominance of the cursive script at the time, also expresses the authors’ desire to replicate in the new medium the appearance of a handwritten book.
Movable type books were produced for a period of about 50 years, from the end of the 16th century through to the first half of the 17th century. Initially, they were printed by temples, daimyō and other wealthy figures, who were later joined by commercial publishers who printed for profit. Trading thrives where there is demand, and printing for profit meant that a much larger range of books than ever before began to be printed. This is a copy of the Aki no yonagamonogatari [4]. It deals with the life of a monk who overcomes his carnal attraction for a young boy to attain salvation and started a fad for tales about young Buddhist acolytes known as chigomono.
The work was written during the Nanbokuchō period and was published between the late 1610s and the early 1620s, almost certainly by a commercial publisher. Between 1614-1615, the Ōsaka monogatari [5], an account of the civil war between the Edo bakufu and Hideyoshi was published in movable type. It was written just a few years after the events it records took place, so it is not inaccurate to describe it as a piece of journalistic writing. Since Keio Library does not own a copy of the first movable-type edition, what we have here is a 1668 woodblock edition published some 50 years after the first edition.
Thus, with the appearance of movable-type printing, Japanese publishing no longer dealt only with the traditional canon, but actively tackled contemporary culture and current events. Next, let us take a look at the actual type used to print movable type editions. This photo shows the type used at the Suruga print, which was set up by Tokugawa Ieyasu when he handed over the role of shōgun to his son Hidetada. This is one of the few specimens of movable type that survive today. No kana letter type survives.



  • 書物の大衆化
  • 日本の古活字版の登場
  • 活字印刷による多様な書物の登場
  • 日本の活字印刷技術の発展
  • 文化に与えた影響


  1. 『教訓親の目鑑 理口者』喜多川歌麿
  2. グーテンベルク42行聖書巻頭
  3. 光悦謡本『玉かつら』(特装本)
  4. 『秋の夜長物かたり』一冊 古活字
  5. 『大坂物語』二冊 1668年刊
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古書から読み解く日本の文化: 和本の世界

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