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Books in the Edo period

Ukiyoe print tells you more than the picture itself. Prof. Sasaki and Prof. Ichinohe will introduce you what you can learn from this print.
Sasaki: Our theme in Week 3 is “Book Publishing and Scholarship in Early-modern Japan.” by Professor Ichinohe Wataru, a specialist of Edo-period publishing and literary culture.
S: So where can we position the early-modern period in the history of Japanese bookmaking?
Ichinohe: First of all, please look at this ukiyoe print. It is called “Rikōmono” (The Clever One) and it is part of a series entitled “Kyokun oya no megane” (A Parent’s Edifying Spectacles) by Kitagawa Utamaro. It shows a woman enjoying a book as she lies down with her head rested on a Japanese-style headrest.
S: The book she is reading is bound in the fukurotoji (bound-pocket) style, isn’t it?
I: Yes, the fukurotoji was the most common binding method during the Edo period.
S: When was the print made?
I: It dates from the beginning of the 19th century. Ukiyoe prints usually depict the life of the common folk, and this one, too, is not a woman of the aristocracy but an ordinary lady.
S: So we can say the image shows the reading habits of the commoners.
I: Yes, ukiyoe prints typically feature beautiful women, but a woman reading as she is must not have been an unusual sight at this time. However, this print is not promoting reading for women; rather, the message is that it is not desirable for women to be too absorbed by books and be too intellectual.
S: So while it depicts an attractive woman, it has a didactic message.
I: Ukiyoe were under strict governmental control because they were thought to corrupt morals, so by adding a didactic message to the portrait of a beautiful woman,
the author is reacting to such control by saying: “Look, this is not inappropriate content, it is didactic material.” It is a bold move by Utamaro and the publisher of the series. But the important point is that before the Edo period, you would not have seen a woman of commoner stock relaxing and enjoying a book.
S: That is a major difference with society up to medieval times.
I: Yes, in the Edo period books became a mass phenomenon. Even people from classes who previously had few chances to come into contact with books started to use them in significant amounts. During the Edo period, a regulatory system based on written information, which included books and written materials of all kinds, truly reached every corner of Japan, and both the demand for books and their status grew accordingly.
S: And when demand increases, quantities also increase.
I: Precisely. . It may be obvious but when it comes to books, technology is the key. Printing existed in Japan at least as far back as the 8th century, but in the Edo period the scale of printing grew exponentially. This week, we will provide a short summary of the history of publishing before the Edo period, then explain how things changed during the Edo period, and finally discuss the impact of these changes on the literature and scholarly output of the period.
S: Thank you. So the Edo period seems to have been a time of great changes in the history of books. Please join us to find out more about these changes and how they came about.

The theme in Week 3 is “Book Publishing and Scholarship in Early-modern Japan”. Our educator will be Professor Wataru Ichinohe, a specialist of Edo-period publishing and literary culture.

In this video, you will learn some interesting things about the cultural background of the Edo period, from looking at this Ukiyoe print.

Please take a look at this Ukiyoe (Fig. 1) and think about what it shows before looking at the video to find out more.

Ukiyoe by Kitagawa Utamaro Fig 1. Rikōmono (The Clever One) Kyōkun oya no megane (A Parent’s Edifying Spectacles) by Kitagawa Utamaro Click to take a closer look

Era names (Nengō) in Edo Period

There were several era names (nengo, or gengo) in Edo period (1603 ~ 1867) and they are sometimes used in the description of the old books and materials. Here is the list of the era names in Edo period for your convenience;

Start Era name English   Start Era name English
1596 慶長 Keichō   1744 延享 Enkyō
1615 元和 Genna   1748 寛延 Kan’en
1624 寛永 Kan’ei   1751 宝暦 Hōreki
1644 正保 Shōhō   1764 明和 Meiwa
1648 慶安 Keian   1772 安永 An’ei
1652 承応 Jōō   1781 天明 Tenmei
1655 明暦 Meireki   1789 寛政 Kansei
1658 万治 Manji   1801 享和 Kyōwa
1661 寛文 Kanbun   1804 文化 Bunka
1673 延宝 Enpō   1818 文政 Bunsei
1681 天和 Tenna   1830 天保 Tenpō
1684 貞享 Jōkyō   1844 弘化 Kōka
1688 元禄 Genroku   1848 嘉永 Kaei
1704 宝永 Hōei   1854 安政 Ansei
1711 正徳 Shōtoku   1860 万延 Man’en
1716 享保 Kyōhō   1861 文久 Bunkyū
1736 元文 Genbun   1864 元治 Genji
1741 寛保 Kanpō   1865 慶応 Keiō

Week 3 materials

You can download PDF version of the text and transcript of Week 3, in English and Japanese at the DOWNLOADS section below.

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Japanese Culture Through Rare Books

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