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History of Japanese printing and publishing in the Kamakura and Muromachi periods

In this section we will look at the history of printing and bookmaking in the medieval period (late 12th to late 16th c.)
Having moved its first steps in the late Heian period, the printing of sutras and sutra commentaries grew in scale during the Kamakura period. The major printing centers were the major temple complexes of the time. In Nara, the main center was the Kōfukuji. Works published at the Kōfukuji are known as “Kasuga-ban” . The copy of the Lotus Sutra shown here is a 13th century Kasuga-ban. It is sumptuously decorated, as befits a sacred text, and bears reading and chanting marks known as okototen and shōten , in red ink. These marks were added to facilitate the reading and recitation of the text, so it is reasonable to assume that the book was intended for regular use, and not simply as a decorative object.
Other prominent printing centers in the Nara area were the Saidaiji, the Tōshōdaiji, the Tōdaiji, and the Hōryūji. The monasteries on Mount Kōya specialized in printing Shingon esoteric texts and the works of Kūkai, the sect’s founder. The books published on Mt. Kōya are known as Kōya-ban. Here we have an example of Kōya-ban published in 1291. It is a commentary to the Kongōchōkyō, an important Shingon text. Many Kōya-ban books were bound using the detchōsō bookbinding method, an ancient method in which several sheets of paper folded in half are placed on top of one another and glued together.
Kyoto establishments like the Sennyūji and the Daigoji were also active as printing centers, but the most important in terms of both quality and quantity, because of the popularity of Pure Land Buddhism at the time, was the Chion’in temple, which published Pure Land-related texts known collectively as ‘Jōdōkyō-ban’. This copy of the ōjōjūin is one of the Jōdōkyō-ban in the holdings of Keio Library. The author was the Japanese monk Eikan. Together with Genshin’s popular ōjōyōshū , which is known to have been published before 1210, the ōjōjūin is the first work by a Japanese author to be printed. Another noteworthy Jōdōkyō-ban is the Kurodani shōnin gotōroku, published in 1321, which is the first book in Japanese to be printed.
It is likely because of the populist nature of Pure Land Buddhism and its wide following among the commoners that the earliest books in Japanese were printed under the aegis of the Pure Land sect, as Jōdōkyō-ban. The most significant publications during the Nambokuchō period and Muromachi periods were the so-called Gozan-ban books. The “Five Mountains” were the Zen monasteries officially recognized by both the military government and by the court and the term Gozan-ban refers to works printed at these institutions. The most significant thing about Gozan books is the range of works that was printed. While still centering at temples, publications now covered a wider range of books than before.
Shown here is the Rekidaiteiōhennen goken no zu, one of the Gozan-ban books in the Keio Library collection. It was published in 1376 at the Taiyōan, a building of the Daitokuji temple. It is a chronological compendium of Chinese history noting the years of reign, era names, and the main events for the reign of each ruler. It was first published in China during the Song and reprinted in Japan, and it is significant because it shows that temples now also printed books not directly related to Buddhism. Gozan-ban books also include poetry collections, dictionaries, and Japanese reprints of works originally published in China.
Here lies the other characteristic of Five Mountains books: they include the first books in the history of Japanese publishing that do not focus on Buddhism. The Zen monks of the Five Mountains were a highly-cultivated elite. Composing Buddhist verse in Chinese was a daily activity at Zen temple complexes, and knowledge of literary Chinese was also required to interact with intellectuals on the continent. The publication of literary works at temples catered to this need. In the late Namboku period, provincial warlords began to get involved in printing. Paralleling the decline of Kyoto that followed the ōnin war , there was an increase of printing activity by local daimyō.
Most of the works printed by these provincial presses were Confucian and Buddhist works, but a small percentage of works by Japanese authors was also printed, among them the Setsuyōshū, a Japanese dictionary, and the compendium of military laws, Goseibai shikimoku. This is a copy of the Goseibai shikimoku printed in 1529 and now in the Keio Library collection. Here we conclude our short survey of the history of printing and publishing between the 8th and 16th centuries. Printing and publishing during this long period of time served mainly as a vehicle to spread ideas and knowledge from the Asian mainland.
In the early phase, printing focused on Buddhist works, but from the medieval period onwards, with the appearance of Five Mountains books, it grew to include secular works, although it continued to focus primarily on works in Chinese and very few works by Japanese authors were published. Works in Japanese genres such as waka and monogatari were never published during this 800 years period. Written mostly in hiragana, these works were appreciated by small elite circles with the means to produce luxurious handwritten copies, and so probably the need to print such works never arose. All this was to change in the Edo period.

In this video, we will look at the history of printing and bookmaking in the medieval period (late 12th to late 16th c.).

Printing and publishing between the eighth and 16th centuries served mainly as a vehicle to spread ideas and knowledge from the Asian mainland. Works in Japanese genres such as waka and monogatari were never published during this 800 year period. All this was to change in the Edo period.

Watch the video to learn more about these developments. Topics covered include:

Kamakura period (1185-1333)

  • Kasuga-ban (Kasuga editions)
  • Okototen (reading marks)
  • Kōya-ban (Kōya editions)
  • Jōdokyō-ban (Pure Land editions)

Nambokuchō (1333 – 1392) and Muromachi periods (1392 – 1573)

  • Gozan-ban (“Five Mountains”) books

Late-Namboku period and after (~ 1603)

  • Printing activity by local daimyō

Keio’s books introduced in the video

  1. Myōhō rengekyō (Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law)
    Click to see the image and information
  2. Kongōchōkyō daiyuga himitsu shinji hōmon giketsu (Instructions on the Gate of Teaching about the Secret State of Mind of the Great Yoga, the Vajra Pinnacle Scripture)
    Click to see the image and information
  3. Ōjōjūin (The Ten Conditions for Rebirth in the Pure Land)
    Click to see the image and information
  4. Rekidai teiō hennen goken no zu (Illustrated Genealogies of Emperors and Kings)
    Click to see the image and information
  5. Goseibai shikimoku (Formulary of Adjudications)
    Click to see the image and information

If you’re interested in this step

You may be interested to know that we also offer a course on Sino-Japanese Interactions through Rare Books . This course introduces another history of Japanese books, specifically focusing on how China and its culture influenced Japanese books and scholarships.

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Japanese Culture Through Rare Books

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