Skip main navigation

£199.99 £139.99 for one year of Unlimited learning. Offer ends on 28 February 2023 at 23:59 (UTC). T&Cs apply

Find out more

Movable type printing

Movable type printing
The movable type printing newly-introduced from Korea quickly spread from Kyoto to other parts of Japan. A key role in this process was played by Tokugawa Ieyasu() who resided in the Fushimi area of Kyoto as Head of the Council of The Five Elders. In the years immediately before and after the decisive battle of Sekigahara (1600), Ieyasu ordered San’yō () of the Enkōji temple in Fushimi to print various important works of political thought and military strategy such as the 3rd century Kongzi Jiayu (1), the Tang-period Zhenguan zhengyao (2), and the San Lue (3). These works are known today as “Fushimi-ban” (Fushimi editions).
Movable type books printed by the court and by the military presses during the Bunroku() and Keichō() eras are known as kokatsujiban () to distinguish them from modern movable type editions. The main advantage of movable type printing over woodblock printing is that once the type is created it can be reused indefinitely to print different texts. Taking up where publishing and scholarship had left off in earlier centuries, movable type printing attracted whole new groups of publishers and readers. Among the temple presses, movable type was embraced by the Nichiren sect() which established a strong presence in Kyoto during the Muromachi period(*), and which made its debut in the book printing world with movable type.
The Tendai sect also experimented with it, with the monk Shūzon of the Kitano Kyōō-dō Hall embarking on a complete edition of the Buddhist canon the production of which continued into the Kan’ei era () Also noteworthy are the so-called “Saga-bon” (Saga books). Published by Yoshida (Suminokura) Soan() in the Saga area of Kyoto, they are a luxurious series of Japanese-language classics such as the Tales of Ise (4) the Tsurezuregusa (5) and theater plays. They were printed on beautifully decorated color paper using a flowing interconnected type meant to replicate the graceful cursive of manuscripts. By combining the latest technology from the continent with the skill and craftsmanship of the traditional arts, the makers blurred the boundaries between bookmaking and art.
Another significant development was the emergence of the professional printer-bookseller. For example, in Keichō 13 (1607) someone giving themselves the mercantile-sounding name of Nakamura no Chōbei no jō() published a Zen-related book from a location on “Tomi no kōji Street, Sanshū Teramachi” (Kyoto). The following year, in 1608, a “Hon’ya Shinshichi” () operating from “Konoe-machi, Muromachi Avenue” published the anthology Guwen zhenbao (6) Here we have a movable type edition of the Honchō monzui(7), an 11th century anthology of writing in Chinese by Heian aristocrats. Long before it was printed, it circulated for centuries in manuscript form. What is interesting in this book is that the type is virtually identical to that used in printed books published by the Korean court.
The specific type used here is the so-called Gapinja (), whereas here it is the Eulhaeja (), but they are both very similar to Korean editions. The book bears a colophon that states that it was published in the 6th year of Kan’ei (1629) by Tanaka Chōzaemon of Tamayamachi, Kyoto. This Tanaka Chōzaemon also published other movable type books and was clearly a professional printer-bookseller. One of the books published by Tanaka is the dictionary Zōzoku kaitsū inpu gungyoku (8), which was based on a pre-existing, Eulhaeja-type Korean edition. In order to reprint the book in Japan, the type was imported from Korea. Later, Tanaka also used the same type to print other works, both Chinese and Japanese.
In other words it is fair to say that commercial publishing really came into its own with the introduction of movable type. The age of movable type printing lasted only 50 years, roughly until the end of the Kan’ei era(*). Many explanations have been proposed for its early demise, one of which is that, somewhat paradoxically, the rise of commercial publishing brought a new appreciation of the versatility and ease of production of woodblock printing. Despite its short life, however, movable type printing played an important role in both the rise of commercial publishing and the creation of a mass reading public. The road to the boom of book publishing in the Edo period was now open.
Going back to Ieyasu, even after he gave up the position of shogun and retired to Sunpu Castle in Suruga province (present-day Shizuoka), he continued to be involved in movable type printing. He ordered his close associates Hayashi Razan () and Ishin Sūden () to oversee the publication of a metal-type edition of the Tang-dynasty() Qunshu zhiyao (9) The type used in these books, which are known collectively as “Suruga-ban” (Suruga editions) survives; according to contemporary records, a foreign artisan by the name of Rin Gokan () was involved in its making. Although Rin’s exact nationality is not known, he seems to have been involved in Ieyasu’s printing activities since his Fushimi days.
This is but another example of the vital role that foreign-born artisans played in the development of Japanese bookmaking and culture as a whole. Their contribution to the formation of Japanese culture is something that we, living in Japan today, may want to keep in mind.

First introduced from Korea, movable type printing spread from Kyoto to other parts of Japan.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun in the Edo period, played a major role in the history of printing and publishing. Watch Prof. Sumiyoshi overview the development of movable type printing.

Periods named in the video

Historical figures in the video

Keywords introduced in the video

Books introduced in the video

  1. Kongzi Jiayu (J. Kōshi kego, The School Sayings of Confucius), 3rd century
  2. Zhenguan zhengyao (J. Jōgan seiyō, Essentials of Politics from the Zhenguan era), the Tang-period
  3. The San Lue (J. Sanryaku, Three Strategies [full title: Three Strategies of Huang Shigong], Han dynasty).
  4. The Tales of Ise (J. Ise monogatari, 10th c.)
  5. Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness, 1332)
  6. Guwen zhenbao (J. Kobun shinpō, True Treasures of Old Literature).
  7. Honchō monzui, The Literary Essence of Our Country, 1629
    Click to see the image and information
  8. Zōzoku kaitsū inpu gungyoku
  9. Qunshu zhiyao (J. Gunsho chiyō, Collected Writings on Important Matters of Government), 1616
    Click to see the image and information
This article is from the free online

Sino-Japanese Interactions Through Rare Books

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education