Printing and Publishing

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An ukiyo-e key block, carved to print just the outlines and other black sections of the design. Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

Japan has, since the 18th century, continually been among the highest-publishing countries in the world. For lengthy periods of time, Japan published annually more individual titles[1] of books, magazines, and other bound materials than any other country on Earth.

Publishing in Japan, largely in woodblock prior to the Meiji period, took off especially in the Edo period. Printing in Japan, however, has a much longer history. The oldest extant printed materials from Japan, and indeed some of the oldest extant printed materials from anywhere in the world, date to 764-770. At that time, upon the orders of Empress Kôken, one million slips of paper were printed with Buddhist charms called dhâranî, using copper-plate printing technology; these slips of paper, along with the tiny wooden pagodas into which they were inserted, are known as the hyakumantô darani.



Pre-Modern Printing

Throughout the pre-modern period, up until the late 16th century, printed materials in Japan were largely Buddhist texts, and were almost exclusively produced or sponsored by Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, court nobles, the Imperial Court, or samurai elites. The vast majority of these, it is believed, were not produced to be read, but rather were produced as religious offerings. The donor or patron gained religious merit through commissioning and funding the production of the work, and from then donating it to a temple; the work, stored away inside a temple's storehouse or otherwise buried or hidden away, would then go unread.[2]

The printing of religious texts in significant volume took off beginning in the 11th century, the one exception being the 8th century production of the Hyakumantô darani.[3]

In the Muromachi period, non-Buddhist texts such as the Confucian classics and books of Chinese poetry began to be printed as well, sponsored chiefly by Zen temples. However, none of these enjoyed widespread circulation, and the vast majority of literary and other non-religious texts continued to circulate, to the small extent that they did, through hand-copied manuscript copies.[4] Buddhist, Confucian, and other Chinese texts continued to be published in great numbers in the Tokugawa period, strongly demanded and consumed by certain sectors of society; however, as the publication of other materials increased, these came to represent a smaller and smaller proportion of publication activities. By the 1750s or 1770s, Buddhist texts represented about 15% of all works then actively in print, down from 40% in the 1660s, and presumably much higher before that.[5]

Tokugawa Period

Moveable-type printing technology was introduced to Japan first by the Jesuits, who brought a Portuguese printing press to Nagasaki in 1590, but then also via Korea later that same decade, essentially stolen along with many other technologies, and artisans, by forces participating in Hideyoshi's invasions of Korea. The Jesuit press was used to print copies of European texts both secular and religious, as well as European descriptions of Japanese culture; while these works are quite valuable and significant as historical sources today, the Jesuit technology never spread beyond Nagasaki, and was thus not influential in affecting domestic Japanese publishing techniques.[6]

The Korean presses meanwhile used metal type as well, but the Japanese quickly moved to carving type blocks out of wood. Roughly 300 titles were produced in the 1590s-1630s using moveable type,[7] including the Saga-bon associated with Hon'ami Kôetsu, made using wooden type blocks, but afterwards, for a variety of reasons, moveable type was all but abandoned in Japan in favor of woodblock printing, which made use of single pieces of wood for a full page, or two pages[8].

Scholars cite a number of potential reasons for the dominance of woodblocks over moveable type in early modern Japan. Japanese calligraphic script, and the way it was integrated into the composition of a page alongside images, was more well-suited to woodblocks, as moveable type would have demanded a shift from long strings of connected (running script) calligraphy to separated, distinct characters which could be printed each from a separate type block. Woodblock printing also allowed for the inclusion, for example, of glosses such as what is today called furigana - small syllabic kana characters placed next to the logographic kanji to identify the reading. This provided not only the pronunciation in the strictest sense of the word - meaning, the sound, and thus the ability to read the word out loud - but also served, often, as an important indication of the identity or meaning of a phrase, since one generally knows one's mother tongue more natively or fluently by sound rather than by visuals. While moveable type works best with strict grids of characters, the inclusion of such glosses, at a smaller size, and nestled up next to the "main" columns of text, called for either a much more complex system of moveable type, or for woodblocks carved for a whole page - text, glosses, images, and all.

Woodblocks were also better suited to the production of multiple editions, as a publisher could simply hold onto the blocks for a given book and reprint new copies later, never having to take apart the stereotype (the formatted, laid-out type blocks for a given page) and reassemble it for each page, or each work, as one would have to with moveable type. Finally, a third reason given for the popularity of woodblocks, and for the explosion of publishing in early modern Japan using woodblocks, was the relatively inexpensive entry cost for starting a publishing business. Rather than investing in a press (or multiple presses) and a collection of thousands of type blocks for individual characters, an entrepreneur could simply deal with one set of blocks at a time, hiring professional artisans (e.g. block-carvers and printers), or doing the work himself. The Japanese process of woodblock printing, furthermore, did not require any heavy, expensive, or technologically complex printing press, but rather was done largely by hand, using a tool called a baren, made from lacquered disks covered in a thin sheet of bamboo,[9] to rub a piece of paper on top of an inked block.

A recreation of an Edo period storefront selling ukiyo-e prints and books, at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

The earliest publishing houses emerged in Kyoto around 1600; simply called hon'ya (bookstores) they engaged in both printing/publishing and retail,[10] and numbered over a hundred by the 1630s. By around 1626, commercial publishing was more fully underway, woodblock printing had become definitively the predominant form, and use of moveable type had fallen away.[3][4] By the 1660s, publishing was well-established in Kyoto, and had begun to emerge in Osaka. The number of publishers nearly doubled between 1670 and 1692, and commercial publishing really began to take off. Whereas the printing of Buddhist materials, Confucian texts, and other moral & educational materials were the dominant forms earlier in the 17th century, by the end of the century popular publishing had taken off. Moral, educational, and religious texts, including Confucian and other Chinese classics for samurai moral education and for the niche intellectual market continued to be published throughout the period, and into the modern era. However, books written largely in kana (with few kanji, and thus more accessible to the lower classes) experienced a considerable surge, rising by some 25-33% in the last decades of the 17th century. The rise of travel, trade networks across the realm, and of commercial & urban culture otherwise, brought increased interest and demand for guidebooks of various sorts, and so travel guides, guides to the city, and so forth emerged as a new and extremely popular & successful genre. Kashihonya (book lenders) emerged, as did a variety of very inexpensive formats, such as sharebon, Hachimonji-ya-bon, and ukiyo-zôshi, and before long popular literature - and not religious or classical texts - dominated the markets.

The publishing industry in Kyoto-Osaka (combined) remained dominant as late as the 1760s, but publishing in Edo grew over the course of the century, overtaking Kyoto-Osaka in the 1770s or so.[11] By 1800, Edo was definitively the dominant center of publishing in the archipelago. Publishing in all three major cities continued to flourish well into the 19th century, however, as did commercial publishing operations in a number of provincial centers.[3] Over the course of the entire Edo period, an estimated 3,757 publishing/bookstore operations were established in Japan, 1,530 of which went out of business before the end of the period.[12] The three major cities combined accounted for roughly 89% of publishing production; among the secondary or provincial centers of production, Nagoya was the most active, with roughly 104 independent publishers operating at one point or another (not simultaneously) in the Edo period. Other major publishing centers included Nagasaki, Wakayama, Ise, Hiroshima, Sendai, and Kanazawa.[13]

The earliest trade catalog, wakan shoseki mokuroku ("Catalog of Chinese and Japanese Books in Print"), published in 1666, listed nearly 2,600 titles; this number leapt to over 3,800 only four years later, to nearly 6,000 in 1685, and to over 7,000 in 1692.[10] Over the course of the entire period, according to one scholar, roughly 100,000 titles were published - 195,000 if we include renamed later editions of older titles; the same source estimates that roughly 236 new titles were published each year, on average, between 1600 and 1730, and approximately 510 new titles each year, on average, between 1730 and 1868.[14] Determining the average or typical print run is difficult, but some scholars estimate that it was not uncommon for books to be produced in first edition print runs of 1000-2000 copies.[15] Books were sold at retail storefronts (hon'ya), but also by kashihonya, traveling booklenders who journeyed into the countryside, and to most of the provinces, making books available far outside of just the cities; furthermore, samurai on sankin kôtai journeys to and from Edo also carried books to their home provinces. This circulation or distribution of published materials throughout the realm was a crucial element in the creation of an archipelago-wide popular discourse, popular culture, and proto-national conception of "Japan" and of "Japanese" identity.

All three of the major cities published the full range of types or themes of publications, but each also came to be known especially, or more strongly, for certain types of works. Kyoto remained the center of production of Buddhist and Confucian texts, as it had more or less always been, while Osaka publishers produced a great many more practical works, such as encyclopedias; popular literature, meanwhile, took off especially powerfully in Edo. Publishing in Kyoto and Osaka also tended to be more heavily directed towards smaller print runs of more expensive, high quality printed works commissioned by poetry circles or other relatively exclusive groups, while Edo publishing was more heavily directed towards high-volume production of less expensive, less high-quality popular materials.

The works of Genroku period novelist Ihara Saikaku are considered to have been of particular significance in stimulating the first bridging of the Kamigata-Edo divide in publishing, and the formation of a three-city (santo) or nationwide book circulation. His works, Kôshoku ichidai otoko ("The Life of an Amorous Man," 1682) in particular, were so popular that they were pirated by Edo-based publishers within a year of their initial publication in Kamigata. Indeed, many of the earliest Edo publications were copies of Kamigata publications, with new titles, different illustrated inserts (sashi-e), and/or other internal changes to the content or organization of the book. Before long, publishers in Kamigata and Edo began to form agreements, arranging permissions to produce or distribute one another's works, and to share the profits. Many Kamigata publishers also opened branches in Edo, or arranged to have Edo-based merchants act as their proxies; many did not have their books published in Edo, but merely printed copies in Kamigata and shipped them to Edo for sale.

The shogunate officially banned piracy of published materials in 1698, and required all publishers to join officially-recognized publishing guilds, called shorin nakama, beginning in 1722. Anyone outside of the guilds was banned from legally operating as publishers, and enforcement was handled primarily by the guilds, not by the samurai authorities.

Publishing in Japan was dominated chiefly by the chônin commoner class, and by commercial interests. This was in stark contrast to the situation in certain places elsewhere in the world, such as in Joseon Dynasty Korea, where the court maintained control over nearly all publishing. In Japan, certain publishers enjoyed exclusive rights granted them by the shogunate to publish daimyô directories called bukan, calendars (the publishing of which was restricted otherwise), and city maps, but outside of this, and the occasional commissions from the shogunate for the production of given publications, for the most part the Tokugawa shogunate was relatively uninvolved in publishing. Censorship activities were delegated to the publishers' guilds, and were not performed by shogunate officials.[16] Formal edicts continued to be issued in manuscript form.[17]

The publishing guild's coordinators of censorship and licensing were known as gyôji. Following the issuance of a series of publishing regulations by the shogunate in 1722, publishers had to submit an application to the gyôji to carve new woodblocks for either new books, or even for reprints of old books. The gyôji could approve or reject the project, based on shogunate censorship guidelines, or could forward the application to shogunal magistrates for further consideration. Whether a project too closely resembled a book already being published by a competitor was also a consideration which the guild's censors took into account. If approved, the publisher finally had to submit the application (kaihan negai) again, along with the manuscript, this time to shogunal officials. Finally, if approved by the shogunate, the guild could register the copyright for that publication. While owning the actual physical woodblocks was the most standard form of copyright (literally, right to copy, right to print, that work), the guild's registration list also protected those who lost the physical blocks, for example, in a fire.[18]

Censorship was typically very loosely enforced. Despite repeated issuing of bans and restrictions on the publication of certain types of materials, for most of the Edo period, very few artists or publishers were ever punished. The brief regime of Matsudaira Sadanobu (1787-1793) marked the beginning of a brief period of severe strengthening of enforcement, however. During this period, it became far more difficult to get anything past the government censors which even discussed, let alone criticized, the shogunate's policies, and authors became potentially subject to rather serious punishments. As a result, much intellectual production came to be circulated in manuscript form. Utamaro was among the most prominent ukiyo-e artists to fall victim to the censors at that time. Placed under house arrest in 1804 and manacled, he never recovered, producing very little work afterwards, and dying just two years later. Fearful of the censors, many writers of political treatises and the like, instead of submitting works for publication, submit them directly to prominent or well-connected samurai officials, in the hopes of influencing policy in that manner.[19]

Literacy among urban dwellers in the Edo period has been estimated by some scholars at 80% for men, and 50% for women;[20] including both urban and rural populations across the entire archipelago, the male literacy figures may have been closer to 40-50%.[21]

Modern Period

In the 20th century, two new prints movements emerged.

Shin hanga (lit. "new prints") were a continuation of the commercial ukiyo-e phenomenon. Seeing its peak in the 1920s, and promoted chiefly by publisher Watanabe Shôzaburô and featuring artists such as Kawase Hasui and Yoshida Hiroshi, the movement used the same techniques and processes as ukiyo-e, with separate artists, carvers, and publishers, albeit expanding the number of color blocks, and incorporating brighter modern pigments, and modern design elements such as light & shadow, and point perspective. Shin hanga prints most often depicted romantic scenes of traditional Japan (albeit often with modern elements), including picturesque scenes of natural landscapes or traditional architecture, and aimed to create images that would sell well, especially to foreign buyers.

Sôsaku hanga, or "creative prints," meanwhile, were prints designed, carved, and printed by a single artist himself, without professional block-carvers, printers, or publishers. Related to the mingei (folk craft) and other Modern Art movements, sôsaku hanga focused on the artist's individual personal expression, and stylistic experimentation. Yamamoto Kanae was one of the pioneers of the movement, beginning in the 1880s; sôsaku hanga continued to develop over the course of the 20th century, with many prominent artists in both the prewar and postwar periods.


Woodblock carving tools, and baren (used for rubbing the image onto the paper). Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

Publishers would often initiate projects, deciding on themes and hiring illustrators or print designers. The illustrators would then submit their designs to the publisher, who would then take over much of the remainder of the process. A highly skilled professional hangiya (板木屋, block-carver) would lay the design over the block - sometimes using a reproduction of the design created for this purpose by a copyist or hanshitagaki (版下書) - and use that shita-e (下絵, "under-drawing") as a guideline for carving out key blocks, showing just the monochrome outlines. Hangiya were professional artisans, and highly organized as such in craft guilds, working most often with publishers in a manner akin to independent contractors; some of the largest publishing houses had their own in-house blockcarvers, however. Once these initial blocks were cut, a printer (also a professional skilled artisan) would produce a number of impressions from the key block, and send them to the illustrator, or the publisher, who then indicated which colors should be applied and where. These drafts were sent to the blockcarver once more, who now carved separate blocks for each color, sending those to the printer, to produce the actual final commercial copies to be sold.[22] Kento, or registration marks, were a very simple but key innovation allowing for more successful multi-color printing; a small L-shaped mark was carved into the blocks, allowing the paper to be properly lined up on the blocks, even as a single printed sheet of paper was moved between many different blocks, as different colors (different layers) were added.

Originally, cheaper and softer woods were used, and designs were cut more deeply, but the use of more expensive woods such as cherry, carved more shallowly into much thinner woodblocks was spurred by the popularity of prints by Suzuki Harunobu in the late 1760s in the new multicolor nishiki-e mode that he pioneered; by 1800 or so, materials and techniques previously used only for surimono and other much more expensive and exclusive publications came to be used more widely, and the costs of producing and buying works produced in this manner dropped dramatically. Cedar (sugi) continued to be used at times, but this was more expensive and more difficult to carve. The catalpa wood (梓, J: azusa, C: ) typically used in China was never commonly used in Japan, but the character continued to be used to refer to the process of printing or publishing. For example, while most books used the character 版 ("printing") in the colophon to indicate the date, place, and/or publisher, many used the verb 上梓 (jôshi), meaning "to print" or "to publish."

Publishers owned the rights to reproduce works for which they owned the woodblocks. It was this possession of the woodblocks, known as zôhan (蔵版), whether physically or simply in name, by contract, that served as the rough equivalent to modern concepts of copyright, which were not introduced until the Meiji period. The idea of "intellectual property" as enforced today was not legally protected in any way at that time, and "artists," or, rather, illustrators hired by or otherwise working with publishers, had very little rights over reproduction of their works. In fact, publishers frequently repackaged illustrators' works, republishing them under new titles, sometimes mixed with illustrations from other publications, and sometimes cropped or otherwise altered; publishers also frequently sold woodblocks (or the zôhan rights to them) to other publishers, who might then reissue new editions.

Blocks were often lost in fires, but could be remade using a technique called kabusebori (被せ彫り), so long as copies of the book were extant. The book would be disassembled, and each leaf would be traced or cut through to produce a new block. This technique was also widely used to make illegal "pirated" copies of books, which one could then sell as one's own.


The earliest printed works, such as the hyakumantô darani, were printed on a paper made from hemp (mashi 麻紙); however, in the Tokugawa period, paper made from kôzo (楮), that is, fibers from a plant called the "paper mulberry," became the most commonly used, along with paper made from similar plants known as mitsumata and gampi. Each of these differ somewhat in their qualities, with gampi paper being a little darker, browner, in color, as well as thinner, smoother, and shinier.

Sometimes paper was recycled, with the ink residue from its previous usage turning the paper grey. Bamboo paper (tôshi 唐紙 or gasenshi 画箋紙) was also sometimes used.[23] Kôzo, however, overall, tends to be quite resilient, and soft and flexible, bending rather than creasing or breaking, and yellowing & growing brittle to a far lesser extent than modern/Western forms of wood pulp paper.


For the most part, illustrators, printers, and publishers chose colors which would seep into the paper and become fixed, rather than sitting atop the surface of the paper, where they might easily flake off. That said, in more expensive, higher-quality, books, certain materials such as gold, silver, and mica, along with thicker pigments which did sit atop the surface were used, and affixed using a hide-glue called nikawa (the same material used to suspend and affix the mineral pigments in traditional painting). Other ornamental printing techniques included karazuri (lit. "empty printing"), in which patterns were embossed into the paper without any ink or color.

Some of the most common pigments used in Tokugawa period printed materials include:

  • Sumi - the same black ink used for painting and calligraphy was used for printing blacks and greys.
  • White pigments made from seashell (gofun) or lead oxide (enpaku)
  • Dayflower blue (tsuyukusa) - a light blue hue which reacts easily to moisture, turning yellow.
  • Prussian blue - the first chemical/artificial pigment developed in the world (i.e. deriving directly from neither vegetable or mineral sources); first used in Japan in 1829; a deep, rich blue that does not fade or discolor.
  • Beni (safflower red), used to produce various shades of red, pink, orange, and yellow.
  • Purples obtained by mixing dayflower blue with safflower red, or by other means.[24]


  • Keyes, Roger. Ehon: The Artist and the Book in Japan. New York Public Library, 2006.
  • Nakashima Takashi, Ogawa Yasuhiko, Unno Keisuke, lectures, Wahon Literacies symposium/workshop, UCLA & UC Santa Barbara, 31 Aug to 4 Sept, 2015.[1]
  • Smith, Henry. "The History of the Book in Edo and Paris." in James McClain, et al (eds.) Edo & Paris: Urban Life and the State in the Early Modern Era. Cornell University Press, 1994. pp332-352.
  1. That is, counting the number of different publications produced; the total number of physical copies printed and distributed is another matter, given that other countries, and other languages, have far more readers than Japan(ese).
  2. Keyes, 11.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Smith. p334.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Eiko Ikegami, Bonds of Civility, Cambridge University Press (2005), 291-292.
  5. Ikegami, 299.
  6. William Theodore de Bary, Carol Gluck, and Arthur Tiedemann (eds.), Sources of Japanese Tradition, Second Edition, vol 2, Columbia University Press (2005), 144.
  7. Smith. pp333-334.
  8. In the most common Japanese book format, pages were printed recto and verso, meaning that a single block was not used to print facing pages visible in a given opening of the book, but rather, that a given 'left page' would be printed along with the following page, i.e. the 'right page' of the next opening, with the folded edge of the page, known as hashira in Japanese, being the center of the (pre-folding/pre-binding) printed sheet.
  9. "Carving tools and baren for printing," Gallery labels at Santa Barbara Museum of Art, September 2012.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Ikegami, 286.
  11. Yokoyama Manabu 横山学, Ryûkyû koku shisetsu torai no kenkyû 琉球国使節渡来の研究, Tokyo: Yoshikawa kôbunkan (1987), 197.
  12. Ikegami, 295.
  13. Over the course of the entire Edo period, it has been estimated there were 1,733 publishing firms in Kyoto, 1,652 in Edo, 1,253 in Osaka, 104 in Nagoya, 49 in Ise, 24 in Wakayama, 27 in Sendai, 24 in Kanazawa, 21 in Nagasaki, and 312 elsewhere. Smith. p342, citing Inoue Takaaki. Kinsei shorin hanmoto sôran 近世書林版元総覧. Nihon shoshigaku taikei 14 日本書誌学体系14. Seishôdô Shoten, 1981. p6.
  14. Smith. p335.
  15. Smith. p343.
  16. Ikegami, 308.
  17. Smith. p342.
  18. Ikegami, 309.
  19. Ikegami, 310.
  20. Passin, Herbert. Society and Education in Japan. New York: Teachers College Press, 1965. p57.
  21. Schirokauer, et al. A Brief History of Japanese Civilization, Wadsworth Cengage (2013), 137.
  22. Gallery labels, "Making Woodblock Prints," Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, December 2012.
  23. Keyes, 23.
  24. Keyes, 24.

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