Japanese books

19th century books of Japan

Books in Japan (和本, wahon or 和装本, wasouhon) have a long history, which begins in the late 8th century AD. The majority of books were hand-copied until the Edo period (1603–1867), when woodblock printing became comparatively affordable and widespread. Movable-type printing had been used from the late 16th century, but for various aesthetic and practical reasons woodblock printing and hand-copied remained dominant until much later. Japanese equivalents for "book" include (hon) and 書籍 (shoseki). The former term indicates only bound books, and does not include scrolls. The latter is used for printed matter only. The most general term is 書物 (shomotsu), which means all written or printed matter that has been collected into a single unit, regardless of construction.

Book composition

Japanese books were traditionally made of washi, or Japanese paper. This durable, fibrous paper does not easily yellow or become brittle with age, which has contributed to the remarkable preservation of early books. Western-style wood-pulp paper became dominant beginning in the Meiji period (1868–1912), and washi is very rarely used for printing in Japan today.

Binding methods

Japanese book binding
Fukuro toji binding

Japanese bookmakers used a great variety of different methods for constructing books, depending on time period and whether the book was hand-copied or printed.

Pre-binding books

Bound books

Book Sizes

Edo period paper came in several standard sizes; the size of books was, accordingly, standard. Though there are surely exceptions, larger books generally contained more formal, serious, material, while smaller books were less formal and less serious. For example, many manuscript copies of scholarly texts are found in the Ôbon size, while satirical novels were often produced in smaller sizes.

Printing history

Japan has had a long history of printing that has included a variety of different methods and technologies, but until the Edo period most books were still copied by hand. There were many types of printings: woodblock printing was the most popular publishing style, hand-copied printing were less popular and recognized as private publishing together movable-type printing. The latter were used to print academic and Buddhism printing and one which was banned in woodblock printing. In the printing which used the kana syllabary before the Meiji period, the letters aimed to mimic the hand-written calligraphic style and often resulted in near-perfect imitations that are difficult to distinguish from actual hand-copied works.

Nara Period

Printing began in Japan in the Nara period with the creation of a remarkable piece of Buddhist material called the hyakumanto darani (百万塔陀羅尼), or the Million Dharani Towers. Emperor Kōken reputedly printed one million copies of a specific dharani, or Buddhist chant, from 764 to 770 AD. and placed each individual copy inside a foot-tall three-level wooden pagoda. She then dispersed these pagodas to temples all over Japan, where they served devotional purposes. These dharani were printed using the basic woodblock printing technique called seihanbon (整版本) that Buddhist monks brought over from mainland China. The cost of this venture was enormous, and even smaller-scale book reproduction projects could not afford to make use of this printing technique. As a result, the production and distribution of books continued to rely heavily on hand-copying manuscripts.

Heian and Kamakura Periods

Printing technology made very little progress during these periods, but the seihanbon woodblock-printing method did become comparatively affordable and widespread. Large Buddhist temple complexes began producing printed copies of sutras for the devotional use of monks studying at these locations. Sutras printed using this particular variant of seihanbon printing are called kasugaban (春日版, Kasuga editions), named after the famous Buddhist mountain Mt. Kasuga in modern-day Nara prefecture. Kōfuku Temple in the Yamato state (now Nara prefecture) was perhaps the largest producer of these documents, but other similarly sized temple complexes also produced similar texts. As before, the cost of undertaking a printing project using this method remained out of the reach of any individual or institution smaller than these great temples, so books were still primarily reproduced by hand.

Muromachi Period

The Muromachi Period saw a continuation of the printing precedents established with the Kasuga editions of the Heian and Kamakura periods. Books continued to be printed using seihanbon woodblock techniques, and printed matter continued to be limited to sutras and religious texts for the aid and edification of monks at large temples. The most important variant to the established printing system that came out of this period is the Gozanban (五山版, Five-mountain edition). This edition receives its name from the printing practices unique to the five most important temples in Kyoto (Kenchō-ji 建長寺, Enkaku-ji 円覚寺, Jufuku-ji 寿福寺, Jōchi-ji 浄智寺, and Jōmyō-ji 浄妙寺), as selected by the Muromachi bakufu government. Printing did not become significantly more affordable during this period, so printing remained limited to large temple institutions.

The early-modern printing revolution

Japanese bookseller from the Jinrin kinmo zui (An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Humanity) from 1690

Two different new printing methods came to Japan almost simultaneously at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries, techniques that originated from widely divergent sources and were used for similarly diverse purposes. One of these methods, called Chōsen kokatsuji (朝鮮古活字, Old Korean type) and was originally developed in Goryeo, was brought back from Joseon Dynasty after Toyotomi Hideyoshi's military invasions of that country in 1592 and 1597. In this technique, printers took flats of extremely tightly packed sand and carved characters into the surface. This surprisingly durable mold was then filled with molten lead, which, after cooling, could be removed and used as type. This innovation in printing technology drastically lowered the cost of printing, as materials could easily be reused any number of times; the sand could be repacked and recarved, while the soft lead could affordably be remelted as many times as necessary.

Printing was now more affordable than it had ever been, but even so the sheer capital necessary to purchase the requisite materials and find people appropriately familiar with the technique meant that the majority of books printed in this manner were official commissions from the emperor or the shogun. These people were unwilling to waste time and money on fiction and other morally suspicious works, instead ordering the publication of official histories and politically valuable texts that had previously only been available in manuscript editions. Emperor Goyōzei's (後陽成天皇) publication of the Nihon Shoki (日本書紀) in 1599 was among the first of these books, followed later by Tokugawa Ieyasu's (徳川家康) 1616 publication of the Gunsho chiyō (群書治要).

The advent of Catholic missionaries in 1549 was to have lasting effect on Japanese bookmaking, as a certain number of these missionaries was sufficiently knowledgeable of Gutenberg's printing methods to be able to reproduce them in Japan. Missionaries associated with St. Francis Xavier's Society of Jesus began producing books using the Gutenberg press toward the end of the 16th century, more or less contemporaneously with the Chōsen kokatsuji publications. Books printed using the Gutenberg technique were called Kirishitanban (キリシタン版, Christian editions).

This method is, like the Chōsen kokatsuji, relatively affordable and durable. However, the specialized knowledge necessary and the close association of the technology with Christianity meant that the process did not become extremely widespread. The first books published in this fashion were romanized Japanese translations of western works that the missionaries knew well. These versions were valuable tools for learning the Japanese language, as they afforded missionaries an opportunity to become familiar with the Japanese language without interacting with the complex Japanese orthographical systems. The first such work was a translation of Aesop's Fables, (ESOPO NO FABVLAS) published in 1593. This publication was exceedingly influential, as it was both the first piece of literature to be published in Japan and the country's first introduction to western literature.

Japan's first native-born movable-type technique began shortly after these two imported publication methods arrived in the country. An extremely wealthy resident of the Saga (Kyoto district) district of Kyoto named Suminokura Soan (角倉素庵, 1571–1632) pioneered a form of hand-carved wooden movable type using the skills of the famous craftsman Hon'ami Kōetsu (本阿弥光悦, 1558–1637) and his disciples. Called Sagabon (嵯峨本, Saga books), these are widely considered the most beautiful books in the history of Japanese printing. They are also some of the most rare, however, as Suminokura used this technique largely to make copies of books for his own personal enjoyment, not for widespread use. These books were made with great care using the tetsuyōsō sewn-book binding technique to mimic the manuscript style. Saga books also used a highly decorative type of paper called karakami (唐紙, Chinese paper), which contributed to their unique beauty.

The dominant method of book reproduction in this time changed from manuscript copying to seihanbon woodblock printing, as this technique had been refined to the point that individual commercial institutions could afford to open their own presses.

Meiji Period and beyond

Woodblock printing remained the primary form of printing until the Meiji period, when publishers began to use affordable western-style movable type technologies. At the beginning of the Meiji Restoration, publishers made a conscious effort to follow western book models, abandoning the majority of traditional Japanese printing conventions and trademarks, such as the use of washi, classical binding techniques, and calligraphic-style print. This new style of book creation essentially eliminated the traditional Japanese book as such, although small-scale historical reproductions are still created using older techniques.

The modern Japanese book differs little from the western book in construction. However, most books are printed to be read top-to-bottom and right-to-left, which includes manga, a prominent part of Japanese culture today. The notable exception in arrangement is various technical books and textbooks, which tend to be printed according to the western model and are read left-to-right and top-to-bottom.

See also


  1. Lyons, Martyn (2011). Books: A Living History. Los Angeles: Getty Publications. p. 30. ISBN 978-1-60606-083-4.
  2. Hioki, Kazuko (2009). "Characteristics of Japanese Block Printed Books in the Edo Period: 1603–1867". Library and Faculty Staff Publications. Paper 58.
  3. "Japanese books". The Samurai Archives Samurai Wiki.
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