Japanese Book History: A View from USC Libraries


While studying the written word is the staple of much scholarship in the humanities, we have increasingly turned to the material formats in which writings were produced and circulated. Book history is a discipline that takes up this question and encompasses topics such the book as an object and its materiality in regards to binding type, paper type, and enclosures (such as covers and storage boxes); the relationship between form and content in books; the history of publishing; and the history of reading. This project highlights examples from the small collection of Japanese books published prior to 1868 held at the University of Southern California (USC) Libraries with a focus on their materiality.

Japanese rare books began to be proactively acquired by USC Libraries Japanese Studies Librarian Dr. Rebecca Corbett in 2017 with an initial purchase of eleven items at antiquarian bookstores in Tokyo, thanks to the guidance and assistance of Professor Sasaki Takahiro of the Institute of Oriental Classics (Shidō Bunko), Keio University. Additional acquisitions came as gifts, one volume from Professor Sasaki himself, and thirty-eight volumes from the estate of Professor Herbert L. Camburn, formerly of California State University, Long Beach.

The primary purpose of the Japanese Rare Books Collection at USC Libraries is to teach students about the materiality of the book in Japan, adding further depth to programs in Japanese history and literature by offering students an opportunity to work with original materials. A second purpose is to make Japanese book history available as a topic for comparative study in classes focused on Western book history by utilizing materials from our Special Collections.

Images featured in this publication are from the USC Digital Library where high-quality digitizations of the Japanese rare books discussed here can be viewed. The physical books can be accessed through USC Libraries Special Collections Reading Room. For inquiries about these books or access please contact Japanese Studies Librarian, Dr. Rebecca Corbett. 

My thanks Professor Sasaki Takahiro of the Institute of Oriental Classics (Shidō Bunko), Keio University, for his advice on the collection of books featured here. Thanks also to the Ahmanson Lab at USC Libraries and Curtis Fletcher who provided invaluable support for the technical and design aspects of this project. All errors are, of course, my own and I welcome comments and corrections via the comments or by email.

This page has paths: