Japanese Book History: A View from USC Libraries


The great literary works of Japan that many of us know of, such as The Tale of Genji, imperial poetry anthologies, and medieval war tales only circulated in manuscript form until the seventeenth century. Indeed, until the Edo period (1600-1868) most books in Japan were in manuscript form, and access to them was limited to the elite - members of the court and military aristocracy, and the Buddhist monastic community. Printed books were produced from the eighth century but as Peter Kornicki, a scholar of Japanese book history, said “although printing began in Japan in the middle of the eighth century, it would not have been possible for a Japanese Francis Bacon to claim that printing had changed ‘the appearance and state of the whole world’ until some time in the first half of the seventeenth century." (Kornicki, The Book in Japan, p. 20). 

It is worth noting that despite the rise of printed books which were sold commercially from the seventeenth century, manuscript culture persisted throughout the Edo period, particularly for the transmission of “secret” or restricted knowledge (see Kornicki in The Book in Japan, pp. 78-98; and Kornicki, "Manuscript Not Print."). For example, lineages of artistic and cultural practices like poetry, tea, and incense did not want their schools’ teachings passed down to anyone but school affiliates so these often circulated in manuscript form. Manuscripts were also used for information that would not have been publishable due to censorship, such as politically sensitive subjects. All but one of the manuscripts discussed here are from the Edo period.

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