The History of Books and Print Culture in Japan: The State of the Discipline
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The History of Books and Print Culture in Japan:
The State of the Discipline

The notion that Japan is a "nation of readers" has long been supported by Japanese cultural critics and, unsurprisingly, publishing associations.1 Indeed, contemporary Japan represents a wonderland of books, where reading remains one of the most popular pastimes.2 Best sellers and works of scholarship alike are available in pocketbook (bunkobon) format for easy reading on the daily train commute. One of the largest retailers to enjoy enormous and consistent growth throughout Japan's economic turmoil of the past two decades is Book Off, a big box chain of used bookstores.3 Yet this state of affairs represents in many respects an outgrowth of the publishing explosion and vibrant print culture of the early modern era, while printing itself dates back almost as far as the written language. All of this makes Japan fertile ground for the study of book history and print culture, by Japanese and non-Japanese scholars alike.

A Legacy of Books and Printing

To trace the history of books one must first trace the history of writing, and in the case of Japan this is fundamentally bound up with the cultural and literary inheritance from early imperial China. The ancient Japanese remained without a written language until the arrival of written Chinese sometime before the fifth century a.d.4 Adapting Chinese logographs to the radically different grammar of ancient spoken Japanese necessitated the development of particular methods of reading and writing, producing kanbun, a way of writing Japanese completely in Chinese characters.5 The complexity of the system meant that substantial time was required to achieve literacy. By the end of the eighth century, two phonetic syllabaries called kana had been [End Page 270] developed from Chinese logographs, while the use of the logographs themselves (kanji) also continued. Tradition has associated the former with women and personal writings, and the latter with men and official records, or "public" writings, but this is a broad generalization. Educated court women knew Chinese characters; men produced works in kana; and works of literature continued to be produced in both. Subsequently, Japanese readers had two types of work accessible to them: works from China and the Korean kingdoms written in classical Chinese, and works produced in Japan written in either kanbun or kobun (classical Japanese, employing kana alone or in combination with Chinese characters).6 This state of affairs remained largely constant until the late nineteenth century, when kanbun ceased to be viable as European languages came to the forefront during Japan's modernization, and the classical literary language (now called bungo) gradually gave way to the vernacular Japanese now considered the standard.

Writing became immensely important to the early Japanese court for several reasons. First, the Chinese written language was accompanied by the canons of Chinese classics of philosophy, history, literature, and Buddhist teachings. Second, both the Chinese intellectual tradition generally and Confucianism and Buddhism in particular were heavily text-based, necessitating literacy. Third, Chinese learning and Buddhist teachings were introduced through the Korean peninsula not so much as intellectual treasures than as political tools that could be used to legitimate kingdoms, something that obviously appealed to the leaders of the fledgling Japanese state.7 Moreover, during the height of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the Tang Codes and their attendant bureaucratic system were immensely influential across East Asia, and Japan was no exception. From the late Asuka (ca. 550-710) and Nara (710-794) periods, the economic-political system of ritsuryō, the court culture, and the layout of the capital cities were all inspired by Chinese models. The cultural and political roles of Buddhist ideas and institutions, and the court's orientation around Chinese politics and court culture, made literacy and familiarity with the classics essential for all elites.

The earliest extant writings also date from this time, in the form of mokkan (thin wooden tablets),8 inscriptions on stone or metal artifacts, and the first manuscripts, which were copies of Buddhist sutras and commentaries thereon. As in the rest of East Asia, sutras were copied as a form of religious practice and to invoke spiritual protection...