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  • The Typographic Imagination: Reading and Writing in Japan's Age of Modern Print Media by Nathan Shockey
  • Peter Kornicki (bio)
The Typographic Imagination: Reading and Writing in Japan's Age of Modern Print Media. By Nathan Shockey. Columbia University Press, New York, 2020. xiv, 314 pages. $65.00, cloth; $64.00, E-book.

In his fascinating and stimulating book, Nathan Shockey takes us back to the world of late Meiji and Taisho Japan, when the market was awash with new magazines, some short-lived but others long-lasting, and when new types of publication like bunkobon and enpon first emerged. In some ways it seems familiar, but Shockey is careful to defamiliarize it all and to alert readers to the impact of technological and commercial changes that we now take for granted. As he points out at the outset, adolescents in 1915 "belonged to the first generation of modern Japanese readers to come of age in a world where cheap typographic print media was a normal and naturalized part of everyday life" (p. 1) and was easily accessible. Note the "typographic." By the late eighteenth century, woodblock printing had reached a similar stage, but Shockey is talking about a different kind of product, one that is mass-produced industrially. [End Page 241]

What does Shockey mean by "typographic imagination"? He uses this expression to refer to twentieth-century consciousness of print as a product of industrial and commercial processes, and as a "staple commodity" in everyday life. In the first part of the book, he concentrates on new technologies, new modes of publication, and new forms of consumption and circulation, leaving the impact of this consciousness on writers and readers in the first three decades of the twentieth century to the second half.

In the first chapter he uses magazines published during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 to highlight the roles of new technologies which produced visually striking effects. It is one of the many merits of this book that Shockey has included numerous illustrations which are often fascinating in themselves but, more to the point, demonstrate how much attention was paid to the creation of visual effects particularly on the covers. During the Crimean War, the Illustrated London News had pioneered the use of battlefield photographs in newspapers, but at that stage there was no technology available to reproduce photographs in newspapers, so they were usually made into engravings first. This was the technology used for the dramatic cover of Nisshin sensō jikki, a magazine published by Hakubunkan, which Shockey includes as an illustration. But Hakubunkan also applied a new technology, first used in Japan in 1888, to reproduce photographs in magazines. Thanks to these developments, contemporary readers could follow the progress of the war in monochrome through photography as well as lithography, while for color images xylography was still unchallenged. These technological developments gave rise to the popular genre of gahō, illustrated magazines like the best-selling Taiyō.

In the second chapter Shockey turns to developments in book publishing, such as the appearance of bunkobon, which were launched in 1927 by Iwanami Shoten. Iwanami has already been the subject of a detailed study, but Shockey's discussion is illuminating.1 He focuses on founder Iwanami Shigeo's commitment to the dissemination of philosophical knowledge, which led to the launch of the journal Shisō in 1921 and, extraordinarily, to the publication in 1923–26 of the collected works of Immanuel Kant in Japanese translation in 18 volumes. These Shockey describes as "aspirational texts that often remained unread and served as status markers": that may well be true, but is that speculation or does Shockey have some evidence he is keeping to himself? At any rate, through the publication of bunkobon and of Kaizōsha's enpon series, texts were liberated from the shelves of expensive editions and Japanese readers gained access to a new world of cheap editions of literary and intellectual texts that they could even order by post. [End Page 242]

In the third chapter Shockey takes up what he calls "circuits of circulation." Booksellers published catalogues, as they had done even in the Edo period, but now readers outside Tokyo could order...