Sunday, July 19, 2020

The State of Publishing . . . in Edo Period Japan

-- Susan, every other Sunday

During the 11th century, a female Japanese courtier named Murasaki Shikibu set brush to washi and penned a lengthy tale that followed the romantic (mis)adventures of a hero (or antihero, depending on your view) named Hikaru Genji.

The resulting work, which she titled The Tale of Genji, is widely considered to be the world's first novel. The book runs 1,300 pages (in English translation) and consists of 52 chapters, each of which essentially reads like a separate novella.

The work received widespread acclaim, and began to circulate among the Japanese nobility--first, in hand-copied form and later in illustrated woodblock print editions.

The Tale of Genji - a novel in many, many parts.

Jumping forward in time . . . when Tokugawa Ieyasu moved the capital to Edo (now Tokyo) at the start of the 17th century, a love of books--and a thriving printing and publishing industry--had spread across Japan. Much of the population was literate, and people of all social classes enjoyed reading (and discussing popular works was a popular pastime at teahouses and sake shops).

A "chart of book rankings" - essentially, a bestseller list - published in Tokyo in 1831

Although some illustrated works were produced as scrolls, bound books were already quite common by the end of the 16th century. At that time, the most popular binding method, known as fukuro-toji, involved writing on only one side of the page, folding the pages over, and binding them with string.

Woodblock print showing customers browsing a bookstore in early Edo

Moveable type came to Japan from Korea at the end of the 16th century, but woodblock printing remained the dominant form of publishing in Japan until the end of the 1800s. Skilled artisan-publishers could, and did, produce large numbers of inexpensive books to meet the ever-growing demand for reading material.

Book making tools, Edo Period

By the 19th century, Edo alone had over 600 bookstores, many of which also served as tiny publishers, producing most or all of the books they sold. The narrow storefronts speckled the district around Nihonbashi, at the end of the Tokaidō (the largest of the famed travel roads connecting Tokyo with Kyoto), where many travelers entered the city of Edo.

Reconstruction of an Edo-period bookshop

While many bookstores sold their books directly, quite a few were "lending shops" that produced and rented books for short-term use. For a reasonable fee, much lower than outright purchase, customers could rent any title they wished, and the shop would send an employee to drop off the book at the customer's home.

Even then, Japanese people had a fascination with cats. 

Lending bookstores were especially popular with members of the working class, whose homes frequently consisted of only a single room. Like the libraries of today, lending bookshops allowed them to read many more books than they could afford to purchase or had room to store.

As a historian and a bibliophile, I love looking back at the history of books and reading around the world. It's interesting--and reassuring--to realize that love of a page-turning story is neither new nor likely to disappear any time soon. Books and stories are part of who we are.

Do you like old books? Print books? Ebooks? What's your favorite when it's time to escape into the pages of a tale?


  1. More and more we see why you love Japan, Susan. The first novel. How can any writer resist that?

    1. Right? Murasaki Shikibu was a woman ahead of her time :)

  2. Susan, I have pictures that I took when we saw the replica of a bookstore in the museum in Tokyo. What fond memories! I remember reading The Tale of Gengi one summer when i was college. I think it's past time to give it another look!!!