Factbook

A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
If you would like to contribute to this compendium please submit your ideas here.
All will be considered for publication by our expert panel.
  • Share

    For over a thousand years many of Japan’s emperors have played an active role in publishing: writing poems, books and even scientific papers[UPDATED: 5-2-2019]

    Since Japan’s first book on the nation’s history was commissioned by Emperor Temmu, Japan’s 40th emperor, and published in 712 after his death, Japanese emperors have been intimately involved in many important publishing milestones in Japan.

    The nation’s first book to be produced using moveable type was, for example, chosen by another emperor for printing in 1593.

    The Japanese Imperial Family has had a very long association with the literary arts, especially poetry.

    Japanese emperors have not only encouraged and patronised the poetic arts and Japanese verse known as waka and tanka in particularbut have also written thousands of poems themselves.

    The Meiji Emperor (1852-1912) who ruled over a period in history when Japan opened up to the West, after more than 250 years of self-imposed isolation, wrote over 100,000 waka and tanka poems and was known as ‘the sage of poetry’.

    The Meiji Emperor learnt the art of writing poetry from his father Emperor Komei (1831-1867). His era was an age of transformation and a crisis of modernisation.

    To s
    ome that must have seemed mind-boggling at the time, with the arrival of railways for instance, that transformed Japanese society. Writing poetry appears to have helped him process these changes.

    He wrote many different types of poems, describing his reaction to the arrival of these new technologies in Japan including photography, trains and telescopes. Some experts also believe that his writing indicates that he wished to avoid war and had a pacifist streak.

    The following poem by the Meiji Emperor was published in English translation by Harold Wright in the Kyoto Journal:

     

    Being all alone

    And consoling our own heart

    for this one day,

    The time was spent quietly

    in the writing of poems

     

    Emperor Hirohito (1901-1989) also penned many poems and new rare caches of his creative outputs are still coming to light decades after his death.

    New waka poems, including poems that show Japan’s role in World War II, occupied his thoughts as he aged, and have made their way into the public domain as recently as 2019

    Emperor Akihito, his son now known as Emperor Emeritus, and his wife Michiko have also written and published books and poetry, including a collection of more than 300 poems titled Tomoshibi Light , which was published in English in 1991. The collection was originally published in Japanese in 1986 when Akihito was still Crown Prince.

    Many anticipate that the new Emperor, Naruhito, who took up the position on 1 May 2019, will continue this long tradition, but most doubt he will write multiple poems on a daily basis like his predecessor, the Meiji Emperor.

    That said, a book written by him about his experience as a student at Oxford University has been published in English, translated by Sir Hugh Cortazzi (1924-2018), a former British Ambassador to Japan, The Thames and I: A Memoir of Two Years at Oxford

    In addition to writing books and poetry, some emperors are known to have had much broader interests that have led to them subscribing to international magazines and publications long before this was possible for most in Japan. 

    In 1875, Emperor Komei, for example, was listed amongst the names of the subscribers to the Illustrated London News (1842-1971), the world’s first illustrated weekly news magazine. Two recent emperors, Akihito and Hirohito, have subscribed to international magazines including another British publication, Nature, the weekly science journal.  

    In fact, Emperor Akihito, who has a species of goby fished named after him, has done much more than just write poems and read about the latest scientific research trends alongside fulfilling his role as a constitutional monarch. He has published 38 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals including the world’s most prestigious ones, Nature and Science and has even been seen at one or two scientific conferences in Japan. 

    At times, Japan’s Imperial Literature and creative writing has even stretched into science fiction with one member of the Emperor’s family penning books that helped develop the genre now known as ‘cyberpunk’ using the pen name Bien Fu in the 1960s.

    Literary and publishing genes continue to flourish in the family. And in 2017, an essay by the Emperor’s daughter Princess Aiko, titled Praying for Peace in the World, was widely praised for its literary style and content. The Princess wrote the essay for the yearbook commemorating her graduation from Gakushuin Girls’ Junior High School.

     

    For over a thousand years many of Japan’s emperors have played an active role in publishing: writing poems, books and even scientific papers Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    50 years before the first Michelin Guide, Tokyo already had a popular guidebook for its foodies[UPDATED: 4-14-2019]

    It has been widely reported that for more than a decade Tokyo has had more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world. But what isn’t generally known is that Tokyo, or Edo as it was previously called, had its own guidebooks for Japanese gourmets long before the two French industrialists behind the famous Michelin Guidebook were even born.

    These included Edo Shuhan Tebikikusa, The Pocket Guide to Eating and Drinking in Edo, a copy of which resides at the British Museum library in London.

    Some of these Japanese guidebooks mimicked the approach taken at the time to rank Sumo wrestlers of varying stature grading eating and drinking establishments with similar terminology, as opposed to awarding stars as the Michelin Guidebooks currently do. 

    The Pocket Guide to Eating and Drinking in Edo, published in 1848, lists the names and addresses of 594 restaurants, as well as specialist sushi, soba and eel restaurants in Edo. The guide, like its modern counterparts, was selective – only including, for example, 90 eel specialists from a possible pool of around one thousand or more.

    Japan and Edo may have been isolated from the rest of the world at the time of the publication of The Pocket Guide, but Edo was one of the world’s largest and most literate cities with a strong publishing culture and a very vibrant nightlife.

    The first Michelin Guide was published 52 years later in 1900. At this time there were only a few thousand cars in France, so in order to encourage the French to buy cars and drive across France, two brothers launched the Michelin Guide, which initially focused exclusively on France. The first issue was distributed free to encourage people to buy cars and tyres made by the brothers’ company, Michelin, which they had set up a decade earlier in 1889.

    In the 2018 Guide, Tokyo has the most Michelin-starred restaurants with 234 – ahead of Osaka with 96 and Paris with 92. These are the three leading cities among the 28 countries that the guide currently covers.

    Given all this, it is perhaps not surprising that in 2013 Japanese cuisine, Washoku, was added by the United Nations’ organization UNESCO to The Representative List of The Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Other Japanese items included on this UNESCO’s list are Kabuki, Noh and ritual rice planting.

    50 years before the first Michelin Guide, Tokyo already had a popular guidebook for its foodies Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    Japan’s first commercial publishing emerged in Kyoto in the early 17th century[UPDATED: 4-14-2019]

    Following the arrival from Korea of movable type technology and the printing of the first book using the technology in 1593, after Japan’s invasion of Korea, a new industry emerged in Japan – commercial publishing. 

    According to academics, such as Donald Keene, professor of Japanese at Columbia University, “printing soon developed into the hobby or extravagance of the rich, and many examples of Japanese literature began to appear in small editions,” with commercial publishing only arriving about a decade later in 1609, in Kyoto, at the start of Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868). 

    According to The History of the Book in East Asia, by Cynthia Brokaw and Peter Kornicki, the Kyoto-based publishers mostly didn’t use movable type, even though the technology helped trigger the birth of the industry 

    Three publishing hubs in Kyoto, Osaka and Edo (later known as Tokyo) developed over time, with Edo initially being a market for books, as opposed to an originator of them. 

    There was only a limited amount of publishing conducted by the Shogunate authorities (the government) during this period. Some of their publishing needs, such as the printing of calendars, maps and directories, were outsourced to commercial publishers. Commercial publishers dominated the industry, commissioning the engraving of print blocks and selling titles.
    Japan’s first commercial publishing emerged in Kyoto in the early 17th century Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    Japan’s oldest surviving cookbook was published in 1643[UPDATED: 2-4-2019]

    According to historians, Japan’s first modern cookbook Ryori Monogatari, Accounts of Cooking, was published just as the first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1616), came to power in 1603, and Japan’s Edo Period began (1603-1863). 

    Tokugawa was a supporter of publishing and in particular books that provided practical guidance. The oldest surviving example of Accounts of Cooking, was printed in 1643.  The author of the book, which has 20 different sections organised in two parts, is unknown.

    A copy is now part of The Tokyo National Museum’s collection and another copy of an edition, published by Fukuda Bunko, can be found in the National Diet Library.

    The 1643 edition is an unusual cookbook as it includes recipes for game at a time when eating meat was viewed by most as a taboo. Some, however, considered game as medicinal.

    Interestingly, Japan is currently experiencing a mini-boom in restaurants serving deer and wild boar following a relaxation of regulations and the extension of the Japanese hunting season.

    The 1643 book includes recipes for grilling venison, wild-hare, wild boar, and even raccoon dog and dog.  As well as recipes for shark, whale and more typical dishes such as sashimi, sushi, udon and yakitori that are now popular dishes eaten around the world.

    That said, a hand copied edition of a 13thcentury document about cooking, Chuji-ruiki, Kitchenry Enyclopedia, is believed to be the oldest Japanese document describing practical cooking techniques, according to The History and Culture of Japanese Food by Naomichi Ishige. The document from the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) is sometimes described by academics as an ancient cookbook.

    Other books including the Nihon ShokiThe Chronicles of Japan, one of Japan’s oldest books, refer to hunting, food and the dishes preferred by emperors, but the 1643 edition of Ryori Monogatari, Accounts of Cooking, is believed to be the boldest surviving Japanese cookbook.

     

    Japan’s oldest surviving cookbook was published in 1643 Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    Japan’s most expensive book was published in 1984 with a retail price of US$17,000[UPDATED: 1-5-2019]

    Japan’s most expensive book, an edited collection of manuscripts by Claudius Ptolemaeus (100-168), was published in two-volumes by the Japanese publisher Iwanami Shoten in 1984, just before Japan’s infamous economic bubble (1986-1991), with a retail price of 1,930,000 yen.

    Ptolemaeus’ astronomical treatise, an astronomy textbook and star catalogue, is generally referred to as the Almagest.

    Copies of the extremely expensive Japanese edition, Uchushi, Cosmography, a collection of reproductions of Ptolemaeus manuscripts, including analysis and commentary by Torataro Shimomura (1902-1995), a philosopher and a science historian and others, are available at the National Diet Library in Tokyo.

    One of the volumes that can be viewed at the National Diet Library, which consists mostly of maps, is numbered as the 239th of a limited edition.

    According to information contained within the book, which is large and heavy, the volume was printed in Germany in 1983 and is based on an original edition published in 1472. The publication of the 1984 Iwanami Shoten edition was arranged by Uni Agency Inc.

    Ptolemaeus, of Greek-Egyptian heritage, was one of the most influential ancient astronomers. He is famous for his mathematics and geography and his earth-centred cosmology.

    His cosmological theory (hypothesis) that the earth was the centre of the universe was held for 1,400 years; until it was refuted by Nicolas Copernicus (1473- 1543) in 1530. When Copernicus wrote De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, in which he argued that the earth, in fact, rotated around the sun. The theory was published in 1543, the year of his death.
    Japan’s most expensive book was published in 1984 with a retail price of US$17,000 Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    Digital developments forced Japan to update its copyright legislation in 2014 and then again in 2018[UPDATED: 12-9-2018]

    Japanese copyright law was updated in 2014 under the Revised Copyright Act and then revised again in 2018.

    Publishing rights, which have traditionally been limited in Japan to print or paper medium publications, were extended to cover e-books and the Internet for the first time under the new Act in 2014.

    The new Act came into force in January 2015, 146 years after Japan’s first copyright legislation in 1869. And was then partially revised again in 2018, a set of revision that included amongst other things a revision that extended the copyright period on books and other works from 50 years to 70 years.

    The new Act covers: the right of publication; as well as the right to terminate the right of publication; the obligation to publish or transmit online within a six-month period of receipt of manuscript, and other updates required for electronic publishing.
    Digital developments forced Japan to update its copyright legislation in 2014 and then again in 2018 Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    The first Japanese book produced using movable type was printed in 1593[UPDATED: 11-2-2018]

    The first Japanese book printed using movable type was the Kobun Kokyo, Classic of Filial Piety. The book, was chosen by the Japanese Emperor to be the first printed using the new technology. It was printed in 1593, after the Japanese invasion of Korea (1592-98) by Hideyoshi Toyotomi.  

    At this time, Japan already had a long history of publishing. Its oldest book was published in 615 and its oldest surviving book, owned by the Ishiyama-dera a temple in Shiga Prefecture, that includes a publication date, is inscribed 1052 in red ink, for instance.

    Nonetheless, following the invasion, a copper movable type printing press was brought back to Japan from Korea and presented to the Japanese Emperor, who ordered that copies of the Confucian treatise on obedience be printed using the looted machine.  

    Subsequently, about four years later, a Japanese version of the machine was developed, using wooden as opposed to metal type. It was used to produce a new print edition of the Nihon Shoki, The Chronicles of Japan, Japan’s second oldest history book written in 720, which contains within its 30 volumes mythical accounts and ancient stories including how Japan was created.

    Following its printing, hundreds of other books were printed using the new machine. The arrival of the new printing technology was the catalyst for the development of commercial publishing in Japan a decade later.

    Its arrival helped book production evolve and transform – whether it be the transcription of religious texts or the publication of commercial fiction.

    Interestingly, most commercial publishers reverted to traditional block printing methods and did not use the new movable type technologies as the local publishing market developed and expanded.  

    Academics give many reasons for this including the complexity of the Japanese language, the market demand for books to include illustrations, as well as portability and the ability to easily print-on-demand using block printing.  

    Jesuit priests are also said to have brought a press to Japan from Rome, at a similar time. Unlike Japan’s first generation of commercial publishers, who focused on demand and existing interests, the priests used their press to print religious books locally. They printed books to assist them in helping the spread of Christianity in Japan for two decades, from the early 1590s until the religion was banned in 1612.

    Many of the books produced, by the Jesuit Mission Press known as Kirishitan-ban, were burnt or destroyed. But a copy of one of these books, the Sanctos no gosagueo no uchi nuqigaqi (a Compendium of the Acts of the Saints), survives in Oxford University’s Bodleian Japanese Library.

    The book arrived at the library in 1659 as part of the English polymath and scholar John Selden’s (1584-1654) collection. This book printed two years before the first Japanese book in 1591 was the very first book printed from moveable type in Japan.  

    To put this in historical context, Johannes Gutenberg invented his metal movable type press in 1450 almost a 150 years before the first movable type technology arrived in Japan.  

    The first movable type, however, is now thought to have actually been invented in China by Bi Sheng (990-1051) hundreds of year before then, and not in Europe, in 1040. Interestingly, its type was made of porcelain, not metal.
    The first Japanese book produced using movable type was printed in 1593 Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    Books in Japan generally published as tanko-bon, bunko-bon or both[UPDATED: 5-19-2018]

    There are two standard book formats in Japan tanko-bon and bunko-bon. Most works of fiction are initially published as tanko-bon and then after a given period, that can sometimes range from 1 to 4 years, as bunko-bon.

    The content of a book and the publisher may also differ across the two editions. Some books, however, are only published as tanko-bon.

    Bunko or bunko-bon is the widely used Japanese term for a book that is a small-format paperback book designed to be affordable, portable and not take up too much shelf space. The format has a long and interesting history going back to books designed to fit into the sleeves of kimonos in Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868). 

    The direct translation of tanko is ‘standalone’ or ‘bound’ and bunko ‘storeroom for written works’ or ‘library’ and ‘bon’ is book. 

    The modern form bunko-bon emerged at the turn of the 20th century. Two publishing houses (Shincho Bunko in 1914 and Iwanami Shoten in 1927) are often cited as having pioneered the modern versions.

    According to International Book Publishing: An Encyclopedia, Iwanami Shoten developed the market for the current popular bunko format in Japan with its imprint the Bunko Classics Series. The imprint was modeled on the German publisher Reclam Verlag’s series Universal Library.

    The Bunko-bon format, in addition to ebooks, is now exploited by Japanese publishers, in a similar manner to mass-market paperbacks in the United States, as cheap editions of books that have already been published as tanko-bon.

    They are typically printed on hardwearing paper, bound in a similar manner to English-language books, and usually, as is the case with most books in Japan, have a detachable outer cover (dust jacket) over a plain cover.

    The vast majority of bunko-bon are A6 (105×148mm or 4.1″×5.8″) in size and are sometimes illustrated. On the other hand, the size of tanko-bon (which can be either hardcover or softcover) are much more varied. The typical tanko-bon size, however, generally mirrors standard A5 or B5 paper sizes.

    Despite the similarities in terms of print production unlike English-language books, most Japanese books are printed to be read top-to-bottom (with vertical lines of text as opposed to horizontal text) and from right to left.  
    Books in Japan generally published as tanko-bon, bunko-bon or both Posted by Richard Nathan