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 print the Nihon Shoki, The Chronicles of Japan, Japan’s second oldest history book written in 720, which contains within its 30 volumnes 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 1591was 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.
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