Printing reached Japan from China in the wake of Buddhism; but it came somewhat later than the other arts. The earliest example of block-printing in Japan dates from A.D. 770, when the Empress Shōtoku caused a million Buddhist charms to be printed on small slips of paper, for distribution among all the temples in the land. Some of these ancient slips are still in existence. The first notice of printed books occurs in the tenth century, and the oldest specimen extant belongs to a date falling somewhere between 1198 and 1211.
For about six hundred years after the introduction of printing, Buddhist works—and those but few in number—seem to have been the only ones that issued from the press. The Confucian Analects were first reprinted in Japan in 1364, from which time down to the end of the sixteenth century Japanese editions of various standard Chinese works, both in poetry and prose, were published from time to time. But the impulse to a more vigorous production was given by the conquest of Korea at the end of the sixteenth century, and by the Shōgun Ieyasu's liberal patronage of learning at the beginning of the seventeenth. The Japanese learnt from the vanquished Koreans the use of movable types. These, however, went out of fashion again before the middle of the seventeenth century, the enormous number of types necessary for the printing of the Chinese written character making the method practically inconvenient.
The first genuinely Japanese production to appear in print was the Nihongi, or rather the first two books of the Nihongi, in A.D. 1599. This work, which contains the native mythology and early history, had been composed as far back as A.D. 720. The collection of ancient poems entitled Man-yōshu (see p. 378), dating from the middle of the eighth century, was also first printed about the same time. From that period onward, the work of putting into print the old manuscript stores of Japanese literature went on apace, while a new literature of commentaries, histories, poems, popular novels, guide-books, etc., kept the block-cutters constantly employed. The same period saw the introduction of pictorial wood engraving.
Since about 1870, the Japanese have adopted European methods of type-founding. The result is that movable types have again come to the fore, though without causing block-printing to be entirely abandoned. All the newspapers are printed with movable types. A Japanese movable type printing-office would be a strange sight to a European printer. Provision has to be made for, not 26 characters, but 6,100, which is approximately the number of Chinese ideographs in every-day use; and of each character there must of course be different sizes—pica, long primer, brevier, and so on. Needless to say that so vast a number of characters cannot possibly fit into one small case within reach of a single man's hand and eye. They are ranged round a large room on trays, in the order of their "radicals;" and youths, supplied each with a page of the "copy" to be set up, walk about from tray to tray, picking out the characters required, which they put in a box and then take to the compositor. As these youths, more japonico, keep droning out all the while in a sort of chant the text on which they are busy, the effect to the ear is as peculiar as is to the eye the sight of the perpetual motion of this troop of youths coming and going from case to case.
We have used the word "radicals" in the above description. For the sake of those who are unfamiliar with Chinese writing, it must be explained that the Chinese characters are put together, not alphabetically, but by the combination of certain simpler forms, of which the principal are termed "radicals." Thus 木 is the radical for "tree" or "wood," under which are grouped 梅 "plum-tree," 楊 "willow," 板 "a board," etc., etc. The radical for "water" is 水, abbreviated in compounds to 氵; and under it accordingly come 池 "a pond," 油 "oil," 酒 "wine," 游 "to swim," and hundreds of other words having, in one way or another, to do with fluidity. Of course Japanese printing-offices also have to make provision for the native syllabic characters, the so-called Kana. But as there are only between two and three hundred forms of these, and as they are generally used only for terminations and particles, they are comparatively unimportant.
The 6,100 Chinese characters in common use are cast in metal, according to one of the European processes. When a rare character occurs in an author's manuscript, it is cut in wood for the occasion. To keep types on hand for all the seventy or eighty thousand characters of the Chinese language, would entail an expense too heavy for even the largest printing-office to bear, and would require too much room. (Compare Article on Wood Engraving.)
Books recommended. On the Early History of Printing in Japan, in Vol. X. Part. I., and Further Notes on Movable Types in Korean and Early Japanese Printed Books, in Vol. X. Part II. of the "Asiatic Transactions," by Sir Ernest Satow. Our own remarks are chiefly founded on these two valuable essays.