Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Japan in Print

Japan in Print: Information and Nation in the Early Modern Period by Mary Elizabeth Berry is a fascinating study of Japanese publishing between roughly 1600 and 1800. Berry is a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, and while her book has all the bells and whistles an academic study requires--47 pages of notes, a bibliography with more than 350 citations (the majority in Japanese), and full index--Berry's writing is lively and interesting as well as authoritative. The book is also beautifully produced with 34 b&w illustrations; it is a pleasure to hold.

In 1700, if you were Japanese, lived in one of the major cities (Kyoto, Edo, Osaka), and were literate, you had access to a plethora of printed information: maps, guides, genealogies, directories, catalogues, histories, medical advice, agricultural instruction, and much, much more. To convey this diversity, Berry begins the book by creating a Kyoto silk merchant about to make his first trip to Edo. "Being something of a bibliophile, you begin your research [into the trip] by consulting recent booksellers' catalogues, rough equivalents of Books in Print, which have been appearing in major cities since at least 1659. Koeki shojaku mokuroku (A Catalogue of Publications for Public Utility) published by a consortium of Kyoto firms in 1692 contains entries on over 7,000 current titles divided into 46 main categories (and numerous subcategories). You winnow leads from some obvious sections ("Geography," "Travel," "Famous Places") and from a few less obvious ones ("Erotica," "Military Affairs") hoping to come across additional items--ephemera, privately printed matter, texts published outside Kyoto that may not have made it into the catalogue--as you browse the shops. There are over 100 of them. Some are small printing houses stocking their own titles. Others retail texts on specialized subjects such as Chinese learning or poetry or medicine or Zen Buddhism..."

I found it fascinating that before 1600 there are virtually no maps--or no maps that have survived. After Tokugawa Ieyasu finally united the country, however, cartographers began thinking of the country as a unit and mapping it in considerable detail: roads, rivers, ports, fords, bridges, towns, villages, shrines, temples, famous spots, and more. With better maps came a need for descriptions of those shrines, temples, and famous spots, plus an interest in identifying all the businesses and their locations in the cities and towns. Readers wanted to know where to find the "masters" and "famous artists" and "famous craftspeople" and there were guides to tell them.

Berry not only describes these printed works--the maps and directories--but suggests how they were both affected by and affected Japanese culture. She makes the interesting, and to me persuasive case, that all this printed material helped turn the extremely fragmented and feudal Japan into the nation that was, in many ways, prepared intellectually and socially for the Meiji revolution of the 1860s. Japan in Print is a window into a Japan I had not known existed.

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