Intricate Japanese Movable Type Sets

Link – article by Avi Abrams

This article appears simultaneously on Dark Roasted Blend and on “Out of Order” magazine – a Yale University print and online publication that curates innovative and bold fashion, art, music and film for the university set.

Visual Caffeine: Exploring Art and Architecture with Avi Abrams, Issue 1

Welcome to new series of showcasing highlights in history of arts and architecture! Wait a moment, this does not sound exciting enough. How about -

Welcome to exploring the…”aesthetic-precepts-smashing, eyeball-massaging, brain-searing-with-its-heartbreaking-and-fragile-beauty, visually-apocalyptic” side of Art, Style and Architecture? While you may think that we exaggerate here (well, only a little), you are welcome to assume that you will be assaulted with purple prose, strange “red-shifted-into-impossible” facts, and images… well, images lurid enough to shimmer through your eyelids and trigger an iridescent neural zeitgasm! – all for the sake of breaking from boring and mundane and promoting “weird and wonderful” side of things.

Seriously though, this column is not going to be earth-shaking in the way we described it, but don’t say we did not warn you… you may still find yourself lost for some time in ensuing cataract of pictures and information, unable to complete your study and work commitments. For those of you, who want even larger dose of our visual caffeine, head over to Dark Roasted Blend site, and get addicted to our endless stream of thrilling visual information.

Might I add, that our “visual caffeine concoctions” are bound to be somewhat unpredictable as we explore history of art and architecture in tandem with mythology, culture and obsolete technology, seeking to find overall “look and feel” of certain time periods. The goal here is to connect as many points of reference in art history as possible, highlighting little-known gems, visual styles and trends – and making them relevant in our caffeine-infused culture.

Today we’re going to see highly-sophisticated sets of Japanese letterpress movable type:

(images credit: Tomoyuki Ishida)

Craft letterpress companies are experiencing revival in recent times, and nowhere it is more evident than in Japan. Most of you will be familiar with the ancient Chinese and Japanese art of woodblock printing, but masterpieces created with the wooden and metal movable type are somewhat less known, though they show craftsmanship and attention to detail similar to fine woodblock prints.

(image credit: Tomoyuki Ishida)

First movable type and printing presses were invented in Asia, not Europe.

…but their development stalled because of extreme complexity and sheer number of Chinese and Korean characters (same problem that Asian cultures faced with transition to typewriters, or internet). We can thank the simplicity of Western alphabets for the rapid development and adoption of printed word in Europe, which quickly lead to the Renaissance and further advances in culture and education.

It seems to be a widespread misconception that Johannes Gutenberg created the first movable type system and the printing press, around 1450 A.D. It’s true, Gutenberg was the first to make his movable type from a certain alloy of lead, tin, and antimony (which was more efficient than iron used in Asia) – but the movable type itself was originally invented in China around 1040 A.D. by Bi Seng (during the Song Dynasty). Th new system was badly needed to replace the labor-intensive woodblock printing technique, where a single wooden block was carved to represent a single page. The first movable type sets was made from wood or ceramic materials, with clay eventually replacing wood “due to the presence of wood grains and the unevenness of the wooden type after being soaked in ink”.

(images credit: Tomoyuki Ishida)

The world’s oldest (and still existing) movable metal print book is considered to be Jikji, which was published in 1377, seventy-eight years prior to Johannes Gutenberg’s printed Bible (left image below). On the right is another ancient book printed with the wooden movable type – “The Auspicious Tantra of All Reaching Union” from 1139–1193, the earliest existing example of such kind:

(images via 1, 2)

As you can see, just reading this sort of printed material (not to mention assembling movable type and actually printing it) requires intense concentration for our Western minds: it’s hard to simply glance on this page and “speed-read” it. We need certain serendipity and discipline of mind to read long Asian texts – consider, for example, how you would feel reading the massive 1000 volume encyclopedia “Imperial Readings of the Taiping Era” printed in 1574?

(letterpress machines seen at Tokyo Printing Museum, via)

Here is an interesting tidbit of history that speaks of extreme cultural inertia and reluctance to adopt new forms of communication:

“A potential solution to the linguistic and cultural bottleneck that held back movable type in Korea for two hundred years appeared in the early 15th century — a generation before Gutenberg would begin working on his own movable-type invention in Europe — when King Sejong the Great devised a simplified alphabet of 24 characters for use by the common people, which could have made the typecasting and compositing process more feasible.

But Sejong’s brilliant creation did not receive the attention it deserved. Adoption of the new alphabet was stifled by the inertia of Korea’s cultural elite, who were appalled at the idea of losing Chinese, the badge of their elitism.” (via)

Cutting to modern times, today we see some truly gorgeous work being produced by Japanese craft printing firms, and it seems the arcane and esoteric skills of movable type setting are much in demand – see for example here and here. Note the imposing press dominating the room:

(image credit: Takuma Nakagawa, AllRightKoubou)

Try typesetting in Japanese and learn attention to detail!

So how did Bi Seng, the movable type inventor himself, used to group his type and find the proper pieces? He organized them by “rhyme groups”… turning the printing process into a sort of poetry. Interesting alternative to organizing information by alphabet, but not as quick and efficient, perhaps?

(images credit: AllRightKoubou)

Learning the system of storing and retrieving all these characters can be a daunting task. Here is how Takuma Nakagawa, a master custom printer, describes the process:

“You have to remember each place for each word – it’s about 400,000 characters, can you imagine!.. Too many. Some of them are set in alphabetical order, and then kanji characters are categorized for each kind. It’s hard to remember it.”

(images credit: Takuma Nakagawa)



This article appears simultaneously on Dark Roasted Blend and on “Out of Order” magazine – a Yale University print and online publication that curates innovative and bold fashion, art, music and film for the university set.

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