Japanese typography & Motogi

In the context of writing a master dissertation about Japanese culture at the Inalco (Paris), I dived into the history of Japanese typography, focusing on the figure of Motogi Shōzō. As there are only few sources in English about the development of Japanese typography, I want to share here some of the elements I discovered. (This article was first published on the blog of Émilie’s type foundry, www.aisforapple.fr)

In Europe, we learn at school that printing has been invented by Gutenberg, in Germany, in 1460. Johannes Gutenberg, thanks to his strong will and by dint of mysterious research, is believed to have invented from scratch the way of making books on a large scale, and to be at the origin of the democratization of knowledge in Europe. Whereas the city of Mainz keeps the printing technique a secret, it is ransacked in 1462 and printers spread out all over Europe. This is how other printing centers are created, starting with Rome (1465), Venice (1468) and Paris (about 1470). 1
When we say “printing”, it is a shortcut that means in reality “typographic printing”, that is to say printing pages of text using metal letters. This technique is divided in different successive steps : engraving one sample of each letter in metal, reproducing identically these samples dozens of time, setting text using these signs made of metal, et then finally printing the typographic composition on paper.

In 1460 in Germany, the technique of engraving metal was already in use for the making of medals, and the printing press was well known : images were engraved in wood and printed using a press. Gutenberg, pictured in history textbooks as a brilliant inventor, based his invention on existing techniques. His creation has been to bring these techniques together and to finalize the production of metal letters thanks to a specific mould. Furthermore, he did not work alone, but had business partners. 2

In the same way that we turned Gutenberg into a symbol, Japan considers that the “father of Japanese typography” is Motogi Shōzō (本木昌造, 1824-1875). Magata Shigeri 3 paid tribute to this man in a short biography in English, published 18 years after Motogi’s death : “After years of toil and experiment, [Motogi] invented types for Japanese characters and for the first time made printing a business. We owe, indeed, to him alone the success and prosperity of Japanese typography in modern times. He is therefore most deserving of our esteem, as the Father of Japanese Typography.” 4
This idea then spread out.

However, we can find examples of use of the typographic technique as soon as 1590, whereas Motogi is a figure of the period of the bakufu’s end (1853-1868), which makes us wonder about the legitimacy of this statement. As we can already find metal type in Japan by the end of the 16th century, why do we consider Motogi Shōzō, born about 250 years later, as the father of Japanese typography? Is it because, thanks to a relentless personnal work, he managed to create more efficient metal letters than his predecessors did? Or should we consider him more the way we should consider Gutenberg, as a catalyst of different energies existing together at a given place and a given time?

Portrait of Motogi ShôzôMotogi Shōzō is born in 1824 in the city of Nagasaki, which is at that time the only interface between Japan and the rest of the world. As the descendant of a long line of interpreters, he commits to “Dutch learning” and is immersed in foreign knowledge, thanks to his studies and to his job as an official interpreter of the bakufu. What is called “Dutch learning” (rangaku, 蘭学) is the interest of Japanese intellectuals in western techniques that lead to the diffusion of knowledge in a wide range of fields, such as medicine, astronomy, mathematics, biology and chemistry, geography and military strategy.

Therefore, Motogi grows up in an environment rich in links with Western countries, whether it is by reprints of western books, by Dutch people passing by Nagasaki and with who he can talk, or by Russian ambassadors that he is in charge of.

The harbour and city of Nagasaki, in 1870

American boats arriving in the Uraga harbour in 1853 (printed woodblock)

We could say a lot more about the details of the fascinating life of Motogi Shōzō as an interpreter or a ship captain, in the ferment that was the end of bakufu period, but I feel you are getting impatient and want to know what has been the role of Motogi in the development of Japanese typography.

But you have to know that Motogi attended the naval training center of Nagasaki because this has a link with our story. Actually, after the naval center, he moved on to the steel industry, which is essential to ship making and for which he worked from 1860 to 1870. Having acquired knowledge in metal casting, he could use that to make metal type. The sequence seems logical, from boats to steel, then to metal type.
But things did not happen step by step, in this order. The idea of typography was already in young Motogi’s head and followed him for all his life. He made several attempts in type making before he succeeded.

Motogi is first in charge of a letterpress workshop, which has been created in 1855 within the naval training center. There, are printed copies of western books, using metal type made in Europe and brought by the Dutch captain Jan Hendrik Donker Curtius. When this workshop shuts down, Motogi is transferred to the printing workshop of the Dutch Indermaur and works there from 1859 to 1861. Indermaur has no intention of making his own type in his printing workshop. Motogi makes some trials to produce metal type, but he encounters a lot of problems : the difficulty to make the surface of the metal letters even, the bad quality of the lead and antimony, an inadequate ink (he uses China ink which is not thick enough), inadequate tools for engraving. This experimentation is not successful.

According to his biography published by the Tsukiji type foundry, Motogi hears that American missionaries have established a printing workshop in Shanghai and it seems that he has sent someone to learn the technique there, but unsuccessfully. This is the moment to introduce the figure of William Gamble who has played a key role in the developpement of Japanese typography.

The Irish William Gamble (1830-1886) arrives in the United States at age 17 to learn the printing trade in Philadelphia, then he goes to New York and works for the Bible House until 1858, when he is sent to China to take care of the presbyterian mission press. He takes with him some sets of type, matrices and a casting machine. As soon as he arrives, he tries to apply the technique of galvanoplasty to the making of mobile type, which is going to help a lot the development of metal type in China.

Motogi, who is director of the steel company of Nagasaki at this moment, invites Gamble to spend 4 months in Japan, from november 1869 to february 1870, and creates within the steel company the “Center of teaching of typography” (kappan denshû sho 活版伝習所). This structure allows Gamble, who brought with him sinograms in lead and printing material, to pass on his knowledge about type casting and printing process. 5

To be able to launch a mass production for type, a solution to identically reproduce one given sign in multiple copies is needed. It is not possible to engrave the signs one by one in wood or metal, because it would make every copy a particular one. Hence the importance of the mould, the matrix, in which the lead can be casted.
In the process developed by Gamble to produce sinograms, the matrix is made by electrotyping. It starts with the making of a « souchon » (taneji 種字) 6 engraved in hard wood such as boxwood. As the souchon is not made of a conductive material, it is not possible to use it directly. The wooden piece has to be pressed in bee wax, then the wax surface is made electrically conducting by coating it very thinly with fine graphite powder and finally a thin shell of copper is electroplated onto this mold. After a phase of shaping, the matrix is ready to be used.

Advertisement for the fonts used in the letterpress workshop created by Motogi Shōzō, 1872

Using the way of making type taught by Gamble during his stay in Nagasaki, Motogi can now start a standardized mass-production of metal type. He opens his own letterpress workshop and prints textbooks and newspapers. This workshop, called the private course of Shinmachi (shinmachi shijuku, 新街私塾) is the base of what will be the first type foundry of Japan, the Tsukiji type foundry, created in 1873, two years before Motogi’s death.

First page of the type specimen printed in 1876 by the Tsukiji type foundry

It is now clear that Motogi Shōzō, far from being an inventor locked in his cellar, working relentlessly to discover a new technique, was in the middle of a both technological and human network, which allowed him to create the first metal type of Japan in 1870 according to modern standards. We can say that the system set up by Motogi is modern indeed. Nonetheless, it would be absurd to consider this typographic modernity as a singular fact disconnected from the past. The figure of Motogi is part of a continuum. First within his country, as he is the descendant of a line of interpreters from Edo period. But also on a wider scale, because he makes in his own country copies of metal type that have passed through Shanghai and which origin can be traced back to Europe (but that is another story…).
As the historian of graphic design Robin Kinross underlines it, “books about ‘the pioneers of modern typography’ or ‘Bauhaus typography’ situate their subjects in a vacuum without historical precedent and without relation to the unmentioned but implied contemporary traditional norm”. My actual research about the figure of Motogi Shōzō tries to “break down such separations, and to show that there are modern elements in what has been regarded as traditional, and that there is a tradition behind what has been taken to be just ‘modernist’.” 7

1.    Perrousseaux Yves, Histoire de l’écriture typographique de Gutenberg au XVIIe siècle, Atelier Perrousseaux, 2006, p. 72.
2.    Ibid., p. 46-48 and p. 65-67.
3.    Magata Shigeri (曲田成) was the third director of the Tsukiji type foundry, from 1890 to 1894.
4.    Magata Shigeri, The life of Motogi Nagahisa, Japan’s pioneer printer, Tsukiji Type Foundry, 1893, p. 1
5.    Itakura Masanobu, Motogi Shôzô no kappan jigyou, sono tenkai to yukue 本木昌造の活版事業その展開と行方, dans Motogi Shôzô to nihon no kindai katsuji 本木昌造と日本の近代活字, Ōsaka Press, 2006, p. 11.
6.    The word “souchon” is my own proposition to translate taneji.
 It is a French word, but I am opened to any suggestion if you have an idea for an English equivalent.
7.    Kinross Robin, Modern Typography, Hyphen Press, 2004, p. 18.