Letterpress and Language
Over spring break I had the lovely opportunity to visit Tokyo, Japan for a full two weeks! Immediately I was surrounded by crazy typography everywhere! Signage and posters filled the streets everywhere we went. During our first week there we went to Kyoto for a spontaneous two day trip. While there we stumbled upon a small letterpress shop called The Writing Shop.
It definitely had a western flair to it, most of their paper was made out of cotton instead of thin delicate Japanese I was expecting to find. The shop sold note cards letterpress printed with original designs as well as limited edition prints! I unfortunately couldn't take pictures inside but they had a wide variety of metal type cases displaying their type. For some reason I wasn't expecting all the type to be in Japanese (which is silly, I know). But more unexpectedly, all of the type was square. Every character; and there were so many different ones, all were square. Their culture reflected the way their type was even structured! Precise, clean, efficient.
I thought that how fascinating it must be to work with Japanese typography! All of their characters are square yet so many intricate pieces are formed, grids are broken and shapes are made!
The ancient practices of Chinese And Japanese woodblocking and metal type is making a huge comeback in the recent years.
It is a common misconception that Johannes Gutenberg created the first movable type system and the printing press in 1450 A.D. The world's oldest movable metal print book is considered to be Jikji. It was published in 1377, seventy-eight years prior to Johannes Gutenberg's printed Bible.
It is true that he formed moveable type with led and other metals, but in China and Korea moveable type was formed around 1040 A.D, because of the sheer amount of characters their language contains, they needed to find a more efficient way of printing books and manuscripts. They were first developed with wood, but because of the inconsistencies of how the wood would soak up the ink, ceramic and clay type was then developed, and then later on with plated bronze. This method was a lot more durable and quicker and because the type was all the same dimensions, it also made setting easier.
But how was it all set up? Japanese and Chinese languages contain almost 400,000 characters. Most shops organize them by alphabet, type of symbol and meaning, and some even go as far as to organize them by rhyming groups.
4/18/2017 03:15:54 pm
I seriously can't imagine trying to letterpress with that many characters! All we have to deal with is 26 letters, and punctuation and other fun art elements. I wonder how much more time it takes to letterpress with Japanese characters because of how much time it would take to search for the right letter. I think it's very interesting that Gutenberg still gets all of the credit for inventing the printing press, when it was actually an invention taken from the Chinese. I remember learning in graphic design history how the first Chinese moveable type was sorted in a round case and organized by rhyme.
4/18/2017 11:42:33 pm
Hey, I enjoyed reading your post! That's so sweet you were able to visit Japan and see a local letterpress shop. I have never taken a letterpress class but I can not image the work and time that is put into it. It is truly amazing to see how early printing work was made!
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