Japan in Print: Information and Nation in the Early Modern Period

Japan in Print: Information and Nation in the Early Modern Period

Japan in Print: Information and Nation in the Early Modern Period

Japan in Print: Information and Nation in the Early Modern Period


A quiet revolution in knowledge separated the early modern period in Japan from all previous time. After 1600, self-appointed investigators used the model of the land and cartographic surveys of the newly unified state to observe and order subjects such as agronomy, medicine, gastronomy, commerce, travel, and entertainment. They subsequently circulated their findings through a variety of commercially printed texts: maps, gazetteers, family encyclopedias, urban directories, travel guides, official personnel rosters, and instruction manuals for everything from farming to lovemaking. In this original and gracefully written book, Mary Elizabeth Berry considers the social processes that drove the information explosion of the 1600s. Inviting readers to examine the contours and meanings of this transformation, Berry provides a fascinating account of the conversion of the public from an object of state surveillance into a subject of self-knowledge.

Japan in Print shows how, as investigators collected and disseminated richly diverse data, they came to presume in their audience a standard of cultural literacy that changed anonymous consumers into an "us" bound by common frames of reference. This shared space of knowledge made society visible to itself and in the process subverted notions of status hierarchy. Berry demonstrates that the new public texts projected a national collectivity characterized by universal access to markets, mobility, sociability, and self-fashioning.


Suppose you lived in Kyoto about three hundred years ago and were facing your first trip to Edo, the Tokugawa shogun’s capital, some five hundred kilometers away. To flesh out this fantasy, let’s make you a senior clerk in a firm that retails silk cloth. You are being sent on a temporary assignment from the main shop in Kyoto to a branch in Edo.

You might prepare for your journey, as novices have always prepared in the past, by canvassing seasoned travelers and then trusting to advice along the way. If fortunate and well connected, you might also scan travel diaries in manuscript. But because you live around 1700, you have a further choice—one barely available to your grandparents. You can prepare for your journey by seriously hitting printed books. Since 1640 or so, remarkable numbers of commercially published texts have been converting private knowledge into public information. the mysteries of the road, and many others besides, have been unlocked for both solitary readers and the radiating circles of relations around them. You are one of the readers and, for our purposes, quite a methodical and practiced one. To give you a good budget for buying and borrowing material, which can be costly, we’ll make you the heir to that silk shop.

Being something of a bibliophile, you begin your research by consulting recent booksellers’ catalogues, rough equivalents of Books in Print, which have been appearing in major cities since at least 1659. Kōeki 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 as well (“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 . . .

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