Matthi Forrer, curator at the National Museum of Ethnology (Museum Volkenkunde) in Leiden, and quite likely *the* leading scholar in the West on Hokusai, spoke with us yesterday about Edo period books, and things to notice and pay attention to when examining books. It was really enlightening.
I had known, on some level, of course, that there were different editions or versions of books, and that surely there must be ways to tell what’s a first edition, and what’s a later reprinting… I had known, that “artists” such as Hokusai were, when it came to books, really more like illustrators, holding very little power as to how their images were to be colored, altered, published and republished. But, it’s hard to shake that idea of the book as artwork, and the artist as the chief creative agent, with the publisher being just sort of an afterthought.
Dr. Forrer’s knowledge of Hokusai books is astonishing. He’d pull out a series of books from the shelf, and immediately knew what to look for to see if it was a first edition or a later edition, which volumes had prefaces or colophons or advertisements and which didn’t… I never really gave it too much thought myself, but while he did point out things to notice within the book’s core content (printing quality, etc.), he impressed upon us the understanding that the most important things to look at are the inside front and back covers, and the first and last few pages. This is where title pages, advertisements, and colophons would be found. Comparing these elements across different copies of the same book can reveal surprising insights into the different editions of a book.
INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY AND COPY RIGHTS, and READING COLOPHONS
Now, let’s see. Where to start. I guess let’s start with copy rights – who had the right or power to create new editions and how they used that power.
In Edo period Japan, as in most pre-modern or early modern societies, there was nothing resembling the concept “intellectual property” as we understand it today. Characters, stories, even artistic compositions (i.e. the arrangement of elements within a picture) were pretty much up for grabs. Painters copied one another’s works, and especially works of their masters and of the great masters of the past as a matter of course, as an essential part of their training, and often copied compositional or stylistic elements in order to pay homage or make reference to particular masters or works of the past. As for characters and stories, a popular character and story such as Sukeroku, for example, started out as bunraku (puppet) plays in Kyoto or Osaka, inspired perhaps by a real-life merchant and his affair with a courtesan. The story was soon adapted into a variety of different versions on the Kyoto Kabuki stages, and then adapted again by Ichikawa Danjûrô of the Edo kabuki actors, and adapted again roughly 100 years later into another version, from which today’s version most closely derives. Meanwhile, families other than the Ichikawa developed their own versions, and more to the point, print artists, book illustrators, painters, and the like produced countless different versions of pictorial and literary depictions of the character Sukeroku and his story.
No one owned a character, or a story. In fact, kabuki actors gave no permission and gained no profits from their own depictions in ukiyo-e prints – in a way, it could be said that actors didn’t even own their own likeness, or crests.
But publishers did own woodblocks. And they bought and sold them, inherited them, traded them or gave them away. The ability to produce or reproduce copies of a given book, such as Hokusai gafu (a picture album of works by Hokusai), relied upon possession of the blocks. We can determine who owned the blocks at the time of the publishing of a given edition by looking at the colophon (奥付, okutsuke), which, fortunate for us, was required (or merely standard practice?) to be included throughout much of the Edo period.
I certainly could have made out parts of this before yesterday, but Dr. Forrer showed us how to break down just about everything here. One key insight was that while a book might list a number of publishers, the leftmost one is the one who owns the blocks. So, in this example, just left of the dividing line, we see Kadomaruya Jinsuke (角丸屋甚助) of Edo, followed by Eirakuya Tôshirô (永楽屋東四郎) of Nagoya (尾州 standing for 尾張国, Owari province), each with their address given. And then, all the way to the left, we see Minoya Iroku (美濃屋伊六), with the 同 above his name meaning “same as” the Owari province, Nagoya designation of Eirakuya to the right.
Now, I would never have known any of this before yesterday, but Eirakuya Tôshirô was actually the publisher who worked directly with Hokusai on this and a number of other books in Nagoya – in books where his name is given on the far left, those are (I believe, in most cases if not straight across the board) earlier editions. Tôshirô worked with Kadomaruya Jinsuke to publish and distribute the prints in Edo, and so, if I understand correctly (and I very well might not), books with Jinsuke’s name on the far right were produced in Edo, not in Nagoya, and were slightly later editions. Jinsuke or Tôshirô later sold blocks for certain books to the famous Tsutaya Jûzaburô (or his successor, I guess? since the famous Jûzaburô who worked with Sharaku and Utamaro died in 1797 and most of these Hokusai books are around 1815-1830s), and so there are other editions that have his name to the far left, which are again later editions. I’ve never heard of this Minoya Iroku, so I don’t know what the story is there, but I can only assume this is an even later edition. Sadly, it’s not dated.
But, even if there were a date, it’s important to remember that this date would almost never be the date of printing, but the date of the original carving of the blocks. This is very useful, when looking at a book, even if we don’t know if it’s a later or earlier edition, to be able to very easily see what date that book was first published. Every copy of the first volume of Hokusai Manga, for example, should say Bunka 11 (文化十一年) in the back, which corresponds to 1814. Excellent information for knowing that that is when Hokusai Manga was first published. But it does not tell us whether the volume we hold in our hands is an 1814 copy, or a later edition.
To the right of the dividing line, we see Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎) listed under 東都 (“Eastern Capital”, meaning Edo) and 画工, meaning “artist.” To the left of that we see the ‘O’ (尾) for Owari province, and Nagoya (名古屋) [I don't know what the 陽 means here.], with Hokusai’s assistants or disciples (校合門人) in Nagoya, who contributed to the volume, listed.
PUBLISHERS & VARIANT EDITIONS
Returning to the point about publishers having the power, and artists having little say, Dr. Forrer shared with us a number of anecdotes or examples of Hokusai’s works being changed up, mixed around, and republished under different titles, or even of other artists’ work being published under Hokusai’s name.
I had never expected to see such a thing, but he showed us how, even if two books have the same title, and look identical upon a quick glance, different editions of what claims to be the same book may easily have a few different images between them. One book might have pages ABCDE, and the other ABGHDE, if you follow my meaning. Some might have extra pages, or fewer pages.
He showed us a book, I think it may have been Ryôhitsu gafu (両筆画譜), which was created when the publisher took a series of blocks designed by Osaka artist Rikkôsai (立好斎), featuring poems along the top register, and altered them. He cut out the kabuki scenes, leaving borders of trees and rocks roughly an inch thick on all sides from Rikkôsai’s work, and then had Hokusai redesign the compositions, inserting his own scenes of peasants gathering firewood, or a number of other subjects. Rikkôsai is given credit in the book’s colophon, which says something like 「山水草木 浪花立好斎 ・ 人物鳥獣 江戸葛飾北斎」, meaning “landscapes and trees and plants by Rikkôsai of Naniwa [Osaka], and people, birds, and beasts by Katsushika Hokusai of Edo.” But, even so, this is a pretty dramatic alteration of the original composition, done presumably without any kind of permission or agreement from Rikkôsai, and simply at the whim of the publisher. Dr. Forrer pointed out to us how clearly you can see, on some pages, where the block-insert for Hokusai’s work didn’t align properly with the “frame” of the original, mutilated, Rikkôsai blocks.
One of Hokusai’s publishers, I think it was either Eirakuya Tôshirô or Kadomaruya Jinsuke, republished many of Hokusai’s books under new titles, combining pages from multiple books, say, three-quarters of “Hokusai Gafu” and one-half of “Hokusai Soga” (I’m making up the numbers, and probably getting the titles wrong – it’s just for an example) as a new volume, “Hokusai Gashiki.” For example. But then he’d go even further, using new pictures by artists such as Hokkei and Hokuun to create new volumes which he’d pass off as the same old ones – perhaps indicating Hokkei or Hokuun as the artist in the colophon in the back, but still labeling the book with the title “Hokusai Gafu” or whatever on the front.
Another of Hokusai’s books was republished in a smaller format, the blocks quite simply chopped off at the edge. Dr. Forrer showed us how a given page from an earlier edition might have a man holding an umbrella, with the umbrella about a half-inch from the edge of the page; in the smaller edition, the full circle of the umbrella’s shape is now cropped off by about half an inch. The same could be seen on every single page, where a figure or an object previously shown in whole was now cropped off. The cropped compositions looked just fine – even better, arguably, compositionally. But there was one which absolutely didn’t. I guess the publisher wasn’t really paying attention to what he was doing, when his cropping cut off the head of a pheasant, leaving the rest of the pheasant still on the page. Dr. Forrer was surprised to see in our edition a non-decapitated pheasant, surmising that this must be a later edition, and that the publisher must have at some point finally realized what he’d done.
I wish I had pictures of any of this to share with you… But, in a couple of years, when the Freer finally puts up its online catalog of all the book images we’re photographing this summer, we’ll all be able to access those pictures, every page, cover to cover.
COLLECTORS’ SEALS and other ephemera
Dr. Forrer spoke with us for about three hours – a serious privilege, an incredible opportunity. He talked about dealers and collectors, about the importance of recognizing marks and stamps and stickers. He pointed out in one book a stamp that read something like 高井蔵書院, meaning “Takai Zôshoin”, and said that from the quality and vividness (or, rather, lack thereof) of the red, he guessed it was an older seal, roughly contemporaneous with when the book was first published in the 1830s or so. Hokusai had direct interactions with a certain Mr. Takai, and so Dr. Forrer wondered if this might belong to him. He also noted that a certain French collector by the name of Gillet (sp?) is known for rebinding his Japanese books with silk-brocade-covered hardcovers and shiny gold title slips. We’ve seen a lot of these – they’re quite recognizable. Many of the books also come with extra slips of paper on which a collector, dealer, or the like has written their own notes, usually including the artist, date, title, and some other comments. Dr. Forrer immediately recognized the handwriting on several of them, including comments by Heinz Kaempfer and Jack Hillier.
EDITION SIZES AND DISTRIBUTION
I’ll leave this by touching upon one more topic. For any single edition or print-run of a single title of an Edo period book, how many copies do you think were printed?
I think it’s difficult to imagine or to estimate the size and scale of pre-modern or early modern societies. We know that the world was much less densely populated, and we assume that because of a relative lack of technologies and communications/transportation networks as compared to today, the numbers must have been much smaller.
He asked us this question, and we sort of looked around at each other. I, personally, have always been bad at estimating scale. Show me a crowded subway car, and I couldn’t tell you if that’s 50 people, or 100, without counting or otherwise calculating/estimating it out. So, I don’t know what numbers others were thinking… but considering that there were no automated factories of any kind, no large bookstore chains, no trucks or trains to carry copies all over the country, picturing individual printers having to sit down and physically rub out each printed page, one by one, and then give the copies to a small number of peddlers, streetside vendors, and the like, I figured how high could the numbers possibly be? I figured there couldn’t be more than 60-100 at most in a single print run. After all, how many people did Eirakuya Tôshirô have under his employ, to rub out pages? And how many street peddlers were there in Edo who had direct, in-person interactions with Kadomaruya Jinsuke in such-and-such street, such-and-such neighborhood, over in that particular corner of Edo, to pick up as many books as they could carry (and how many would that be?), to carry on their back as they walked around town advertising their wares?
No one else said anything. So, I said, “I think I remember reading somewhere recently that they did not in fact do large print runs, but only produced in accordance with demand, a few tens of volumes in this month, a few more tens of volumes in that month, so as to meet a perceived, or explicitly stated, demand.” Dr. Forrer replied something to the effect of “that’s what they want you to believe. The dealers, with their small print runs and their high prices for the rare objects would want you to believe that.”
He went on to explain that Edo in the 1810s-1830s or so had roughly 1.3 million people, and that a best-seller is defined as (defined by whom?) a book that reaches 1% of the population. So, a book like Hokusai Manga or “100 Views of Mt. Fuji” must have sold over 13,000 copies.
This is made possible, in large part, because of the materials being used. Sumi ink causes very little wear on blocks because the pure carbon is a very small particle. This compared to Prussian blue, or indeed any color, which is made up of larger particles, and causes much more wear. This is part of why the fad for printing in all blue, rather than all black, as seen in variant series of the 36 Views of Mt Fuji, did not last.
Unlike the incredible pressure applied to the plates in Western technologies of copperplate engraving, which results in great wear on the plates and low print runs, Japanese methods create very little wear on the blocks. Western printing using copper plates used some sort of mechanical device to press the plates into the paper, applying a great deal of pressure. By contrast, Japanese printing was done by hand, laying the paper over the inked block and rubbing the back of the paper onto the inked block by hand, in a process not entirely unlike taking a rubbing from a tombstone. The only weight or pressure involved is that of a seated man (read: not using his full body weight), using only the pressure exerted by his hands and arms upon the block. Thus, print runs in the thousands, or even above 10,000, were possible, the fine sumi and relatively light pressure creating relatively little wear on the blocks. (Blocks did get chipped, dinged, and repaired or altered, though, and we were shown some examples of how to notice that too.)
So, this is the scale of publication we’re talking about. I guess. I don’t understand the logistics of it, but, there is a lot out there on the Japanese book that I have yet to read, including Mary Beth Berry’s “Japan in Print” and Roger Keyes’ book on Ehon.
So, there you have it. More to come on Japanese books as my internship continues (and, soon, comes to an end), and as I gradually get around to typing up posts about other things I’ve read and seen and attended and heard. Cheers, all. Have a good weekend!
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