By Émilie Rigaud
20 September 2021
History | Japan
After a previous post about Japanese typography, I would like to talk now about Japanese lettering and its powerful shapes. Unlike typography, which repeats letters in an identical way, lettering is the making of signs for a specific situation. The thus created word-image is unique because its shape depends on the word choice, the context and the surface it has been made for.
What are Edo moji?
What we call nowadays « edo moji » (江戸文字) are all the lettering styles that emerged at the end of Edo period (1600-1868), from about the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century. « Moji » means « sign » (or « letter ») and Edo is the old name of Tôkyô. Japan was then closed to foreigners, no one could enter the country. During this time, Japanese culture of entertainment developed, and with it the need for advertising. Edo was indeed the largest city in the world, with 1 million inhabitants in the mid-18th century (twice as many as Paris). The above prints, made by Utagawa Hiroshige around 1840, give us an idea of the importance in Edo of theater for example.
The style of lettering employed in Japan differed according to usage: there were styles dedicated to theater (with variations according to the genre), another style was used for sumo tournaments, and another style was intended for the lanterns that decorated the fronts of restaurants.
Typographic repetition and single-use lettering
Unlike European people, Japanese people used typography only at rare occasions during the Edo period. The main printing process back then was woodblock printing. One engraved wood plank per page, text and image were both carved in wood. There were some attempts at movable type; the first Portuguese missionaries, for example, arrived in Japan with metal type transported by boat and they printed books using movable type. But Japan developed typographic printing in an industrial way much later, from 1870 on (see the article on Motogi Shôzô on this blog).
The Edo period saw the development of the publishing market and bookstores' networks, books being printed using engraved woodblocks. But to print larger surfaces — let's say the equivalent of nowadays' posters —, whereas Europe used precisely woodblock characters, Japan was tracing them with a brush.However, brush lettering is a different technique from calligraphy: in Japanese calligraphy, a pointed round brush is used, with its tip held perpendicular to the paper. In the case of lettering, the length of the brush is flatten on the surface.
At the end of the Edo period, each usage had its own style of lettering, now let's have a look at a few of them.
Yose moji (寄席文字) are dense and very black characters, their mass jumps straight to the eyes, empty spaces are kept to a minimum. The reason for this density lies in the purpose of this style: it was used to design theater programs. Each one of these signs represents the theater room that performers wish to see full with audience. The spaces left between the lines of the sign are equivalent to empty seats and you want to keep them as few as possible.
To illustrate this idea, here is a program made for a theater genre called rakugo (sketch comedy) around 1905.
The Yose moji signs are 3 units wide for 4 units high (unlike sinograms in typography which are perfect squares), and their horizontal strokes are not perfectly flat, the right end of strokes is rising. Above, some sinograms from a lettering handbook.
Kanteiryû characters are also made for theater, but a different genre of theater: the kabuki. Beautiful costumes, grandiose decors, stories about love and hate. Pretty dramatic. This lettering style is wavy, with flexible strokes, and the gravity center of characters is pushed to the left side of the sign (as we can see it in the vertical strokes that are not centered).
Kanteiryû is actually the style developed by Okazakiya Kanroku at the end of 18th century (the word is made of his artist name « Kantei » and « ryû », which means « in the way of »). There were lettering styles for kabuki theater before him, but Ozaki published his own lettering handbook and his shapes became a style in its own.
This lettering style in still in use today, you can see a digital version of it on the front of the kabuki theater hall of Tôkyô, or painted on wood planks on the front of the one in Kyôto.
Characters used to display the program of sumô tournaments are very black, again, and can be stretched in a vertical way.
Like yose moji, the goal is to keep as less white space as possible, but the strokes of sumô moji are more simple than the strokes of yose moji, and stroke endings are left without embellishment.
The characters are painted on woodplanks called « itabanzuke » (板番付), then printed on paper as leaflets for programs.
According to the website of the institution that trains lettering artists, not less than 4 hours of work are needed to design of a full itabanzuke… and learning the technique itself requires a 5 years training.
These characters literally come with « moustaches » (hige). This funny name refers to the exaggeration of lack of ink on the brush at the end of strokes.
These signs proliferate everywhere in Japan in the summer, because the 氷 sign, invariably traced in the moustache style, points to the stroller (overwhelmed by the humid heat of August) the crushed ice shops.
Compared to the lettering styles presented above, the Kago moji have much more squarish proportions, and the ending of their strokes are reinforced.
You can see them nowadays at street festivals on the jackets of people, but also on fans and lanterns that underline the entrance of small restaurants. The way of tracing them is different from other lettering styles: the signs can not be traced directly with a brush on the surface because the armature supporting the paper makes it irregular; the contour of signs is drawn first, and the shapes are then filled in black.
The name « kakuji » literally means « square characters ». Indeed, they are made of no curves at all, only straight lines trying to fill the whole space of the square box at any cost.
This style looks similar to the ancient writing script for seals.This concludes this presentation of the main styles of Japanese lettering. The coming articles will go back to the topic of Japanese typography and its technical developments all along the 20th century. Subscribe to the newsletter below if you want to keep posted about next articles.
Some of the images in this article are from the book 江戸文字, 日向数夫, 2016, グラフィック社.