HoMA Select

Suminokura  Sōan  and  Hon’ami  Kōetsu,
Sagabon: Libretto for the Noh Play “Yōkihi”

Some of the earliest and most elegant Japanese texts printed from movable type were sagabon, or books produced in Kyoto’s Saga district in approximately 1615. HoMA is fortunate to possess a number of sagabon, thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Theodore A. Cooke, who gifted the books to the museum in 1967.

Movable type required individual blocks that could be rearranged to print a variety of words, letters, and other linguistic elements. Although the most famous example
of early typesetting is the Gutenberg Bible (printed in Europe in the 1450s), the Gutenberg Bible is not the oldest. That distinction belongs to a Chinese publication produced about four hundred years earlier by an artisan who used porcelain ideographs (words that express ideas through pictures) in the printing process. Because tens of thousands of ideographs are used in Chinese, this was likely an arduous process.

Due to China’s cultural influence, Japan incorporated ideographs into writing sometime before the fifth century, while phonetic symbols were introduced several centuries later. Sagabon printers overcame the challenges faced by their Chinese predecessors by mainly employing phonemes (units of sound) and only a limited number of common ideographs.

In this digital age of information overload, it is interesting to consider how information was first disseminated 1,000 years ago and how much slower and intentionally artful the process historically was. Here’s some food for thought the next time you send a text or an email—will it still exist in ten years? In one hundred? How about one thousand? Also: can you imagine what communication technology might look like in the future?

— Stephen Salel, Curator of Japanese Art


Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558–1637)
Sagabon: Libretto for the Noh Play “Yōkihi”
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), c. 1615
Woodblock-printed book; ink and mica on paper
Gift of Mr. & Mrs. Theodore A. Cooke, 1967 (3508.1)