The Japanese comics known as manga have a long history, with roots dating back to books produced in the 17th century.
Those roots are on display in a new exhibit, “Hand-Held: Gerhard Pulverer’s Japanese Illustrated Books” at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., through Aug. 11.
Japanese book publishers started with printing classical literature of the Imperial court, but soon widened their reach to popular literature from both China and Japan, such as war stories, romances and the supernatural — ghosts and demons.
They even discreetly sold erotic literature, “shunpon,” drawn by the elite artists of the day, including Katsushika Hokusai, best known for his “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” woodblock print.
Literacy spread through Japan through Buddhist Temple schools teaching in phonetics, so in the pre-modern period “Edo (now Tokyo) had a relatively high level of literacy,” says Anne Yonemura, senior associate curator of Japanese Art at the adjoining Freer Gallery of Art.
“It is possible to write (characters) in only phonetics,” says Yonemura. “In pre-modern Japan, (with) mastery of somewhere around 150 or so, you can get basic literacy with relatively few characters.”
Cheap, selling for the equivalent of a “few dollars apiece in Japan still,” the small books written in phonetic Japanese were very popular in the major cities of Kyoto, Edo, Nagoya and Osaka. The tales were often serialized (think Charles Dickens and the monthly installments of his novels), and, bound in cheap covers, were sold to avid readers.
“Serial publication was discovered to be a super way to market books over a period of time a chapter at a time,” said Yonemura. “People would get addicted to the subject and just keep buying, and waiting in line for the next volume.” The show has a custom-fitted storage case holding 75 chapters of a single novel.
Over the years, book publishing expanded into home decorating, theater librettos for Noh dramas and instruction manuals.
Four examples of erotic books are on display in a discreet niche.
The Gerhard Pulverer collection was acquired by the Freer Gallery in 2007. Pulverer, still alive, collected these printed books over three decades.
Hokusai “did illustrations for 250 titles in his lifetime,” said Yonemura. Frequently reprinted to the tune of “tens of thousands” were books of lively sketches called “Hokusai’s Random Sketches” — which translates, in Japanese, to “Hokusai Manga.”
HAND-HELD: GERHARD PULVERER’S JAPANESE ILLUSTRATED BOOKS Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, D.C. Through Aug. 11