My personal reading notes are usually too sketchy and poorly-written to be made public, but occasionally I write more detailed summaries for works that I consider particularly important, such as this excellent overview by Peter Kornicki on Japanese manuscript culture of the Edo period. Reproduced below is my reading note on the article, with minimal revisions based on my original notes.
Peter F. Kornicki, “Manuscript, Not Print: Scribal Culture in the Edo Period,” Journal of Japanese Studies 32.1 (2006): 23-52.
This article seeks to correct the usual scholarly characterization of Japan’s Edo period (1600-1868) as a “print culture,” (shuppan bunka 出版文化), a perspective which overlooks the continued circulation of many manuscript books. Kornicki sees this misconception as having arisen from the fact that most previous scholarship had relied on collections of large university libraries and museums that hold very few manuscripts, whereas only recently did local archives, with their larger manuscript collections, become widely available to researchers.
Kornicki classifies Edo-period manuscript into “private” and “public” types, moving on to list and explain the forms of texts that belonged to each category (for Kornicki’s definition of each type, see p. 27). Private manuscripts included financial and legal documents preserved for future reference, “accounts of journeys, personal poetry collections, records of music performances… commonplace books or notebooks filled with lengthy extracts copied out for future reference,” and so on (28). Private manuscripts might have been produced for reasons of religious devotion, as calligraphic works art, or to reproduce hard-to-acquire books and banned books.
Public manuscripts might have included “books of limited local interest, news, and illicit books” (33). The last category would have included, among others, the important genre of jitsuroku 実録, or semi-fictional accounts of political and sensational events. These public manuscripts could be produced for “the preservation and transmission of knowledge or texts, the restriction of access to texts, a response to purely local needs and interests, and the evasion of censorship” (33). Kornicki ends this section by providing several examples of the types of manuscripts found in smaller local collections. There is also a case study of the distribution of extant copies of the jitsuroku text Keian taiheiki 慶安太平記, which did not become printed until the early Meiji period.
The conclusion discusses several points not directly addressed in the main text. Kornicki’s ultimate conclusion is that Edo Japan had a continued and possibly ever more vibrant manuscript culture that makes it insufficient to characterize this period as a “print culture.” I think his evidence is very convincing.