Empress Shōtoku

Dhāranī and Woodblock Printing

Empress Shōtoku

Could the beginning of mass printing have started in Japan?

The Gutenberg Bible (also known as the 42-line Bible, or the Mazarin Bible) was the first book mass-produced in Europe. It marked the beginning of the printed age in the Western world.

Empress Shōtoku

Upon close examination of surviving copies, modern day scholars suggest that somewhere between 160 and 185 copies were printed, with about a third on paper and the rest on vellum. Amazingly, in Japan, 700 years prior to the release of the Gutenberg Bible, woodblock printing was used to create a million copies of the dhāranī texts, a Buddhist ritual speech.

Woodblock printing is a technique for printing images, text, or patterns that originated from China and were used throughout East Asia. It was used initially to print on textiles and later, on paper. The earlier known woodblock printing in Japan dates back to 764-770, when Empress Shōtoku commissioned the printing of one million dhāranī texts on scrolls inside small wooden pagodas that were distributed to temples around Japan.

A replica exhibit of Dharani sutra in the National Museum of Korea.

Empress Shōtoku ruled over Japan twice, initially from 749 to 758 C.E. as Empress Kōken. According to the traditional order of succession, she was 46th (with the Empress Kōken name) and the 48th monarch of Japan (with Empress Shōtoku name).

A replica exhibit of Dharani sutra in the National Museum of Korea. | Naturehead

As Empress Kōken, she was said to have abdicated the throne when she fell into depression. In 761, soon after her mother’s death, a Buddhist monk named Dōkyō was sent to help her. The two soon grew close and began an affair. Empress Shōtoku’s cousin, Fujiwara no Nakamaro questioned her judgment, and a battle ensued leading to the cousin’s death. Empress Shōtoku reascended the throne as Empress Shōtoku from 765 up until her death in 770. Dōkyō was appointed Grand Minister in 764. In 766, he was promoted to Hōō (priestly emperor) and in 770 tried to ascend to throne by himself. The death of the Empress and resistance from the aristocracy destroyed his plans.

During Empress Shōtoku’s reign, there was an issue regarding her cousin’s death and she was thought to have committed parricide, a grave sin. The Buddhist priest Dōkyō suggested the copying of a million dhāranī texts to absolve her. The act was believed to provide spiritual benefits. Hence, the mass-produced woodblock printing of the ancient Buddhist ritual texts that precedes the Gutenberg Bible.