Writing and Image in Pre-modern Japan Article - Août 2018

Marianne Simon-Oikawa

Marianne Simon-Oikawa, « Writing and Image in Pre-modern Japan  », Inmunkwahak – The journal of the Humanities, août 2018, pp. 39-77. ISSN 1229-6201


A tobacco merchant, writer and artist, Santô Kyôden (1761-1816) also made an important contribution to the history of moji-e. Moji-e are pictures (e) made with writing characters (moji). This kind of images reached their peak in the Edo period (1603-1868) in Japan, but are still in use in graphic design and advertising today. Kyôden’s interest in moji-e dates back to the early 1780s and is based on his personal taste for the graphic forms of writing, which is often seen in his work. It culminates in his Kimyôzui (Collection of Enigmatic Images) published in 1803 : in the first pages of his book Kyôden reproduces several examples of classic moji-e, before presenting new ones he invented himself. Kimyozui gives the first visual history of moji-e, and was to become an important landmark in the evolution of the genre. The aim of this paper is to analyze this turning point, by studying the forms and the meanings of Kyôden’s contribution to the history of moji-e. After a quick presentation of the traditional moji-e that appear in his works before 1803, we focus on the characteristics of his personal creations in Kimyôzui, and their posterity. The paper proposes a semiotic study of a few important moji-e, but also discusses, from the perspective of cultural history, the multiplicity of the media where moji-e could be found (from books to hand towels or walls), the diversity of their status (from calligraphic tradition to pornographic graffiti), and the conditions of their circulation throughout history.

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