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Friday, January 22, 2010

The First Million Copies

As we move into the age of the e-book, I started to wonder, who started this whole publishing thing, anyway? The logical answer was Guttenberg (not Steve, Johannes). That’s what they always told us in school. In 1450, Johannes Guttenberg made the leap from hand-made copies to mass production. But on further digging, I found an even older publisher. In 764, Koken, the Empress of Japan, ordered the production of one million prayer scrolls to ward off a plague.


As Buddhist nuns, Koken and her mother, Komyo spent nearly twenty years building temples all over Japan (with the help of Dad, the Emperor) and made their capital city of Nara, the center of the Buddhist religion in Japan. When the Emperor retired (everyone says he wanted to become a Buddhist monk), the newly crowned Empress Koken completed the building of a 72-foot tall bronze statue of the Buddha. Legend

has it that her father, Emperor Shomu, painted in the irises of the statue on the day he became a monk.

Empress Koken apparently commanded that the million scrolls be printed because of the prevailing belief that if you put enough prayer charms in the temple, famine and plague could be warded off. Even though the Japanese already had technology capable of block printing, the royal printer was quite surprised by the command. But the command was carried out. It took six years, but in 770, the Empress has her one million

copies. Each was placed in a pagoda charm and finally made it to the royal temple in Nara. Of course since the royal temple had charms, every temple had to have them. A burgeoning industry in temple charms was born.

Unfortunately, the charms didn’t work for the Empress. She died of smallpox within months. But many charms from the period are still in Buddhist temples to this day. I’ll always remember Empress Koken as the first to have a million copy print run. I’m hoping that she’ll look down and bless one of my print runs one of these days.

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