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These pages are not for experts; they are for people who do not speak Japanese but who, for one reason or another, have an interest in books written in Japanese. The aim is to explain as simply as possible and with a minimum of technical terms how to identify points which matter to a book collector, like the date the book was published, and whether it is a first edition.


Just as important as identifying the edition is the matter of whether the book is complete. This is not as straightforward as it sounds. Prior to the 20th century most books were issued in a soft binding, with pages folded concertina-style and sewn at the spine (fukurotouji binding). If you have one of these in your hand it is at least a complete book (though check the section on books which are part of a series to see if it is one of a set). More recent books, however, are frequently issued in a slipcase and - even more common - with a wraparound band. To be complete, a Japanese book issued with such a band should still retain the band. To see what these bands look like, CLICK HERE.

Identifying First Editions

Identifying first editions of Japanese books is usually a fairly straightforward matter (most books carry a statement with details at the back). Books which do not carry a publishing statement are generally either reprints or single volumes from a series (often - especially in the case of older books - it is only the last volume of the series which carries the publishing statement).

Unlike Western publishers, Japanese publishers usually follow very similar conventions, and show not only the day, month and year the book was published, but whether it is a first printing or a later printing. The only thing they do
not usually tell you is whether the book has been previously published by another publisher. To find out whether a given publication is actually the first time the book has appeared in printed form you will need to have software to enable you to read and write Japanese and enter the details on the NACSIS website, but inputting the information will present difficulties unless you can get help with the transcription (i.e., you need to be able to know how it is pronounced in order to be able to type it). If you don't want to go into it that deeply, there is also a chance that you can find the book you are looking for in the western alphabet on the OCLC website, but again you need at least to know how the title is pronounced.

If you're going to take things that bit further, and try to work out some of the Japanese characters yourself, you'll probably want to whittle down the amount of work you need to do. If you focus on the page that gives the publication details you will probably be able to get all the bibliographical information you need. You'll also need some decent tools. Gakken publish a book called A New Dictionary of Kanji Usage,which covers the basic characters and their most common collocations, and once you get a bit more advanced Sharp do a kind of all-singing-all-dancing electronic dictionary called a Zaurus, that you can write the Japanese characters into and it will read them for you, tell you how they're pronounced, what they mean and how they collocate. It will even find all the characters that have a certain basic component (for those characters that are too complicated to write in accurately).

But that's all for the more serious scholar. For now, I just want to give enough information so that anyone who's got a passing interest in Japanese books can start to find their feet. If you're collecting the works of your favourite author in every language under the sun, or you have Japanese ancestry but no knowledge (or little knowledge) of the language, or you're fascinated by Japanese woodblock print books and want to own a couple of  examples, or whatever - this web page is for you. Study it for an hour or two, and you should be able to work out the date of most of the Japanese books that come your way.


The first step is to locate the actual page on which the information is given. It is almost always at the back of the book, but it may not be the very last page; it may be followed by pages of ads for other books, etc. If it is a "modern" book (i.e., dates from the 1970s or so) the page with the publication details will generally have an ISBN number on it, making it fairly easy to locate.

The "back" of a Japanese book is usually - but not always - at the opposite end of the book from what would be the back of an English book. It's usually not hard to work out--from the art work, layout, etc. - which is the front cover; if the front cover comes on what would be the back of an English book then the whole book is, from an English point of view, "back to front". This is the usual layout, and the publishing statement will usually be found at the end of the text.

Sometimes Japanese books have the same layout as English books (I.e., the book opens from the left and runs from left to right, but usually it is the other way around as I have described. If the book follows the English layout (i.e., it reads from left to right) it probably gives the publication details at the end of the text. Occasionally, though, the details will be found on the back of the title page, or elsewhere at the front of the book.

In the case of bilingual books (let's stick to books written in Japanese and English, and leave out other languages), the English text quite often starts from the left-hand side (as is standard with English books), and the Japanese text starts from the right-hand side (as is normal in Japanese), so that both texts end in the middle of the book. In such cases, the publishing statement usually comes at the end of the Japanese text (i.e., in the middle of the book); if publication details are given in English at all they are usually only partial, and can be misleading (e.g., they may not show that the book is a later printing).

This may all sound a bit daunting, but with a little practice, you will soon find you can locate the page which carries the publishing statement. Carry on to the next page to see pictures of a few examples, so you can get an idea of the kind of thing to look for.

                   EXAMPLES OF PAGES GIVING


More recent books - especially if they are translations - frequently give a lot of information in English. This one even says "Japanese edition first published in 1997" in English, but that doesn't prove anything. This particular copy could still be a later printing or even a later edition; it's what's written in Japanese that counts, not what it says in English.


Until about the 1950s, a lot of books - especially first printings - had a little stamp on the page with the publication details. The stamp has a seal (usually the author's or translator's seal). This  is a typical example. In the previous example, the idea of a stamp and seal survives in the printed seal at the top.

Another clue that the page on the right carries the publication details is the fact that it has the price on it (well, two prices in fact!), using the symbol for yen, which is:


During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the page with the publication details often looked like this. As in the above example, the Japanese system of dating is used (see section on Japanese dates). The title (which is usually given on the same page) is in this case on the opposite page and shows the book to be the first of a series (see page on serials).


The traditional Japanese book was printed on folded rice paper, like the one on the right, the last volume in a series illustrating motifs used in shrines and temples. Symbols were often printed over the fold itself (extreme right), showing the page number and contents of each leaf. This example (from a book of shrine motifs during the Meiji period) is a bit more difficult to interpret, in that it doesn't use the same symbols as I explain below, but the basic layout is similar, and (as we shall see when we come back to look at these pages in more detail later on) that helps a lot in determining the edition.

The next step is to find and interpret the date (or dates) given on these pages.

                    READING JAPANESE DATES (1)

i) Japanese Dates

Once the page with the publication details has been located, the first question most collectors will want to be able to answer is, "When was the book published?" Again, it is not so difficult to find this information - it is basically a question of knowing what to look for.

The first thing to look for is the symbol for "year".

The second thing to look for is the symbol for "month".

The third thing to look for is the symbol for "day".




All these things together (separated, of course, by numbers, showing what the day, month and year actually were) make up a date. The date may run vertically or horizontally from left to right or (in books up to about 1930) horizontally from right to left.

Sometimes (especially in more recent books) the numbers indicating the day, month and year are given in Arabic numerals, so you will be able to read it immediately. Often, though, the numbers are given in Japanese. Here, then, are the basic numbers you need to know:

The trickiest bit is the fact that there is more than one way of writing the same thing. For example, December 20th, 1976 could be written in either of the following ways:

The first way shows 1976 as "thousand nine hundreds seven tens six year". Then it shows the twelfth month (i.e., December) as "ten two month", and finally it shows the twentieth day as "two tens day". The second way reads "one nine seven six year, one two month, two zero day". There are other, even more complicated ways of showing the date, but I want to keep this simple! I will come back to the Japanese dating system later on, though.

If all of this seems difficult, bear in mind that you don't need to go through the process of
deciphering each and every date. All you really need to be able to do is identify the date. From that you should be able to work out whether or not the book is a first printing. That's the next step.

                        INTERPRETING THE DATE

(a) The Context

If you've located the the page with the publication details, and  found a date and deciphered it, the next step is to find out what the date actually
means. It probably means one of three things. Either it is the date the book was printed, or it is the date the book was published (Japanese books often give both dates, usually a few days or even a couple of weeks apart), or this is a later printing and the date you have deciphered is the date the book was first published (or printed).

The first thing to do is look at the
context. Is the date given in a single column or line of text that stands alone? Or does it appear in two or more columns or lines of text (each one with different numbers, indicating a separate date)?

If there is only one column or line of text then the date is probably the date of publication. You will need to follow further clues (given later on) to determine whether it is a first printing or a later printing.

If there are two columns or lines of text (which is typical), then this probably indicates one of two possibilities, as follows:

(1) The book is a first edition, and the right-hand column, or topmost line of text, refers to the date of printing and the left-hand column, or bottom line of text, refers to the date of publication.

(2) The book is a later printing, and the right-hand column, or topmost line of text, refers to the date of the first printing, and the left-hand column, or bottom line of text, refers to the date of printing of this particular copy.

If there are more than two columns or lines of text with dates the book is almost certainly a later printing; the final column or line of text will give the date of the book in question, and the previous columns or lines of text will give the dates of earlier printings.

(b) Other Clues

OK, so we've now narrowed things down to one or more columns or lines of text that show one or more of the following:
        - date of printing
        - date of publication of this particular printing
        - date of publication of previous printings
The final step is to work out which of the dates on the page refer to which of these three pieces of information. There are several ways in which publishers show this information. Most of them use a combination of some or all of the following symbols:

Let's try putting these together, with a few examples. Remember, if there is more than one column or line of text with a date in it, it will be the left-hand column or the bottom line of text that will give the publication details of the book itself. Other columns or lines of text will refer either to the details of printing (typically a book is printed a couple of weeks or so before it is actually published, or distributed) or to the details of previous editions.

Here, then, is a typical first edition statement:

You see? If you've stuck with me this far, you'll see it's not really so difficult. OK, the date may be given in Japanese symbols, rather than in Arabic numerals, but what is really important is what comes after the date. The first date is followed by the symbols "first edition printing" and the second date is followed by the symbols "first edition publication". If the text is printed vertically, the first date will be on the right, and the second date on the left. There, now - that wasn't so difficult, was it?

Before we take a look at other ways that publishers might show that their publication is a first edition, let's take a look at the warning signs - things which betray conclusively that the book is
not a first edition.


I'm taking the book-collector's point of view here, so when I say "first edition" I mean the
first printing of the first edition. This is almost always the printing that has the most value to a collector, and knowing whether a given book is the first printing or not is of prime importance. The first thing to look for is the symbol:

This symbol cropped up in number 2 of the list of Japanese symbols I have just given, and it signifies a reprint. For example:

Here the top line of text (or the right-hand column, if it is printed vertically) reads, after the date "first printing publication" (i.e., the first printing was published/distributed on June 20th, 1984). The second line says "second printing [or reprinting] publication" (i.e., the second printing, or reprint, was published/distributed on July 15th, 1984). This symbol always indicates a reprint edition.

The next thing to look for is any number above one that is not part of the date. For example, in the above case, instead of using the symbol

the publisher could have used a number. If the number is in Arabic numerals you will have no difficulty, but often Japanese numbers will be used. For example:

This shows the same information as the previous example, but in a slightly different way.

The telltale sign is usually, if there is
any number (apart from the number one) after the end of the date and before the symbol for "edition" or "publication" in the last line of print (i.e., the bottom line if the text is printed left to right, or the left-hand column if it is printed vertically) that number indicates that the book is a later printing.

OK, now let's go back to Japanese dates. There is a dating system that is still in common use that we need to look at.

                      READING JAPANESE DATES (2)

In many cases - especially for books less than about thirty or forty years old, the information I have given so far may be enough to establish the publication details of a given book. However, there are still several points which I have not covered. The first one is the Japanese dating system.

So far, I have shown how Western dates are shown in the Japanese writing system. But there is also a Japanese calendar. Since 1873, it has followed the Western (Gregorian) calendar as far as the days and months go, but the year is still frequently given in the old way.

The old way is based on "periods", each period covering the rule of an emperor. I'll just look at the last four periods, since that's as much as most people will have to deal with. If you want the complete list, going back to the year dot, CLICK HERE.

For a year-by-year conversion chart, CLICK HERE. Note that the last year of the previous emperor is the first year of the next one. For example, the last year of the Shouwa period (Shouwa 64) lasts up until January 7th, 1989 (the day Emperor Hirohito died) and the first year of the Heisei period begins on January 8th. Apart from that, each year (since 1873) ends on December 31st, just like the Western calendar. Here are a few examples of dates following this system:

If you can decipher these correctly as January 15th, Meiji 30 (=1897), March 12th, Shouwa 25 (=1950) and June 20th, Heisei 10 (=1998) you're doing OK! Remember, sometimes the numbers are shown differently; 10 can be shown as "one zero", 25 can be shown as "two five", etc., but if you've got this far you've got as far as I'm going with dates. There is more to say on the subject (for instance, there are different symbols for the numbers which crop up occasionally, especially in older books), but the information given here should make it possible to date with accuracy the vast majority of books the average person is likely to come across (discounting, of course, those in which - for one reason or another - the date isn't actually given!). 


This is a very important piece of information that you
must keep an eye out for. Japanese books are frequently split into two or more volumes, and it is easy to end up with only one volume, thinking you have the whole thing, especially when the same book in English may only be one volume. For example, the Japanese edition of Stephen King's Needful Things is in two volumes, whereas in English it is just one volume, and the same is true of the Japanese edition of many English writers. 

To find out whether the book you are looking at is complete in itself or one of a series, you need to check the following:




These symbols come after the title (so they appear on the cover and on the title page, as well as on the page with the publication details), and show that a book is the first, middle or last volume of a series. If - as is usual - it is a two-volume series there will, of course, be no

"middle" volume, and there is no easy way to tell whether there ought to be a middle volume. However, three-volume sets are comparatively infrequent, so unless you have any reason to suspect there should be a middle volume it's reasonable to assume that it is complete in two volumes.

If the book is part of a longer series (i.e., more than three volumes) the number of the volume should appear after the title (see the Japanese numbers given above). In the case of older books, usually only the last volume of the series carries a publication statement, so if (like me!) you have a set of older books which runs from volume one to six, but does not have a publishing statement, this probably means there is at least one further volume which is missing from the set.

Also quite common in older books is the following symbol, which indicates that the book is complete in itself, and that there are no further volumes:

This symbol is normally also placed prominently on the cover and title page, after the title. Check the title carefully, and avoid it if it is followed by a number or one of the three symbols indicating the first, middle and last volume of a series (unless of course the other volumes in the series are also present). If it has the symbol indicating it is complete, or if there is nothing at all after the title, then you can assume the book is complete in itself.

And that, more or less, is as far as a non-specialist non-Japanese speaker can hope to do. The next page gives a brief account of other information it
might be possible to glean without having specialised knowledge, and then I finish off with some examples from actual books.

                         OTHER PUBLICATION DETAILS

Before I go on to show some actual examples of publication statements, I'll just say a few words about other associated information that probably appears on the same page. The page probably tells you the name of the author, the title of the book, the publisher and various other details (e.g., the name of the translator or illustrator, where applicable).

Whereas you can work out the date, and hence the edition, without too much difficulty, in a lot of cases there is no easy way to get at this other information.

Some books give at least some of the information in Western script. I have a book open in front of me right now, for example, that says, "© Machiko SATANAKA/CHUOKORON-SHINSHA, INC."  That gives me the author of the book and the publisher who, between them, share the copyright on this volume (a manga version of Greek mythology).

Most modern books carry an ISBN, and sometimes an ISBN search, either on one of the major search organs (such as GOOGLE or ALLTHEWEB) or on the Library of Congress website, will lead to some information in English. Other than that, there's no easy way, I'm afraid.

Sorry this section's so short, but it'd either have to be very short or incredibly long and complicated. There's only so far you can go without being able to read Japanese fluently. On the positive side, though, as I've tried to explain, with a little effort even a non-specialist can identify the printing of a book and determine whether it is complete in itself or one of a series. That's definitely better than nothing!

Now let's take a look at some examples from some actual books.


Now let's take a look at some examples of publication statements from actual books. There are quite a few variations on the basic format I've already described, and I'll try to cover as many of these as possible.

Here, to start with, are the publication details from the four books whose publication page is pictured above.


This is the part of the publication page that we are interested in. I've highlighted the date and included enough of the context to make it clear that it is not one of a series of dates. This is the only date given, so this is the date we are interested in.

Before the date come the two symbols meaning "publication" or "distribution" (number 8 on the list above). Above it is the name of the book in Japanese, followed by the author's name in Japanese and the translator's name. Below it is the name and address of the publisher.

The publication details themselves are a little different to the basic layout I showed above. Typically, the date comes first, and the symbols for "printing" or "first edition" or "publication", etc., come after. Also, it's pretty sparse; there's usually something to say when the book was printed, usually a couple of weeks or so before it was published. Still, the message is clear enough. The book was published on October 30th, 1997, and this is the first edition/printing.


Again, the information is given in a single line. Here the date is in the Japanese style (Shouwa 25, 6th month, 30th day, i.e., July 30th, 1950), and the symbols for "first edition" and "publication" (numbers 1 and 8 on the list above) follow the date. This is the more usual order.

The publication details show that this is a first printing, but one thing Japanese publishers usually won't tell you is whether the book has been published previously by another publisher. To get that information I had to dig around on the NACSIS website (which you will only be able to do if you have a Japanese system or software enabling you to read and write Japanese), in order to ascertain that, while this was the first edition by this particular translator, the book had first appeared in Japanese in 1939, so this is the second edition of Hesse's work and the first by this translator.


This gives more complete details. The column at the extreme right shows when the book was first printed, and the one next to it shows when it was first published. In this case the two dates are just three days apart (the 14th and 17th of September, Meiji 33 [=1900], respectively).

The two columns on the left show the date of this printing and its publication (December 16th and 19th, 1900), i.e., this is the second printing. The thing to watch for is the symbol

This indicates a reprint. It is not unusual, especially in books of this period, to see a list of as many as twenty or thirty dates, showing the date of each reprint.


The publication statement on this book is interesting because it reflects the customs and technology of a different age. Instead of showing the date of printing, the column on the right shows the date on which the book was licensed to be printed, and the column on the left contains the symbol for woodblock printing.

In other words, although the actual characters used are different, the basic layout is the same. The right-hand column shows us what we want to know, and since there is no number or reprint symbol after the date in the left-hand column we can be fairly confident - even without interpreting the characters used - that it refers to a first printing.

The date of licensing (right-hand column) is Meiji 16, 6th month, 15th day (June 15th, 1883), and the date of printing is Meiji 16, 6th month, 25th day (June 25th, 1883). Note the variant way of showing "20" as a horizontal line with two vertical lines cutting through it.

There are other variant readings for the numbers and other characters, especially in older books. However, my aim is basically to show how to interpret the publication statements that are commonly found. Once you start to go back into the Meiji period and beyond you should either start to make a more specialised study of the subject yourself or, at the least, try and get some guidance from someone who knows what he/she is about (for collectors, that would normally include buying from a reputable specialist).



Here are a few more publications statements, showing some of the variant ways of indicating edition/printing used by Japanese publishers.


This is a piece of anti-German propaganda published during WWI, written and compiled by J.W. Robertson Scott, and illustrated by Raemakers.

It was a listing for this book by a bookseller specialising in Asian books that got me thinking along the lines of creating this web page in the first place. The listing gives the date in square brackets as 1916. The square brackets indicate that the date is not given in the usual place but can be inferred from other sources. Another seller lists the book as being undated.

This is one of those bilingual Japanese books that has the English text starting from the inside of the left-hand cover (where English books usually begin) and the Japanese text starting from the inside of the right-hand cover (as most - but not all - Japanese books do). The two texts meet in the middle. The English text does not give a date of publication, though it has an introduction dated 1916, which explains why these two sellers listed it as they did.

As is often the case with bilingual books - and, quite often, with books written in English but published  in Japan - the publication details are given in Japanese only. They show that it was first printed and published on December 15th and 18th respectively, in Taishou 5 (=1916). This particular copy has two further dates, one showing that the book went into a second printing on January 5th of the following year, and the final one - the one furthest to the left - indicationg a third printing (January 15th, Taishou 6 [1917]). This is the date which applies to this book.

As I say, even a specialised dealer from the West missed these publication details (though a Japanese seller listing the same book apparently had no difficulty identifying the printing), and that got me thinking that - limited and imperfect though my knowledge of Japanese is - perhaps I could fill a gap by creating a web page like this one.


Let's carry on with more examples of books that are
not first printings. That's probably more useful, in a way, than looking at ones that are. It shows what to look out for!

This is another example of a publication statement in which the details precede the date. Both columns begin with the characters for "new publication", but in the first column this is followed by the "first edtion" statement and in the second column it is followed by a statement saying "second printing".


This novel (Spring Snow) is the first of a series of four novels, so we get the title of the book (top right), followed by the title of the series and an indication that this is the first book in the series.

The actual publication details come on the left-hand side, showing the date of the first printing and (furthest left) showing this copy to be a fourth printing (Shouwa 44, 2nd month, 15th day = February 15th, 1969).



One thing that should be fairly clear by now is that if there are more than two dates given the book is almost certainly a later printing. This Meiji period Commentary on the Acts is a good example. The publication statement contains several characters that I haven't explained here, and (unusually) the dates show the year and month only, and the day is left blank, but the fact that there are three dates is in itself a pretty conclusive sign that the book is a reprint.

Confirmation of this can be found from the fact that, in the right-hand column, there is the number "two" after the date and before the character for "edition". This book was printed in the third month of the twenty first year of the Meiji period (= March 1888), and the first edition was in December, 1886.





There's a bewildering amount of information on this page (and this is just part of it!), and some of the characters are not familiar to us today. But the first thing that our eye should be drawn to is the character that indicates a reprint:

Once we've picked that out other details will fall into place.

Of course, that character is used to indicate repetition in various contexts, not only to indicate reprints, but there's a strong likelihood that this is our starting point. The first thing to do is to confirm that the column in which it appears does indeed contain a date. It has the symbol for "month", and something that looks very similar to the symbol for year, but the clincher would be to decipher the era name, which comes at the beginning of the date. We have only looked at the four latest era names so far, and this book precedes that. CLICK HERE to see a complete list of Japanese era names, and you will see that the date given here is from the Bunkyuu era  (1861-4). We can understand enough to work out that this book is a reprint from the sixth month of the second year of that era.

And that just about wraps it up. As you can see, I've tried to show books that the average collector might come across, rather than highly specialised - and expensive! - items. If you have further queries, I'm prepared to try to answer them, within reasonable limits (I already have a full-time job!).

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