Scholars have long struggled to trace the identities of the carvers of Japanese woodblocks used to publish books and illustrations. Carvers are one component of an “invisible labor force” that helped create one of the most vibrant print cultures of world. This paper shows how electron microscopy opens new methods for examining the division of labor in woodblock printing and re-evaluating artisanal identity.
In this paper, I use an electron microscope to map the surface of a mid-18th century woodblock used for printing store stocks. After an introduction of this woodblock’s social and historical position in Japan’s print world, and a discussion of the larger issues at stake in authorship and attribution in East Asia, I discuss how there are tell-tale traces on the surface of woodblocks that have the potential for ascribing identity. For example, different artisans use different tools and processes for clearing the block, and by mapping these traces, a bigger picture is revealed about how a woodblock came to be carved.
This paper is an opening step towards establishing a dedicated experiment to use electron microscopy and other digital tools to understand the collection at Nara University—which is the largest collection of Japanese woodblocks in the world.