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The origins of printing in East Asia have been the subject of lively debate over the last twenty years, and a constant point of reference has been the first recorded act of printing in Japan, which took place in the 760s. The term Hyakumantō Darani 百万塔陀羅尼 (hereafter HD) is commonly used in Japan to refer to this episode, and it denotes the Buddhist dhāraṇī or spells which are thought to have been printed in Nara and then inserted into wooden miniature pagodas, and which have for a century been regarded as the oldest printed texts in the world. They were printed, so the evidence suggests, in the closing years of the reign of Shōtoku 稱德 (718–770, r. 764–770), who was the last woman on the Japanese throne for nearly one thousand years and who had had an earlier reign under the name Kōken 孝謙 (r. 749–758).
In this article I shall first examine the evidence relating to the HD and the origins of printing, since the whole question has long been clouded by hypotheses masquerading as fact. Second, I shall explore the origins of the practice of producing miniature pagodas and its transmission to Japan. Third, I shall argue that the established views on the motivation for the HD are inadequate, and shall identify the factors that demand a new explanation, particularly the pagodas themselves. Finally, I turn to the ideological and political factors underlying these events and suggest a new explanation. This new explanation focuses on the politics of Shōtoku's situation and the connection with empress Wu (Wu Zetian 武則天; 624–705, r. 690–705), and it goes some way towards explaining why printing was not resorted to again in Japan for several centuries.
Since first speaking on this subject at the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University as long ago as 1987, I have benefited from the advice of Tim Barrett, Glen Dudbridge, and Joan Piggott, and the assistance of Robert Neather, now of Hong Kong Baptist University, and record my gratitude to them all here.