To print text in the Japanese language, with its several thousand characters, a device more robust than those used to print European languages was required. By the late 19th century there was a crying need in Japan for a simple printing machine. Driven by their vision of a more efficient workplace, Horii Shinjiro and his son came to the rescue.


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The Writing Brush Gives Way to the Duplicating Machine

Until about 1890, the midpoint of the Meiji era (1868-1912), most writing was done with a brush, since fountain pens, pencils, and typewriters were not yet in widespread use. Consequently, the copying of documents was a burdensome, time-consuming process. Around this time, government agencies and businesses became aware that office work could be streamlined if Western methods were adopted.

It was then that gelatin plates were made, and copy presses imported from the West were used to print documents. Gelatin plates were made by combining glue or agar-agar (a gelatin-like substance made from seaweed) with glycerin, and pouring the mixture into a wooden box. When it had hardened, a paper master, on which characters had been written with a special type of purple ink, was laid on top of the gelatin plate. Copies were printed by hand, one at a time, by placing individual sheets of paper on the gelatin plate. No more (and often fewer) than 50 copies could be made using this method.


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Office Automation in the Meiji Era

Horii Shinjiro and his son, of Shiga prefecture, embarked on a mission to revolutionize printing. Shinjiro (1856-1932) was a civil servant at the Ministry of Home Affairs. His son Jinki (1874-1962), who later took his father's given name, was employed at a trading company. Their hopes of finding a way to streamline office work prompted both of them to resign from their positions and begin their quest for a simple, convenient printing method. They thought that they might be able to apply textile-dyeing techniques (i.e., the cutting of a design into a pattern sheet, which is then used to transfer the dye to fabric) to the printing of text.


Horii Shinjiro and son Jinki
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The first idea they pursued involved placing a master (a stencil made by coating a type of Japanese paper called ganpi with wax) on a wooden baseplate, and writing characters on it with a stylus. A toshaban (literally "copy plate") designed for use with a writing brush had already been invented in 1888, but the Horiis opted for the pen (stylus). They thought that stencils could be cut more efficiently if they added an abrasive baseplate, a file-plate, and set about making one. The idea of printing by applying pressure to a stencil with an ink-saturated roller also occurred to them. Learning that a simple printing machine would be exhibited at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, Horii Shinjiro decided to go there to inspect it.

There he saw a duplicating machine advertised as "Edison's mimeograph." Its construction was remarkably similar to the concept developed by the Horiis. The main difference was in the type of paper used: Edison used thin, Western-style paper for his stencils, in contrast to the Japanese paper used by the Horiis. The density of the Chinese characters used to write the Japanese language, with their many strokes, necessitated a sturdy stencil that would not tear. Papers manufactured in Tosa and Mino (present-day Kochi and Gifu prefectures) were best suited to their purposes because of their high fiber content.


Edison's mimeograph
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Japan's First Toshaban Is Completed

After making improvements to the stylus and roller, the Horiis completed Japan's first toshaban in 1894. In the following year they obtained a patent for their stencil.


Japan's first toshaban
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Horii Toshado
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Their toshaban sold poorly at first, with only occasional orders coming from government offices and banks. But the company's outside sales representatives diligently made the rounds of village offices, elementary schools, and other organizations, providing on-site demonstrations of their machine. When the Sino-Japanese war broke out in 1894, the toshaban was adopted for military communications. Another stroke of good fortune came in the form of a favorable response to an advertisement aimed at foreign trading companies placed in the Japan Times, an English-language newspaper.

The printing process was painstaking and slow because it was done manually. That problem was solved, however, in 1910, when the rotary toshaban was invented. Now the stencil was affixed to the exterior of a cylinder saturated with printing ink. With each rotation of the cylinder, a sheet of paper was fed into the machine and imprinted when pressure was applied to the roller. Horii Shinjiro and his son, who also manufactured other products, including mimeograph paper, made an outstanding contribution to the development of lightweight printing machines.


Newspaper advertisement
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Rotary toshaban machine
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The Rise and Fall of the Gariban

With the dawning of the Taisho era (1912-1926), more companies were manufacturing and selling the toshaban. In 1918, the Sato Brothers Trading Co. was established in Misaki-cho, Kanda, Tokyo's student quarter, followed by Showa Toshado (today Showa Co., Ltd.), founded by Haba Yuminosuke of Gifu Prefecture in 1928. By this time, the toshaban, formerly perceived as a machine to be used mainly by companies and schools, was in common use. It had also acquired another name, gariban, from the scratching sound (gari gari) produced when the stylus cut into the stencil. With the upsurge of movements of social inquiry and protest in the early Showa era (1926 -1989), the toshaban was used extensively by workers and students. It was also a mainstay of a campaign encouraging schoolchildren to write compositions, which were printed and shared with others. The peak of toshaban popularity was reached after World War II ended, when the freedoms of speech and expression were restored to the Japanese people.


Sound of the stylus cutting the stencil

The peak did not last long, however. In 1953, the first year that television programs were broadcast in Japan, the mimeograph machine appeared on the scene. The mimeograph gained popularity in the business world because of its speed and the durability of the stencils it used, and quickly superannuated the gariban. The lower cost of offset printing also revolutionized printing with lightweight duplicating machines. After 1967, when Xerox introduced its electronic copying device, the gariban was used to make small batches of advertising and reference material. The diffusion of lightweight printing machines and inroads made by computerized phototypesetting and printing rendered the gariban obsolete. The dazzling proliferation of word processors subsequent to 1979 forced Horii Toshado to cease manufacturing the toshaban in 1987. In 1989, Shikoku Toshado, which had specialized in producing high-quality stencils, was also forced to halt production.


Showa Toshado
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Purinto Gokko
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Nowadays, the toshaban is used only for a few small-scale specialty magazines and newsletters, and for toshaban art. But its principles have been incorporated into thermal digital printing systems and duplicators equipped both with composing and printing features, which are widely used, especially at schools. They have also been adopted for products used in the home, such as Purinto Gokko (a printing set produced by Riso Kagaku Corporation and used mainly to create New Year's cards), and new demands continue to arise.


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