TYPE HomeLogo for TYPE Magazine


The Morisawa Story

The last phototypesetter

Not a museum, a business

At her 1960s workstation, next to a case of her stamps, Ms. Shigematsu is at home.
The fonts on this classic Morisawa phototypesetting machine assembled in a glass grid, the letter board (far left). Once positioned, each character is exposed when the operator pushes this knob (middle left). Takako Shigematsu, 77, who has been setting type on the MD-C for 40 years (middle right). The old logo (far right).

The phototype era saw brand names come and go. Photon, Alphatype, Compugraphic—who remembers them now? But in northern Japan, there is a phototype shop still in business. Shuseido Stamp was founded in 1967 by Hidenori Shigematsu and his wife Takako. He passed away in 2015, but Takako is still running the business, specializing in rubber stamps. She proudly uses a Morisawa MD-C machine they bought for the company back in 1975. In the West, the need for rubber stamps has almost completed faded away, as digital documents replaced paper. But in Asia, businesses and governments still use stamps or “chops” to formalize invoices and certify contracts of all kinds.

“At first, we had metal fonts from the Motoya foundry, and we made stamps by making a mold, and casting the rubber,” Shigematsu said in an interview this spring. “One day, the provider of the stamp supplies said, ‘I’m no longer using this phototypesetting machine. Could you take it away?’” “So, we did. . . . I don’t know how much this machine originally cost, maybe a million yen! [About $9,500.] I learned how to use it by looking closely at the instruction manual,” Takako said. “Bit by bit, I figured it out. For a long time, this machine has made my living. I am completely grateful,” she says.

The heart of the machine is the letterboard. It moves to the position of a character.

After assigning the font size, line feed, and other typographic details, Takako puts the Morisawa letter board in place, chooses lenses for the sizes needed, and then hits a knob to expose one character at a time on photo paper. Taking the cassette into the darkroom, she puts the paper through developer and fix in a darkroom . . . and then the type appears. Using phototype technology clearly requires patience. But though there are quicker methods now, Takako prefers the Morisawa MD-C, which is the 1960s successor to the first Morisawa machines of the 1920s.

“I can see the best proportions, in order to place the letter nicely in this limited space,” Takako said. “My hand and my mind remember how to set the type.” Takako says she once asked a supplier’s sales rep to give the machine a try. “But this young man just could not understand how to do it. He never came up with a final proof. “My question is always, ‘Will the customer like it?’” she says. With her long experience, she seems to knows what to do every time. “They always come back to me!”

Back at her comfortably analog workstation, Tokaka watches as the machine flashes light on the letter board and exposes the type onto the paper. “I love it; I love the sound it makes,” Takako says. “It’s like, you don’t have to think, you can just do it! I can still focus on it with all my might. And I’m 77 years old. I’m so proud of myself that I know how to work this machine.”

Outside the shop, Ms. Shigematsu and her daughter, Midori Shigematsu, greet a visitor

The Morisawa Story

Next entry: On a role

Previous entry: Design generations