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A patent “blueprint” shows letter boards, which positioned each character, and the light which flashed for each. Paper advanced line by line. Lenses provided a variety of sizes.

The Morisawa Story

The spirit
is in
the details

An insider explains the culture of a great type foundry

Left: A grid of letter boards, the phototype fonts introduced by Morisawa in 1925.

To begin at the beginning, the first text typesetting machine in Japan was patented by Nobuo Morisawa in 1925. The idea of combining photography with typesetting had been discussed for decades, and there were several short-lived inventions of phototypesetting machines, including a 1921 venture-backed by Kodak with the unlikely name of Thothmic. The first successful machine in the West is usually credited to the great Ed Rondthaler, who opened a shop in New York in 1936, offering to set headlines with his Photo-Lettering machine.  But this was display type, and Mr. Morisawa was successfully producing text from his machine, 11 years earlier. In Japanese! Ninety years later his company is still thriving.

When he started to work, Japanese printers and publishers were eager for something faster and less expensive than the metal type they set by hand, character by character. In the West, machines like the Linotype had taken over the newspaper industry, the biggest market for type. But with more than 5,000 characters needed for a Japanese font, these typecasting machines were just not big enough, and even the newspapers set their type by hand. Morisawa’s first-of-its-kind fonts used an analog camera to take an image of a hand-drawn letter, which made it possible to capture the thousands of letters in Japanese.

The guts of the machine: Lenses, the letter board, and the exposure knobs (bottom left). The letter boards assembled from a grid allowed Morisawa machines to offer thousands of characters at once. This Type-A 1946 was the first new model after War World II (bottom right).

The technology was simplified by the fact that all characters (like Chinese) fit into squares—so, they were non-proportional, or monospaced. Each letter occupies the same amount of horizontal space, as opposed to a Latin font where the letters and spaces have differing width. This made Japanese suited to photographic typesetting, where thousands of glyphs were assembled on light-weight film, despite the giant character set. This, of course, was the analog era. The letters were drawn by hand, then photographed, and the film was developed by hand. Specialists were required to work on a sensitive and delicate process. There was a kind of spirit in the process as well.

The key to the Morisawa machine was the font, which Morisawa called the letter board. The size of the letter on the letter board is about 4mm. The original was drawn on a 62.5mm square grid sheet. Designers sketched one letter on one sheet. So, the early Morisawa film fonts drawing paper enlarged each character 5x—the precision limit for the big graphic camera lenses in the 1930s.

An operator, perhaps not dressed in normal work attire, sitting at the first practical phototypesettting machine, 1929. Equipped with 12 lenses, it could set 5,460 glyphs.

The reason that the scaling is a nice round number is that at that time, it was impossible to reproduce the drawings at greater sizes. The gridded drawing paper for the letters was designed by a type designer, and we know type designers are a bit obsessive about the space around letters. The grid inside the frame is spaced at two millimeters. It was the combination of ingenuity and precision that created the initial success of Morisawa and planted a seed for its culture. At the risk of stating the obvious, detailed work leads to improved quality. From the beginning, Morisawa has been applying this concept to everything they create.

Each grid in the phototype letterboard was assembled from film images of a master font. It was then shot with a graphic camera to make a film negative.
The letter inspectors (shown in undated photos) were a key part of the mid-century, analog quality control program. Now the screens are digital but the design goal is the same: Just make the best.

Its first typeface was released in 1929, and there were 5,450 characters on the letter board of the first machine. There is a word in Japanese, ヤオヨロズ, which means “Spirit lives in everything.” Yaoyorozu.  Spirit lives in the mountains, in the ocean, and maybe even in your clothes. When someone does remarkable work, we often say, “Your spirit is in it.” Perhaps spirit has an age, and if so, the spirit of Morisawa design is over 90 years old. Morisawa continues to follow its passion for fonts. The saying here is that “type offers the basic building blocks of words.” And the company has always focused on expanding the potential of type to meet the needs of today.

Yaoyorozun (“eternity”) set in the Ryumin typeface (left) on a phototypeseting machine. And (right)the Adobe PostScript outline created in the 1980s.

Throughout, the policy has always been to keep the user in mind. An example is the typeface, Ryumin, which is the preferred font of many of Japan’s leading designers—for use as the text of books and the headlines in magazines. Ryumin was first developed for a phototypesetting machine, but it is now popular as a digital font. When looking closely at the phototype version of a letter, you will see that the corners and points are rounded. This is a result of the series of photographic captures necessary to make the fonts—from positive to negative, twice—which inevitably softens the sharp corners and points. Typically a digital design reproduces the hard corners of the original drawings before the photographic process rounded them off. But the digital version of the classic font, A1Mincho, was designed with rounded features, as a kind of throwback to the analog era. It’s been very popular, even with young designers, many of whom have never heard of a photo-typesetting machine. Maybe they feel the trace of a human hand. Maybe they like the softness. Or, maybe the analog age spirit lives on, in the digital age.

The neo-rounded corners of A1Mincho

The people at Morisawa believe that type is an essential part of communication. We feel that fonts must reach readers directly, so that the language is heard. This is our meaning of “user-friendly.” Morisawa’s user-first typefaces have become the default fonts of millions. They all channel the spirit of the company. May the spirit of type be with you!

The Morisawa Story

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