• Japan In Focus

Nagasaki: Island’s Letterpress Printshop Finds Niche Market

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Momoko Yokoyama speaks in front of a wall of lead types in the printing craft center of Shinkosha in Ojika, Nagasaki Prefecture.

NAGASAKI — A fourth-generation, 100-year-old printshop in the quaint Goto Islands of Nagasaki Prefecture has stayed analog in a mostly digitized industry. One of the keys to its success has been finding a niche clientele at home and abroad.

The Shinkosha letterpress printing firm is located on Ojika Island, a northern island in the Goto archipelago with a population of about 2,000. Built on a small, quiet street about a 10-minute walk from Ojika Port on the south side of the island, the firm survives by laying out font types of various sizes by hand and applying them with ink.

When entering the printshop, tens of thousands of lead types — with the smallest one about 3 millimeters square in size and the largest about 15 millimeters square — can be seen lined up all over the wall.

“The typeface has a lot of distinctive charm in that it appeals to all five senses,” said Momoko Yokoyama, the fourth-generation owner of the firm.

Her great-grandfather was the first on Ojika Island to make a go of letterpress printing, which was invented in Germany in the 15th century, but the business was only one division of a general trading company that also sold oil, fertilizer and other products.

Letterpress printing later became the firm’s mainstay operation after the second-generation owner, Yokoyama’s grandfather, declared it to be a business related to culture. Orders then began to pile up for advertising on the island, a ferry’s boarding tickets, a shopping district’s fliers, New Year’s greeting cards and others.

Business significantly expanded off-island during and after World War II, when customers in and around Nagasaki and Sasebo cities began placing orders for items such as business cards and movie tickets.

Much of the printing industry in those areas had been leveled during the air raids and subsequent atomic bombing.

“In later years, my mother used to tell me that the craftsmen were too busy to sit down and eat — they worked with a riceball in hand,” said Yokoyama’s father, Kozo, who was the third-generation owner of the shop. “It was a lively time.”

Such days weren’t meant to last. Sales steadily declined in the 1980s after offset printing, which had a flat plate and was suitable for mass printing, became the mainstream. As a result, customer preference shifted, and when the orders stopped coming in, printing firms across the nation went belly up one after another. Kozo himself believed it was time to throw in the towel when he was the firm’s decision-maker.

But about 10 years ago, Momoko, his eldest daughter, said she would take over the printing business.

While studying design at university in Okayama Prefecture, she learned that letterpress printing was still a skill that held value. She became fascinated with the idea of preserving the tradition in her cherished hometown.

Kozo initially opposed Momoko’s idea, but her enthusiasm could not be abated, and in 2012, they started working together at Shinkosha.

Business cards are their most sought-after products from customers off the island, and through word of mouth, orders have expanded across the nation with letterpress lovers saying, “The design [of the card] exudes warmth,” and “The typeface’s uneven texture is unique and good.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A post card printed by letterpress

The company also actively cross-collaborates with other industries. They have done labeling for a peanut paste product as well as coffee packaging. She established a new workshop, Ojikappan, in the firm in February.

“We are in an age when efficiency of work is an issue,” she said. “But in comparison, with the letterpress I think customers might feel something more tactile in their hands.”

Around February next year, the firm plans to expand its lineup beyond Japan and sell postcards produced in collaboration with a Dutch designer.

“Even from this remote island, we can let the world know about our charming products,” she said. “I want to pass on the charms of letterpress printing and Ojika Island to the next generation.”