Requiem for Sha-Ken

The once mighty Sha-Ken KK, who’s founder co-created the modern Japanese typesetter with Morisawa in 1924 and a huge highly profitable font library that once dominated the entire Japanese print industry, is not quite dead but the last vestiges are quickly disappearing. Japanese blogger tkri notes that the Sha-Ken Saitama production facility is being demolished, the same fate of the Kawagoe factory in 2017. The very last Sha-Ken ‘digital’ typesetter machines serving the last 100 customers are due to go out of service by 2024.

Sha-Ken had everything but never made it into the desktop publishing era by their own choice:

Hiragino started just about the time that Japanese PostScript arrived in the late 1980’s. At that time, the king of the typesetting market was Sha-Ken KK. Anyone who knows Japanese typography knows Sha-Ken. It had the most sought-after type library, the best designers, the biggest market share. Sha-Ken made so much money that it became arrogant and absolutely refused any offers from Adobe and Apple to jump on the PostScript bandwagon.

But there was trouble in paradise. A few designers felt Sha-Ken was becoming stagnant and left the company. Each sought his own vision, yet they came together to create the fonts that would eventually end up in MacOS X.

Inside Hiragino: A Closeup of Apple’s OS X Japanese Font

Sha-Ken kept its proprietary typesetters and formats, losing 40 percent of its market share by 1999 along with lots of prestige and talent in the bargain. Ex-Sha-Ken people filled the Japanese print industry. The low point came that year when government tax raiders found several safes in the company basement filled with 10,000-yen bills; president Yuko Ishii, daughter of the founder, had stashed away some 150 million USD in the early ’80s and reported it later as profit as business declined. The directors of the company tried to oust her but failed. She died in the presidents chair at age 92 in 2018 leaving a ghost company as her legacy.

This sorry state of affairs had two huge repercussions. It denied a vital part of the Japanese font design legacy to designers working with DTP. Imagine a world with younger generations of designers denied the use of Helvetica and Times and you get the idea. It also left the only other competitor, Morisawa, which did license its library to Adobe, with a practical monopoly in the new DTP era.

Tomihisa Uchida who retired from Iwata Corporation a few years back knows more about Japanese font programming and typography than anybody else in this world. He was involved with Japanese digital font production from the start, working at its very heart: Sha-Ken KK. I interviewed him in 2003.

Uchida: I was with Sha-Ken for 23 years. I entered right out of college, where I was a chemistry major. My first job there was working with analog plates and mechanical processes. That involved high-resolution plates, similar to what is used for IC chip manufacture, to produce high-quality typography. I did that for 10 years; then digital fonts came along in the early ’70s. Sha-Ken was the first Japanese vendor to have computerized layout. It also did the Japanese version of Ikarus. There wasn’t any real competition and it had the market to itself.

Question: So Sha-Ken made the transfer to digitalized fonts and computer-based layout successfully?

Uchida: Yes, it purchased the Japanese rights to Autologic technology to produce a hybrid product where the software was a customized Autologic engine running on Sha-Ken hardware. That didn’t last too long, as Sha-Ken had been developing in-house technology and soon released its own original product.

We simply implemented Japanese typography and composition rules on the computer with outline fonts that output on an imagesetter using proprietary technology. At that time, Sha-Ken systems were extensively used in newspaper production. However, Sha-Ken lost that market because it didn’t have strong network capability, which newspaper production demands.

One of the ways Sha-Ken was able to build up a strong type library in a fairly short time was by sponsoring a typeface competition. It would pay the winner and purchase his typeface. It raised lots of young designers that way (like Suzuki-san, who would later create the Hiragino font used in Apple’s MacOS X) and really expanded the market with new typefaces for comic books and such.

Later on, my job was creating different weights. The designer would create the basic design, then we’d use the Ikarus system to make the weights. That was the late ’70s. The systems we designed ran on hardware from the likes of DEC and Wang. I had a group of people who were basically a font production line. When Japanese PostScript first arrived, it wasn’t immediately apparent that things would change as they did, it took forever to print. Sha-Ken systems always had excellent performance.

Sha-Ken sent Uchida san to programming school then put him in charge of their digital font engineering group. He created the Sha-Ken proprietary font format for their digital typesetter machines. He joked that if Sha-Ken ever wanted to convert their font library to OpenType format, they would have to hire him back.

The very last time that Sha-Ken made any kind of product announcement these past 20 years was at the 15th International eBook Expo Tokyo in July 2011. At the time I blogged:

The once mighty Sha-Ken finally waved the white flag and demonstrated OpenType versions of their fonts running in InDesign and on an iPad today at International eBook Expo Tokyo. Sha-Ken’s Toshiro Ito said they don’t have a set release date, but hope to make an announcement soon; Japanese designers, who have been waiting for Sha-Ken packaged software fonts since 1989, can finally look forward to using Sha-Ken fonts on personal computers and mobile devices.

Blogger Danbo was there too and took video of the Sha-Ken demonstration. Most of the audience was near retirement age. That was the last word from Sha-Ken. The OpenType product never appeared. Uchida san told me that Sha-Ken didn’t have any designers and engineers left to build out the smaller legacy proprietary digital font collections into Adobe Japan 1-4 character sets for modern designers and devices.

Any time I talk with ex-Sha-Ken people like Torinoumi san of Jiyukobo, or Toyoizumi san of Screen, or Uchida san of Iwata, there’s a wistful quality to their shared memories, even though they all went on to create new and better things. It’s bittersweet legacy only they can know: building something great then watching it rot away, destroyed by greedy deluded people in charge of protecting it. And now that it is almost gone, with most designers of that time in retirement, it is largely forgotten.

Some people will want to write the Sha-Ken story off as Japanese culture unable to change but that’s just snobbery. What happened to Sha-Ken can happen to any company with a monopoly. Steve Jobs definitively explained how monopolistic market power rots a company in his lost interview:

Sales and marketing people end up running the companies and the product people get driven out of decision making forums. And the companies forget what it means to make great products. The product sensibility and product genius that brought them to that monopolistic position gets rotted out by people running these companies who have no conception of a good product vs. a bad product. They have no conception of the craftsmanship that’s required to take a good idea and turn it into a good product. And they really have no feeling in their hearts usually about wanting to really help the customers.

When the last person turns out the lights at Sha-Ken KK, I hope they open the vaults and set the Sha-Ken font library free. Only by taking flight and having a life of its own can it ever hope to live on in the hearts and imaginations of future Japanese designers. Only then can the Sha-Ken tragedy be reborn into something new.


Postscript
A reader forwarded a Japanese public record document from 2008 regarding a Sha-Ken company labor union dispute with management over mandatory retirement policy. It’s a damning document. Company sales data from page 11 on clearly shows in ugly detail how management ruined the company business: focusing exclusively on milking customers with outrageously expensive font library rental royalties on proprietary hardware at the expense of everything else.

Sha-Ken had the talent, technical expertise and opportunity to lead Japan into the DTP era with non-proprietary digital fonts and imagesetters. Instead of innovating, management clung to a do-nothing easy money strategy that destroyed the company. Meanwhile, the Japanese print industry moved on to better modern production infrastructure; a perfect example of Steve Jobs’s explanation.

One last bit: the Sha-Ken KK company registration was updated in August 2019 and still lists digital font production and sales as a main company objective even though real estate holdings will fund most company operations.

The January 1 1999 Sha-Ken scandal: 20 years of tax evasion and falsely reported profits

UPDATE
January 18, 2021: Sha-Ken and Morisawa agree to co-develop the Sha-Ken font library for OpenType

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