A Japanese font design legacy restored: Morisawa and Sha-Ken agree to co-develop the Sha-Ken font library for OpenType

Today is great day for Japanese typography: Morisawa and Sha-Ken announced they will co-develop the Sha-Ken font library for OpenType (English press release here), due for release in 2024 in celebration of the Japanese typesetter they created 100 years ago. The founders of Morisawa (Nobuo Morisawa) and Sha-Ken (Mokichi Ishii) co-created the first modern Japanese typesetter in 1924 but quickly became 2 different family companies. By the late 1970’s Sha-Ken had grown to be the dominate force of the Japanese pre-press market with the largest and most sought after font library. In the 1980’s it started to unravel.

Sha-Ken never made the transition to digital pre-press and PostScript fonts, which Morisawa did with a very profitable licensing agreement with Adobe. When Sha-Ken announced OpenType fonts at the 2011 International eBook Expo, they were a has-been company run into the ground by sheer greed. They never delivered on that promise. As the former Sha-Ken lead font engineer told me, there was no font engineer talent left in the company to do the job of re-creating the proprietary digital format library into OpenType.

Now that Sha-Ken is finally free of the founder family, since 2018, they are cutting a deal with Morisawa who have the necessary talent and font engineering expertise to bring the Sha-Ken font library into the digital era. They even have Jiyukobo, creators of the Hiragino Japanese system fonts used in macOS and iOS, which Morisawa bought in 2019. An interesting side story: Apple negotiated with Sha-Ken to purchase their library shortly after Steve Jobs returned but it never came to be, Jeff Martin should be proud of today’s announcement.

It’s hard to emphasize how important this development is. Imagine the LinoType library, or everyday standards like Helvetica, New York, etc. were never licensed as digital fonts…until now. I doubt the first release will encompass OpenType Variable Fonts due to cost and time restraints. Morisawa has yet to release anything in that format so far.

The co-developer team will also have to prioritize and edit as the Sha-Ken library is huge and only a small subset ever made it onto proprietary Sha-Ken digital typesetters. There are huge glyph variation and feature holes to fill. Just getting a simplified basic Sha-Ken library in OpenType format will be a tremendous job.

The 2024 delivery date is important in more ways than the 100th anniversary of Japanese typesetting. With Sha-Ken selling off everything they can over the past 2 years, 2024 is when the last Sha-Ken digital typesetters go out of service. Sha-Ken will stop pretending to be a font developer, cut loose their last remaining 100 customers and live on as a real estate holding company. Morisawa is the only listed contact on the co-development announcement, they will eventually buy out the Sha-Ken library.

But that’s a story for another day. Today is a celebration. After nearly 100 years of separation, 2 halves of a whole are coming together again. In Requiem for Sha-Ken I wrote, “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.” Japanese designers finally have their font legacy back.


Sha-Ken finally has a web site and an archive of their font library
Sha-Ken’s last hurrah font announcement in 2011 never panned out
Sha-Ken’s 2011 OpenType font announcement listed Ishii Mincho and Ishii Gothic, these will likely be the first candidates for release in 2024 from Morisawa. A fuller list of classic Sha-Ken font samples here. Sha-Ken fonts were widely used by manga printers in the 70’s and 80’s and permeated the print culture of the era.
The old Sha-Ken Saitama factory site was demolished for a supermarket mall in 2020

Reference posts and background links:
Requiem for Sha-Ken
Inside Hiragino: the macOS Japanese system font story
Inside Hiragino: Hiragino Shock and Apple Publishing Glyph Set
CSS and The State of Japanese Vertical Layout
The Second Wave of Japanese Desktop Publishing
Apple’s Once and Future Japanese Variable System Font
History of Sha-Ken and Morisawa Photo Typesetter development (great article by a Japanese desginer written in German!)