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 its 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 and their incompetent management, since 2018, they are cutting a deal with Morisawa. But let’s be real, Sha-Ken is now a real estate holding company. They do not sell or produce any products. They no longer have the font engineering talent to bring their legacy font library back from the dead and into the digital era.
Morisawa has a very talented font development team, they even have Jiyukobo, creators of the Hiragino Japanese system fonts used in macOS and iOS, which they 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, who led the effort at the time should be proud of today’s announcement.
It’s hard to emphasize how important this development is. Imagine the LinoType library, or classic standards like Helvetica, New York, etc. were never licensed as digital fonts…until now. The release will certainly not use the OpenType Variable Font format due to cost and time restraints. No Japanese font vendor has yet to release anything in that variable font format so far.
The Morisawa led “co-development” 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. Getting a simplified basic Sha-Ken library in OpenType Adobe Japan 1-3 glyph collection 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 cut loose their last remaining 100 customers and live on as a real estate holding company. Despite the co-development announcement, Morisawa is the caretaker of 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.
Also see: History of Sha-Ken and Morisawa Photo Typesetter development (great article by a Japanese desginer written in German!)
Japanese Typography and Font Posts
This is a collection of long form Japanese typography posts. They were written as stand alone pieces, so there is some background explanation overlap, always a weak point of the blog format.
- The Second Wave of Japanese Desktop Publishing: recap of Japanese PostScript, first wave DTP problems and what OpenType Japanese fonts aim to fix
- Inside Hiragino: profile of the macOS X Japanese system font creation and design
- Hiragino Shock: the impact of Apple Publishing Glyph Set
- Requiem for Sha-Ken: the end of Sha-Ken and it’s legendary Japanese font library
- Legacy Rescued: Morisawa to release the Sha-Ken font library in OpenType
- TrueType GX lives on in OpenType Variable Fonts: the QuickDraw GX TrueType technology adopted of OpenType Variable fonts
- CSS and Japanese Typography: Japanese typography basics and how the web typography model breaks them
- The Art of Using Color Kanji
- Stroke Fonts Forever: the real solution for non-roman font development
- Apple’s Once and Future Variable Type System Font: Why Japanese variable system fonts for iOS and macOS will be a long time in coming, if ever.
- The Curse of Japanese PostScript will live on
- TextKit 2 and Apple text layout architecture evolution