Following the suppression of the rebellion of Emi no Oshikatsu in 764, Empress Shotoku commissioned the creation of one million small wooden pagodas, each containing a Buddhist dhārāṇī, or invocation, printed on a paper scroll. These seem to have been distributed to ten major Buddhist temples in the Nara and Kyoto area in Japan, but today only those from one of those temples survive. Four different texts taken from the Mukujōkō sutra were printed. The miniature pagodas of cypress wood were originally painted white and often the date on which they were made was written on the base.
It is still not clear whether the invocations were printed using wooden blocks or metal plates, but it is important to note that this was not a case of printing to produce a text to be read but was rather a ritual act to achieve Buddhist merit and as such has its origins in Buddhist scriptures and in ritual practices in India and elsewhere. The Hyakumantō invocation is very similar to the earliest extant example of printing on paper, found at a Korean temple and probably dating to the first half of the eighth century.
Click on the image of the scroll to see an enlarged version.
Photos by Randal Stegmeyer