Yatate: The Writing Technology of the Samurai
For background on research related to this essay, please view a complimentary video created by Erin Gillespie (2009).
The study of Japanese history often evokes images of samurai, yet samurai are not often associated with the study of writing technology. The use of ancient Chinese writing technology led to an invention by the samurai that revolutionized writing in Japan. Although documentation is difficult to come by, it is argued that the samurai greatly contributed to Japanese literacy through the use of a portable writing technology initially invented for the battle field.
The Introduction of Writing Technology
Trade with the Tang Dynasty of China in 784 AD introduced education through Chinese writing technology to Japan (Andressen, 2001; Bernard, 1999; Kato, 1997; Kwo, 1981). The writing technology was known as “the four precious things of the study” and consisted of a brush, ink, paper and an ink stone (Wang, 1930). The animal hair brush was 21 cm long with a bamboo or wooden handle (Kwo, 1981). Ink was a solid mixture of lampblack, animal fats and vegetable oils, which when rubbed on an ink stone (suzuri) with water, produced an even black ink (Wang, 1930). Directly related to this writing technology are Japan’s first literary achievements and the establishment of schools for the children of nobility in 712 (Kanzaki, 1996; Kato, 1997). During its initial development, Japanese literacy and writing technology was mainly the domain of courtiers and Buddhist priests (Andressen, 2001). There was no significant change in the technology of writing in Japan until the Kamakura period.
The Invention of the Yatate
During Kamakura (1185-1333), the samurai emerged as warriors assigned to protect their generals (shogunate) and aristocratic families, indicating a shift to feudalism from imperialism (Andressen, 2001). However, the impact the samurai had on the spread of literacy and education is often overlooked. The displaced cultural elite spread court culture and literacy to shogunate and samurai warriors (Andressen, 2001). Political conflicts and civil wars led to literature that centered on military exploits, impermanence and transience (Jewel, 1998). Children of the samurai received formal schooling and lessons in literacy during this period (Yamazumi, 1987). The clan general, Yoritomo, was officially proclaimed shogun by the emperor in 1192 and, once legitimized, was able to learn cultural values from the former court elite (Andressen, 2001).
According to the The British Museum, literate Japanese used a personal calligraphy writing box consisting of the brush (fude), ink stick(sumi), ink stone (suzuri) and a water dropper until 1868 (The British Museum, 2009). This was not the only technology used, as corroborated by Mr. Tsuchida, curator of the Japan Stationary Museum (e-mail, October 25, 2009). During the first half of the Kamakura period a new writing technology was invented and used by the samurai and displaced the ancient writing box (Stutler, 2009; Tsuchida, e-mail, October 25, 2009). The new technology was portable, making it a more convenient option, and was called yatate, or “arrow stand” (Stutler, 2009). The name yatate is inherited from the samurai’s older form of carrying small suzuri or a calligraphy set inside their arrow stands (Stutler, 2009). The classic 1183 AD story Heike Monogatari describes the Genji samurai Kiso Yoshinaka as carrying a suzuri in his arrow stand and writing for his lord (Marshall, 2009). The yatate replaced the traditional writing set to become the first portable self-contained writing technology in Japan around 1185 (Marshall, 2009; Stutler, 2009).Although there is no documentation, the yatate is believed to be invented by the samurai and they were the only people allowed to carry and use yatate until the Edo period (Stutler, 2009).
The Samurai and Literacy
It is possible samurai warriors played a large role in the spread of literacy with their yatate. It is well documented that they produced a great number of novels (Kato, 1997). The samurai supported the development of art and literature and continued to formally school their children (Andressen, 2001; Deal, 2007). Samurai warriors initially wrote using calligraphy sets to report details of battles, tax payments and land transactions to their lords and generals, known as shoguns (Marshall, 2009). It is logical that carrying a traditional calligraphy box set was cumbersome and time consuming to assemble in the field. It is highly likely that a warrior was inspired to create a more portable and efficient writing technology to efficiently carry out his duties. The documented respect for literacy by the samurai implies a love of writing which also may have inspired the portable yatate’s design.
Physical Description of Yatate
The invention of the yatate by the samurai indicates that a desire and need for a writing technology more suited to mobility. The oldest type of yatate looked like a long block of wood, and folded out like a Japanese fan (Marshall, 2009; Stutler, 2009). When the lid slid to the side, a brush and ink retainer opened to reveal a piece of cotton or raw silk soaked in liquid ink (Marshall, 2009; Stutler, 2009). This was a revolutionary invention at the time as a dependable, efficient and portable writing instrument! The brush could be dipped in the saturated cloth without risk of ink spillage and the entire device was light weight and extremely portable. If the ink on the cloth dried out, moistening the cloth will refresh the ink. A great battle in 1333 ushered in a civil war which ended in victory for the Tokugawa shoguns (Andressen, 2001). At this time, the yatate changed in design possibly due to the demand for a greater ink supply and a growth in popularity (Stutler, 2009). The portability of the yatate may have increased the number of written records during conflict, which then led to the change in ink design. It is possible that the yatate may have been more powerful than the sword during war, as samurai could quickly record the transaction of territories. The unification of Japan under Tokugawa shoguns in 1600 ushered in the Edo period and marked a transition of the yatate from technology of the samurai to the civilian.
During the Edo period (1603-1867), the yatate resembled a dipper with had a larger ink retainer and a long, thin hollow handle where one could store a brush and in some models, a slim knife (Stutler, 2009). It is not well documented, but the samurai passed the yatate on to merchants and commoners during Edo which is evidenced in woodblock prints showing commoners carrying yatate. Only the samurai were allowed to carry swords and the slim knife in the yatate intended for scraping ink may have been a commoner’s weapon of self defence (Stutler, 2009). Citizens of Edo period were only permitted to travel on religious pilgrimages and yatate were used to record a pilgrimage, spread word of Shintoism or to sketch images from the journey (Stutler, 2009). Documented proof in a print by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) shows a traveller carrying yatate.Edo civilization flourished and it is tempting to consider how the merchant class may have expanded their immediate territory through use of the portable yatate.
Popularity of Yatate and Literacy
The yatate clearly transformed the way people dressed. Commoners fastened yatate to the kimono sash (obi) by a cord or decorative button (netsuke) or, more commonly, tucked the yatate under the sash (Stutler, 2009). Hokusai’s woodblock print shows the yatate tucked in at the back, indicating the yatate were removed from the sash when used.
The change in dressing is a strong indication that the yatate was a popular writing technology used daily by men and women and one which made literacy accessible. There is little data to suggest children used yatate. However, formal education continued and the government established tens of thousands of schools for the children of samurai and of commoners (Deal, 2007; Yamazumi, 1987). The yatate’s growth in popularity from the samurai to commoners may be directly related to the emergence of a formidable literary population who wrote novels, poetry and prose until late in the Tokugawa era. The Edo period saw the samurai and townspeople exercise a greater cultural influence through writing (Kato, 1997). Japan’s cultural center moved to Edo (modern day Tokyo) and a great number of “gesaku”, or frivolous written works, indicate the popularity of writing (Jewel, 1998). Masterpieces of Edo literature were created with yatate, including sketches by travelling artists (Stutler, 2009). A portable writing technology may have been instrumental in the popularity and accessibility of literacy during this time. By the middle of the 18th century, most authors were samurai, merchants or peasants (Jewel, 1998; Kato, 1997). It is noted that two of these types of authors are documented as using yatate in art, implying the writing technology influenced the literary and artistic world.
The End of Yatate
During Meiji (1868-1912), the Tokugawa shogunate and the samurai were abolished and a constitutional monarchy established (Andressen, 2001). Japan’s literacy rate at this time is estimated at forty percent (Easterlin, 2000). This high rate may have been influenced by the formal schooling efforts of the samurai and possibly their yatate. Emperor Meiji opened Japan’s doors to international trade and rapid modernization (Andressen, 2001). The yatate, perhaps the samurai’s strongest and most secretive weapon was to be replaced by the Western fountain pen.
Andressen, C. (2001). A short history of Japan: From Samurai to Sony. New South Wales, Australia: Allen & Unwin.
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Marshall, K. (2009). Tokohan: Antique Japanese yatate. Retrieved from http://www.tokohan.com/Japanese_Antique_Information/Japanese_Antique_Yatate.html
Stutler, R. (2009). Tokyo fountain pen scene: What is yatate? Retrieved from http://www.stutler.cc/pens/yatate/index.html
The British Museum. (2009). Explore/Highlights: The writing box. Retrieved from http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/asia/w/writing-box.aspx
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Videos and Images
Beautiful yatate. Author's own image.
Calligraphy writing set. Retrieved 12, October, 2009, from Flickr.
Hokusai's man with yatate. Retrieved 19, October, 2009, from Flickr.
Open yatate. Retrieved 12, October, 2009, from Flickr.
Gillespie, E. (October 31, 2009). The yatate [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.photoshow.com/watch/IX4dc7rT.
The Old Tokaido.(2008, July 11).Antique Japanese writing set-yatate portable case[Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-XKHXsh0nj0&feature=related