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Newsletter: Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition

Delivered on October 27, 2020
Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition [Issue 119] October 27, 2020

Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition [Issue 119]
October 27, 2020
Japanese Traditional Culture Promotion & Development Organization


1. Seasonal life:
A medium to keep records for a thousand years : Paper

:: 1. Seasonal life

Here is a Waka, a traditional Japanese poem written by Sei Shonagon in
10C, in "The Pillow Book" section 262.
Interpretation: I feel irritated and I even lose the will to live at
times. Even though when I feel like that, if I get just ordinary paper
but beautifully white, a high-quality writing brush, white card to
write a poem or Michinoku paper, they comfort my heart and I start
thinking that I can still live like this anyway for a while.

Japanese use the phrase "- of Autumn" to mean "Autumn is the (best)
season to do - / for -" something like "Appetite of Autumn", "Sports
of autumn" and "Art of Autumn". Among those phrases, "Reading of Autumn"
is most known. It has been a while since ebooks became common but there
are probably still many people who prefer print books, and choose print
books over ebooks if there is enough space on their book shelve.

It is said that paper lasts more than one thousand years. It is well
known that the "Washi" paper made with the Japanese traditional method
has high endurance. It was registered as a UNESCO intangible cultural
heritage in November 2014. Western Paper is constructed with short
fibers spread over, on the other hand, Washi paper is structured with
long fibers entwined each other. The paper becomes whiter and glossier
as it gets older. The oldest Japanese text in existence today is, Hokke
Gisho, composed in 615 by Prince Shotoku. His handwriting is recognizable
in the book even though it is more than 1400 years old. Although it is
not known whether the paper used for this book was imported from abroad
or made in Japan, it proves that paper made during those ancient times
was outstanding quality as a recording medium.

Paper was first brought into Japan as a book in the 4-5th century.
Alongside the imperial court developing centralization in the 5C, the
demand rose for paper to record documents or to send information to
each other. In The Nihon Shoki (the second-oldest book of classical
Japanese history), it is written that in 404 the emperor appointed
government officials all over Japan and ordered them to make records
of proverbs, words, and events and send them back to him. Yet what
medium they used is still unidentified.

According to The Nihon Shoki, Chinese people coming to Japan during
the Zhou dynasty and the Han dynasty was given family registers by order
of the emperor in 540. The details are put down on Japanese paper. It
seemed that the method of making paper had already been introduced to
Japan from China. At the same time, Buddhism was introduced into Japan
so the papers must have been being used for Sutra copying as well.

In the 8th century, the governmental administration that organized
nationally important books started producing paper and also collecting
paper from various producing areas of paper as tax. Manufacturing places
of Washi that are prospering today, such as Mino or Echizen or other
towns already existed at this time.

Until the Nara period in 8C, papers were used mainly for Sutra copying
or administrative documents. However, in the Heian era in 8-12C, it
was commonly used by nobles to write stories, diaries, personal letters,
etc and they chose paper depending on the purpose and started to seek
beauty in the paper.

In the Waka in the opening paragraph, "Michinoku paper" was one of the
items on list of "The things which are pleasant to get". This paper
is famous as a luxury paper since the Heian period and Sei Shonagon
seemed to love this shiny white paper. We could tell because the paper
was also mentioned in the list of "The comfortable things" in section
28 as she described "Writing with a very thin brush on the pure white
Michinoku paper".

Sei Shonagon was laughed at by her court lady FUJIWARA no Teishi as
she said "Even a very simple thing can make you feel better easily".
It was at a time only when the people who served for men of power could
gain paper. Delicate handwriting written with jet black ink vividly
represented on freshly white paper. It is understandable that it could
make her happy.

Various things have been digitalized today. This autumn, why don't you
write a letter using high-quality paper instead of sending an e-mail
or changing back to print books from ebooks to feel the value of paper
once again?

Translation by: Hitomi Kochi, reviewed by Chan Yee Ting

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