History Alive in Japanese Folding Screens

October 6, 2012 • Blogs, Online Content, The World at Yale • Views: 992

by Ariel Katz

“I keep thinking about whether my mortgage documents would last for 800 years.”

The audience laughed. With a crowd squeezed into a room in the basement in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, all eyes were fixed on a set of 12th century Japanese documents that sat casually at the front of the room. Two of the documents discussed land ownership. Daniel Botsman of Yale’s History Department gave an overview of two of the oldest documents as part of “The Tale of the Japanese Folding Screens: A Journey from Japan to Yale and Back,” a presentation about the Harimaze Byobu, a set of pre-modern Japanese documents pasted onto a folding screen.

Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library (Creative Commons)

Botsman’s joke about mortgage documents followed his explanation of two of the oldest documents on the table in front of him. The two documents had been written in 1192, and signed by Chogen, a 12th century Japanese Buddhist monk.

Botsman’s explanation emphasized the importance of microhistory: seemingly unimportant documents of land transfer, like the ones on the Harimaze Byobu, can shed light on historical phenomena and capture the zeitgeist of an important cultural moment. Botsman explained that 12th century Japan was a climate of “profound unrest and instability.” 1192, the year in which Chogen monogrammed the documents, marked the ascension of the new warrior government, under which many great temples were destroyed. Chogen had a vision to save Todai-ji, a temple that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. His idea was to convert a piece of land into an estate for Todai-ji. The documents Botsman displayed were Chogen’s request to have a deed drawn up for the region and the formal decree that ordered the transfer of lands.

The audience seemed to grow a little sleepy in the windowless room. In the row behind me, a man in a suit had nodded off. My own eyelids were starting to droop when Botsman asked in an upbeat voice: why should care about these screens?

“The transfer from land owned by states to private ownership of land marks the transition to Japan’s medieval period.” Botsman noted the shifts in economic, political, and religious society that are all represented in these documents.

Even non-Japanophiles might find the tale of the screens intriguing: the documents have a second history of journeying between Yale and Japan. They are a physical incarnation of the relationship between Yale and University of Tokyo. The Yale Association of Japan donated the documents to Yale in 1934. Apparently, Yale is one of the only places outside of Japan with this impressive a collection of premodern Japanese documents. Yale was at the forefront of the 19th century “oriental boom” as the first American university to get into what was then called “Oriental Studies.” The Harimaze documents were first exhibited at Yale just after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, when anti-Japanese sentiment was high. The scrolls serve to show the U.S., from then up to today, the rich cultural and artistic history of a nation that has historically seemed very distant.

After the talk we were invited to examine the documents. The sheets of paper appeared flimsy, pressed under pieces of glass. People fixated on the documents with a certain reverence. There is something powerful about standing inches away from something penned over 800 years ago. And I realized this was the true intrigue behind the Harimaze Byobu: it reminds us that history is physical. It was fascinating to hear Haruko Nakamura, curator of the East Asia Library, describe the painstaking transfer of the screens to and from Japan. She flipped through pictures of men loading the long, flat box holding the Byobu on and off airplanes, into and out of doors. The Byobu remind us that history is concrete, transferable. And ultimately, the talk reminded me that I should really go into Beinecke more often and surround myself with the physical remnants of history.

Ariel Katz is a sophomore in Morse College. Contact her at ariel.katz@yale.edu.

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