Wrapped in secrecy: Professor Conlan reveals the not-so-secret secrets of medieval Japanese court documents using an innovative website

What do you do with a kirifu?

Professor Thomas Conlan

Professor Thomas Conlan

Thomas Conlan, Professor of East Asian Studies, explains this, and many other mysteries on his new webpage, Komonjo. The website celebrates Conlan’s research concerning the three collections of medieval Japanese court manuscripts featured on the site. It was created in collaboration with the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, and the Digital Humanities Center at Princeton University.

Komonjo (documents) of this period were often carefully preserved for their social and legal content, perhaps used to substantiate land rights, to memorialize promises of compensation, to record battle accounts, to remember contact with a social superior, or to transmit other important communications (for instance, a recipe for gunpowder included in the collection).
In a video on the website, Conlan demonstrates how one of the documents from the Uesugi komonjo collection– miraculously preserved with all its component parts–would have been meticulously folded, tied, and wrapped in a cover sheet, and finally, marked in a way that would immediately alert the recipient of the letter if it had been surreptitiously opened in transit. Working with a replica of the letter, lining sheet, and cover, Conlan carefully folds and spindles the document, describing how the folds and lines evident in the original papers were created:

“Once it’s completely folded, then this kirifu ( a narrow strip of paper, partially sliced from one edge of the document)  would be wrapped around here, folded here, and tied over, somewhat like this,” he explains, while deftly recreating the actions that would have been undertaken by a courtier preparing his lord’s letter for delivery.

After enclosing the manuscript in a cover, Conlan then shows how the document and enclosure would have been opened by its recipient, revealing the marks and folds that, if disturbed, would indicate that the communication had been tampered with.
Other document collections featured on the website include the Migita komonjo, the communications of a feudal family of warriors in the Kamakura regime. These describe a sticky situation where the Migita clan is caught in a fight between two powerful lords, both of whom claim the family’s fealty. The Migita, by witty and polite correspondence, manage to fight little, while also garnering praise from both sides. The Heishi (Awazu) komonjo, recount the story of another family, low-ranking courtiers, who managed to save the Emperor’s clothes during wartime. This was an act that would bring the family many future preferments. Among the Awazu family documents is one written by a court lady, showing the distinctive diagonal calligraphy and phonetic writing practiced by female courtiers at the time.
The Komonjo website is in support of Conlan’s seminar, EAS525-HIS520, Ancient and Medieval Japanese History. The site allows students  in this course (as well as future offerings of the course), to explore transcriptions, translations, historical contexts of the documents, and allows course participants  to try their hand at interpreting several of the documents by translation.

Professor Conlan describes the site in this way:

It is a radically new site –nothing comparable to it exists. It provides an introduction to how to read these documents, and insight into the epistolary culture of medieval Japan. For those interested in paleography, the photos and transcriptions provide a valuable tool to better learn how to read original documents. Others can gain insight into how to translate these difficult records. And this site also allows for some rare and little known documentary collections, held in Japan or the US (Princeton and Yale) to be disseminated to a wider audience. Finally, it reveals the synergy between teaching and research, for it showcases translations done in my graduate seminar.

he original documents represented on the web page are housed at the Yonezawa shi Uesugi Hakubutsukan shiryokan (Uesugi komonjo , the Kyoto Furitsu Kyodo shiryokan (Migita komonjo), and  the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University (Awazu (Heishi) komonjo).

Posted by February 10, 2016