Outline of Exhibition

REKIHAKU 20th Anniversary Exhibition
Ancient Japanese writing symbols [From the Golden Stamp to Documents from the Shoso-in]
Sponsored by: National Museum of Japanese History(REKIHAKU), Asahi Shimbun
Dates: Tuesday, March 19 - Sunday, June 9, 2002
Location: Special Exhibition Hall
Admission: General: 830 yen *(560 yen)
High school and college students: 450 yen (250 yen)
Elementary and junior high school students: 250 yen (130 yen)
* figures in parenthesis are for groups of 20 or more.

Go to the original page in Japanese


  1. To explain the process of how Japan, which had no written language, received written characters from China and how it was possible for Japan to develop its own system of writing while under the strong influence of ancient Korea. At the beginning of the 8th century, that foreign influence planted the seed for Japanese works such as Kojiki, Nihon Shoki, Man'yoshu and the "world of documents from the Shoso-in". Documents from the Shoso-in are indispensable, basic research materials for the study of ancient Japanese history. However, they are only displayed to the public on special occasions. There are few examples in the world of a huge collection of 1,200-year-old writings preserved in good condition. This is why we are taking on the task of reproducing in finest detail about 800 of the Shoso-in documents as one of the main project in the main collection. About 250 scrolls have already been produced. In the main exhibition we will display a group of enlarged reproductions.
  2. It is thought that in ancient Japan, written characters played a large social role as an instrument of government and as things that held mystical power to an extent that was not seen in later eras. Using specific examples from the standpoint of "writing, people, and locations", we would like to illustrate the unique world of written characters - the ecology of written characters - of ancient Japan, which differs from China, where the characters originated.
  3. This exhibition would like to expand on a premise from the perspective that ancient Japanese society already contained an extensive "characterless world" and had formed its own unique culture of written characters.
  4. Thanks to the discovery of enormous amounts of archeological materials with written characters in recent years, the situation of the ancient written culture common to both Japan and Korea has, in particular, become extremely clear. The year of this exhibition is 2002 (Heisei 14), a year that should be commemorated for the achievement of great progress in the close relationship between Japan and South Korea. Fortunately, thanks to full cooperation from various Korean organizations, we have been able to borrow some of Korea's major ancient written materials. This is the first public open exhibition of ancient written materials found in Korea to be displayed in Japan. We hope to compare them to Japanese materials.

Writing (kanji characters) originating from China and spread throughout East Asia, where it long reigned as an international writing system. However, in Vietnam and Korea today, writing is mainly in indigenous scripts. With the exception of China itself, the only other culture using Chinese characters continuing to the present day is Japan, which early on began writing in a mix of Chinese and native characters

However, it cannot be said that the future of the culture of Chinese characters in Japan is secure. In considering the written culture of the 21st century, it is necessary to fully reconsider what writing was in ancient society.

Therefore, this exhibition focuses on reproductions of about 100 scrolls of the Shoso-in documents, artifacts from archeological digs such as letters on lacquer lid paper, wooden tablets, and earthenware with ink writings from around the country, and also epigraphs and materials related to writing as such as implements. And we will combine ancient written materials from China and Korea to recreate the world of writing in ancient Japan. By looking at writing in these ways, we hope to paint an accurate picture of ancient society.

Exhibited Items

1. From the period when writing came to the Japanese Archipelago

  1. Written materials from China (reproduction of the golden seal of "Kan no wa no na no koku ou", reproduction of inscribed mirror from Keisho 3 from excavations at the Kanbara Jinja burial mound in Shimane Prefecture)
  2. Expressions in sound and pictures (bronze bell reproduction and other items)
  3. Characters written from the second to fourth centuries in the Country of Wa (archeological finds from Oshiro Ruins in Mie Prefecture such as "Hou" (meaning "offering"), "Kou" (meaning "good fortune") and other items)

2. Written culture in ancient Korea

(reproductions of an inscribed curved long sword (kanto tachi) with single dragon pattern,Josan-Sanjo wooden tablet, Gan'ouchi Pond wooden tablet, Geinichi-Reisuiri monument, and other items)

3. The beginning of the use of writing in domestic affairs (inscription of "ou shi" ("bestowed by the Emperor") on an iron sword from the Inari-dai Ruins in Chiba Prefecture and other items)

4. Deepening of written culture

  1. Writings and wooden tablet signs (reproduction of wooden tablet inscribed with "chou" ("label") from the third year of the rat from Yunobe Ruins in Shiga Prefecture, and other items)
  2. Ancient Japanese and wooden tablets (reproduction of a wooden tablet with Japanese characters from the Morinouchi Ruins in Shiga Prefecture, reproduction of wooden tablet inscribed with written characters from the Kita-Ohtsu ruins in Shiga Prefecture, and other items)
  3. Production and writing, symbols, earthenware and tiles (tiles with characters from the Gotomaki Tile Kiln Ruins in Chiba Prefecture and other items)
  4. "Sokuten" characters (earthenware with characters in ink found at the Offices of the Country of Izumo in Shimane Prefecture, earthenware with writing in ink from Ninomiya-Miyashitahigashi Ruins in Gunma Prefecture, and other items)

5. Administration in writing

  1. The world of government officials (lacquer lid paper documents from Kanoko C Ruins in Ibaraki Prefecture, reproduction of wooden tablet seal no. 11 from Yamagaki Ruins in Hyogo Prefecture, and other items)
  2. The world of the village (wooden tablet sign (bojisatsu) from Kamo Ruins in Ishikawa Prefecture, rice grain tablets from various regions and other items)

6. Sorcery and writing (mourning tablet found at Nagaokakyo, reproduction of sorcery charm from Nishihara Ruins in Chiba Prefecture, and other items)

7. Ink writing on earthenware (earthenware with ink writing from Kanomukai Ruins in Ibaraki Prefecture, earthenware with ink writing from Hanamae Ruins in Chiba Prefecture, and other items)

8. Writing North and South (engraved writing on earthenware from Sakushukotoni River Ruins in Hokkaido, shell emblems from Hirota Ruins in Kagoshima Prefecture, and other items)

9. The world of the Shoso-in documents (reproductions of Shoso-in documents and other items)

Hands-on Learning

  1. Examine paper through a microscope
  2. Read characters using an infrared camera
  3. Make computations using an ancient-style calculating device
  4. Study 1,000 characters
  5. Guess the use of wooden tablets by their shape
  6. Guess the names of objects by the "on-yomi" pronunciation of the characters