Medieval Documents of Japan: Functions, Styles and Their International Comparison
Period Tuesday, October 16 –Sunday,December 9, 2018
Venue Special Exhibition Galleries A&B, National Museum of Japanese History

Adults: ¥830 (¥560)
Senior high school & college students: ¥450 (¥250)
* Fees in parentheses apply to groups of 20 or more
* Admission to permanent exhibitions included
* Free admission for elementary & junior high school students
* Free admission for senior high school students every Saturday

Hours 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. (entrance closed at 4:00 p.m.)
* Open hours and days are subject to change.
Closed Mondays (When Monday is a national holiday, the Museum is closed the following Tuesday.)


This exhibition focuses on some of the various documents in Rekihaku’s wide-ranging collection of medieval documents, and offers insights into the meanings behind their “styles.” The comparison with documents of East Asian countries including Korea brings to light the main features of Japanese documents and characteristics of medieval Japanese society. Handwritten documents such as those by Minamoto no Yoshitsune will be on display. The exhibition invites you to explore historical documents through visual experience of their world.


Japan has a large archive of documents from ancient times. In the Middle Ages in particular, when major changes were occurring both politically and socially, a wide variety of documents that reflected the times was produced. This exhibition takes a historical and comprehensive look at medieval documents of Japan with a focus on the styles or formats of the documents, rather than the content, to explore the functions or the meanings behind them.
Comparisons with documents of other Asian countries were also conducted. In an effort to elucidate the distinctive features of these Japanese documents, we studied how the documents were accepted and transformed within the bureaucratic system developed in China, and we also looked into the relationship between “official” documents and “private” documents (letters). It is hoped that our attempt will expand the field of study and be connected to the history of Asian documents. 

Note: The Middle Ages in Japan roughly correspond to the period from the 11th to the 16th centuries.


Prologue: Vocal Communication and Documents

Written communication proliferated after the Taiho Code, or Taiho Ritsuryo, was enacted in 701. Even before then, however, documents derived from vocal communication existed. There were written documents produced based on oral communications such as senmyo (imperial edicts) to deliver messages from the emperors and mokkan (narrow strips of wood) messages starting with the phrase “mae ni mosu (I say this to you)”. As seen in bojisatsu (notice board), which were read aloud to the general populace, oral communication was also valued in addition to written communication.

Chapter 1: Ancient Documents

Kushikiryo, one of the ordinances of the Ritsuryo codes, stipulated a variety of formats for documents exchanged between administrative institutions. Official documents produced in accordance with these formats were called Kushikiyo-monjo. On the other hand, there were no specific formats for private letters written by individuals. Various examples of ancient documents ranging from the application of official documents to private letters may be found in theShoso-in Treasure House archive.

Chapter 2: Formation of Medieval Documents

In the Middle Ages, the document formats of the Ritsuryo codes lost substance, and were gradually replaced by simpler formats. Kudashi-bumi (top-down mandates) derived from official documents were written by different issuers. In tandem with this, usage of letters, that is personal documents, expanded and acquired the function of official documents. Examples include the documents written by those in power such as rinji, letters from an emperor,and inzen, letters from a former emperor, which were written by secretaries.

Chapter 3: Formats of Buke Documents

The newly arrived samurai class used kudashi-bumi and gechijo, which originated from official documents, while shosatsuyo-monjo such as migyo-sho, derived from letters, were used as official documents depending on their usage. Under the Muromachi Shogunate, pure kudashi-bumi and gechijo disappeared towards the end of the Nanboku-cho period(14th century), increasing the political significance of shosatsuyo-monjo(letter style documents) such as gonai-sho and gohan-no-migyo-sho.

Chapter 4: Contracts and Social Groups

Documents were also exchanged between interested parties. They were contract documents such as tochibai-ken (for selling land), yuzuri-jo (for transferring possessions), and kisho-mon for vowing to Shinto and Buddhist deities to abide by a promise. Religious groups such as temples also produced documents for communication and decision-making. Some documents of court nobles (documents passed down within a family) explain how documents were produced within the Imperial court.

Chapter 5: Letters and Inpan-jo

Letters or documents issued by individuals were actively used for a wider range of purposes in the Sengoku Period (late 15th century to the 16th century). Seals replaced signatures among the samurai and common people and inpan-jo (documents with a red seal) issued by sengoku-daimyo developed at the same time. In many cases, seals were used in place of kao (a stylized signature or mark), but some daimyos produced inpan-jo with a format common to that of royal documents found in other Asian countries.

Chapter 6: Diplomatic Documents and Asian Documents

East Asian countries adopted a Chinese document structure. A square red seal, one of the main features of East Asian documents, traveled far and was introduced to Iran. As for diplomatic documents, China applied the unmodified formats of the Imperial and official documents used in China, while other countries mostly adopted the formats of shokan or private documents.

Epilogue: Document Formats passed down to Modern Times

In Japan, although official documents issued by the state bureaucracy lost substance by early modern times, the Meiji Government started to produce documents with a seal affixed originating from the ancient Japanese Ritsuryo nation. The format, however, was also influenced by other Asian countries and the West. The “Kido Family Documents” in our collection provides genealogical insights into the document formats we use today.


Main Artifacts (Japanese Page)