Yatate Basics

The yatate belongs to that unique category of Japanese items called ​​​sagemono, a catch-all word for items that hang from the obi, the wide belt that secures a kimono.  Other sagemono include the more recognizable names of inrō, netsuke, kiseru, a smoking pipe, and its case the kiseruzutsu.

In its most basic definition, the yatate is a Japanese, pre-modern, self-contained portable writing instrument.  Born of necessity on the battlefield, and like so many other "technological/practical advances" developed during war became a useful tool and benefit in civilian life.  Over time, the yatate, with its practical design, ease of use and portability became commonplace in everyday life.

The yatate was in common use from about the late thirteenth century to the advent of the fountain pen in the early twentieth century. Although grouped into four main styles or types, yatate were customized to the tastes and interests of both the user and the creative instincts of the craftsman. As noted below, we see a wide variety of materials, techniques motifs/themes.  The artisans crafting yatate came from not only exclusive yatate artisans but also artisans whose main endeavors include netstuke and inrō carvers, sword helve makers and others.  
Four Main Styles of Yatate:
  1. Hiōgi:  the oldest style of yatate was popular in the Kamakura era (1185-1333) and was made of cypress wood slats to resemble a hand fan.  Its upper lid slides horizontally like a folding fan, opening to expose an ink pad and writing brush.  The ink pad, made of moxa or cotton, was saturated with ink (sumi) and, in the event the ink dried, a drop of water would be added to re-liquify the ink. Although popular early on, the Hiōgi never really went out of fashion and was in demand throughout the time the yatate was used.

  2. Ladle or Interlocking:  popular in the Edo period (1615-1868), this style consisted of a rounded inkpot and a tubular brush case making it convenient to be tucked into the obi.

  3. Inrō or Separate: came into fashion at the end of the eighteenth century but quickly faded from popularity and was replaced by the already existing ladle style yatate.

  4. Pocket or Box:  a thin box type yatate with a telescoping brush made its appearance toward the end of the Edo period. When western clothing became the fashion in the Meiji period (1868-1912) it could easily be carried in a pocket. This style of yatate remained popular until the early twentieth century.
 brass, copper, shibuichi ( copper alloy), bronze, silver, iron, ivory, horn, bone and antler, wood, bamboo, rattan, ceramic, gourd (or loofah), and even a fungus (polypore).

  Techniques : carving (wood, bone, horn and ivory, bamboo), lacquerware, maki-e, mother-of- pearl, cloisonné, beeswax, embossed work, open pattern work, and inlaid work.  

  Craftsmen: since the yatate was primarily used as a utilitarian object only a small percentage were signed in comparison to other sagemono such as inrō and netsuke.  This said, we see signed yatate by such well-known artisans as Ritsuō (Ogawa, Haritsu), Zeshin, Koma Kyūhaku, Tōyō Iizuka, Ikko, Shumpo, Shibayama, Ōhara Mistuhiro and others, the ceramicist Eiraku, the sword-mount makers Munechika and Soten, and the Nō mask maker Deme Uman.  In addition there was a small group of artisans who devoted their endeavors exclusively to yatate.  These artisans include Baitetsu, Kinugasa, Tansai, Ryūundō and Ryūmondō.

  Motifs / themes:    musical instrument(s); specifically designed yatate for merchants, craftsmen, land managers; sword shaped; seasonal flowers, plants; animals-real and mythical; nautical and so on. ​

As the website develops we’ll see the yatate interlaced with the history of Japan and look deeper into styles, motifs, materials and decorations used by craftsmen to create this unique piece of Japanese culture. We will also see the yatate in art and literature and view other interesting aspects of pre-modern writing from other cultures.