The Origins of the Yatate

Since earliest times, the Japanese have valued fine calligraphy.  Shodō or the Way of the Brush encompassed the aesthetics of form,  the rhythm of the brush, and the interplay of the black ink against the white paper.  To create this aesthetic the calligrapher/scholar needed the right writing implements, and setting.  The setting was most often the serenity of his studio. His tools: a finely crafted inkstone (suzuri), a water-dropper (suiteki) to wet the inkstone to grind and liquify the the dried ink (sumi) were all displayed in an orderly fashion on his writing table.  Within easy reach the calligrapher could select his brush (fude) of choice from an array neatly arranged on a brush rest (fude-oki), paper (kami), and a paperweight (bunchin) to hold the paper in place. However for the warrior on the battlefield, the pilgrim, traveler or anyone needing to write on the road, the task was at a minimum daunting, often a frustrating and clumsy exercise.

The first efforts to resolve the lack of "portability" is thought to have been born of necessity on the battlefield.  At a time when warriors fought on horseback armed with bows and arrows they carried a quiver stocked with arrows.  At the base of the quiver a small drawer was fashioned to hold writing implements including a small inkstone, inkstick and perhaps a brush.  The small inkstone became known as the quiver's inkstone or yatate no suzuri.  A word or two about the term yatate. The term is composed of two kanji: ya 矢 meaning arrow and tate 立 meaning stand or arrow stand or quiver.

Although the quiver drawer made writing somewhat "portable" and provided a convenient way to carry all the necessary implements to write on the road, the writing process was still time consuming and cumbersome.  One could imagine a warrior in the heat of battle urgently needing to dash off a dispatch or forward newly gained military intelligence pausing to grind ink.  Critical time was last; a perilous situation could turn into disaster and a battle lost.  Far fetched, perhaps but one lesson was emerging from these experiences, a more compact and practical portable writing solution needed to be thought through and developed.

One of the first depictions of yatate appears in a scene in the Mōko Shūrai Ekotoba ( Mongol Invasion Scrolls) commissioned by Takezaki Suenaga, a warrior who fought in both the 1274 and 1281 Mongol invasions of Japan.  The scrolls were completed circa1293.

In the scene below we see Suenaga on the left sitting straight-backed dressed in full armor and poised to recount his martial battle deeds to Adachi no Morimune, a regional official of the Kamakura bakufu government.  Suenaga is confident his exploits will earn him recognition and rewards from Kamakura.  To dramatize and bolster his narrative, Suenaga displays the severed heads of enemies.  The taking of enemy heads was a form of warrior "currency" or collateral to prove his worth and effectiveness on the battlefield.  In the right foreground, there sits a scribe ready to record the proceedings.  In his left hand he holds writing paper, in his right a fan which he is about to place on the ground in preparation for writing. Directly in front, at his right knee, is a hiōgi-gata yatate or hand fan style yatate. 

Most likely the yatate is make of hinoki or Japanese cypress. The yatate is unadorned with the lid and the base joined by a rectangular sliding metal fastener.  The base of the yatate is equipped with a small suzuri and sumi inkstick.  It is unclear if the base can accommodate a brush,  if not the scribe most likely would have carried the brush, along with his writing paper, in a fold of his clothing. 

Illustration source and link:
In 1347 approximately 55 years after the completion of Suenaga's scrolls and more than 250 years after the actual events, Korehisa no Hida no Kami, the provincal governor of Hida created the Gosannen Kassen Ekotoba or The Later Three Years War Scroll.  The war was a conflict fought in the years 1083-1087.  The scroll commemorates the battle of Kanazawa Stockade fought in the fall of 1087.

In the overview scroll scene, below left, see a warrior using a suzuri-bako in the upper left and in the lower right of the scene  warriors writing with a hiōgi-style yatate. In the middle scene below, a warrior prepares to write.  He appears to be holding his brush between his teeth thus freeing his hands to cut writing paper.  On the ground before him is a hiōgi style yatate equipped with an inkstone.  A small sumi inkstick is outside the yatate.  A more detailed depiction of the hiōgi yatate appears on the right.

 Illustrations from . emuseum, National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties of the National Museums, Japan