Establishment of the Standard Tekagami Format


The Oregon Tekagami is an accordion-style album of roughly 27.5 (W) x 40.0 (L) x 11.0 (H) cm. It consists of 34 two-page-spread pages with 2-6 calligraphy pieces per page. Fragments are pasted on both front and back sides of the album with a total of 319 pieces. The majority of the fragments are handwritten copies of famous poetry collections which originally existed as either a bound book or handscroll. There are also oblong poetry slips (tanzaku) and rectangular poetry cards (shikishi). Tanzaku were typically used during a poetry gathering by each participant to write down the poem one intended to share. Unless the poet was an emperor or a woman, it was customary for a participant to sign the tanzaku at the bottom left corner when the poem was one’s own composition.1 After a poetry gathering, the tanzaku slips were collected and threaded together at the top for storing or for a record to be used later to commemorate the occasion as an anthology in a book or scroll format (see Fragment 181 below for a tanzaku with a small hole at the top center originally used for threading). Shikishi poetry cards on the other hand were often used to copy famous poems from existing anthologies or narrative stories for the purpose of pasting into an album or on a folding screen, sometimes with accompanying painting (see for instance a two-volume album in the collection of the Harvard Art Museums of poetry cards that were originally mounted on a pair of folding screens).2 Shikishi were often used for the purpose of display, thus many of them came with lush paper decoration: dyed paper, underdrawings, stenciled patterns, and sprinkled gold and silver of different shapes and sizes (see Fragment 136 for the variety of cut gold and silver used in paper decoration).3 The Oregon album also includes fragments of Buddhist scriptures and a few examples of personal correspondences.

Except for two pieces, each of the calligraphy samples in the Oregon Tekagami is accompanied by a small oblong slip called kiwamefuda 極札 (an “identification slip” or “authentication slip”) that assigns a calligrapher to the piece. Following standard practice of the Edo period, each kiwamefuda also holds a seal of the authenticator who identified the piece (Fig. 1 ). The fragments in the Oregon Tekagami themselves range in date from the Nara to early Edo periods (ca. eighth to seventeenth century). However, based on the active date of the calligraphy connoisseurs who produced the kiwamefuda, it is most likely that this tekagami was compiled sometime toward the end of the Edo period, possibly around the 1850s. (More on kiwamefuda and the practice of identifying calligraphy fragments can be found here).

Perusing through the Oregon album, one realizes that there is a loose principle to the ordering of the calligraphy pieces. Contrary to what one might expect from today’s perspective, the fragments in the Oregon Tekagami are not grouped together chronologically or by format. Rather the pieces are generally clustered according to the societal status of the calligrapher assigned to each piece.

For instance, generally speaking, pages 2, 3, and 4 on the front side hold fragments attributed to emperors, which are followed by pages 5 and 6 with grouping of works attributed to the members of the prestigious houses of imperial regents. This ordering of fragments adheres to the standard method of organization for a tekagami that was established by the early Edo period. For instance, the oversized woodblock-printed book on tekagami called Otekagami 御手鑑 (commonly known today as the “tekagami of the Keian period” or Keian tekagami 慶安手鑑 ), published in 1651 by the most prestigious family of calligraphy authenticators, presents the fragments in the same general order.

Furthermore, it is speculated that when Emperor Gosai 後西 (1637-85; r. 1654-63) and his father Go-Mizunoo 後水尾 (1596-1680; r. 1611-29) embarked on a tekagami project of an unprecedented scale that concluded in 1658, the resulting sixteen-volume album set—that was tragically incinerated during the 1661 fire of the imperial palace—presented the calligraphy pieces included in the same general arrangement.

In this standard arrangement, an album began with calligraphy of past emperors, then imperial princes, prominent regents and members of the prestigious aristocratic families, followed by other famed calligraphers, eminent monks, poets, finally concluding with warrior lords and prominent female poets and calligraphers. This clustering of calligraphy fragments by the social standing of the attributed calligraphers enacted a micro-cosmos of the hierarchical (and patriarchal) social relations in Japan with the imperial court at its center.

It is worth underscoring that this principal of tekagami compilation was predicated upon the establishment of sophisticated calligraphy connoisseurship. Most fragments included in a tekagami album initially belonged to a book or handscroll, some of which likely retained the inscriptions or other information that identified the original calligrapher. However, by the Edo period, it was far more common for a calligraphy fragment to be exchanged as a fragment, long separated from the original source, thus anonymous. The first task of a collector (or kohitsu vendor), therefore, was to identify the calligrapher, so that one knew exactly where to position it within an album.

But not everyone was as intimately versed in the calligraphic styles of the past masters as, for example, an emperors or their aristocratic advisors. In the early seventeenth century, a man by the name of Hirasawa Norisuke 平澤範佐 (1572-1662; later, Ryōsa 了佐), who is said to have learned poetry and the way of authenticating calligraphy from some of the most influential courtiers and cultural sophisticates of the day, was appointed by Regent Toyotomi Hidetsugu as the first professional connoisseur of calligraphy and granted the surname Kohitsu.

1. There have been many accomplished female poets and calligraphers, but unfortunately, many remain unknown. For much of Japanese history, a woman was only referred to by her poetic nickname, courtly rank, or her association with male family members (e.g. the “daughter of so-and-so”). 

2. Regarding the arrangement of the shikishi poetry cards in their original format as folding screens, see Anne Rose Kitagawa, “Veiled in Shadow: Recent Discoveries and Technical Analyses of the Harvard Art Museums’ Tale of Genji Album,” in Crossing the Sea: Essays on East Asian Art in Honor of Professor Yoshiaki Shimizu, edited by Gregory P. A. Levine, Andrew M. Watskey, and Gennifer Weisenfeld (New Haven: P. Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University, in association with Princeton University Press, 2012), 39-54.

3. In Japan, cut gold or silver, known as kirihaku 切箔, was commonly used to decorate paper and lacquerware. For an accessible discussion of different techniques, see Japanese Architecture and Art Net Users System, s.v. “kirihaku,” (accessed July 26, 2020).

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