Japanese Art Resources for the SCA Scribe

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So you've just been given an award scroll assignment for someone with a Japanese persona - and you don't know anything about pre-17th century Japanese art. It is my hope that the following will provide you with the information you need to create something period-appropriate that the recipient will proudly treasure.

Japanese Era-name Timeline 

Researching sources for period Japanese Art will be easier if you know what the major historical eras are called. Various sources divide the eras with some variants based on whether or not the authors care to lump certain historical events together.   

The Japan Guide Timeline indicates a historical-era approach, while this Art of Asia timeline from the Minneapolis Instutute of Art shows somewhat different dates from an art-history viewpoint, for example, extending the Momoyama period to 1615, even Tokugawa Ieyasu decisively won all the marbles at Sekigahara in 1600 and was appointed shogun in 1603. For stylistic purposes, 1615 certainly falls within the ball park, and for our general purposes here, anything before the Edo period is fair game.

JOMON - before 300 BC 

YAYOI - 300 BC - 300 CE

KOFUN - 300 - 538 CE (or 300-552 CE)

ASUKA - 538 - 710 CE (or 552-645 CE)

NARA - 710 - 794 CE (or 645-794 CE)

HEIAN - 794- 1185 CE

KAMAKURA - 1185 - 1333 CE

MUROMACHI - 1333 - 1568 CE (or 1392-1573 CE)

MOMOYAMA - 1568 - 1603 CE (or 1573-1615 CE).

The following eras post-date SCA- period:  

EDO (1603 - 1867 CE)

MEIJI (1867- 1912 CE)

TAISHO (1912 - 1926 CE)

SHOWA (1926 - 1989 CE)

HEISEI (1989 to 2019)

REIWA (2019 - present).


Photo courtesy of Joshua Badgley

Most SCA award scrolls are anachronistic. Legal documents were fairly plain and tended not to be illuminated. This is also the case in Japan, where you might have something that looked like these.


Photo courtesy of Joshua Badgley

Note the use of the red ink seals to keep the official text from being altered



The Shoso-in Repository's digital collection includes a number of official documents from the 8th century. This Imperial Edict on the management of Todai-ji Temple (760 CE) is written using Chinese characters adapted for use by the Japanese court, and a zealous clerk stamped the text repeatedly until he ran out of ink. The characters on the seals are a much earlier form of Chinese. 

That said, one may draw inspiration from other period-appropriate sources to create a more decorative award document.

Decoration of the underlying paper was frequently used for religious texts (called sutras) or compilations of poetry, with the embellishment adding a layer of meaning to the text. At the simplest, most basic level, it might be no more than the use of colored paper. At the other end of the spectrum are pages sprinkled with tiny cut pieces of gold and silver leaf before the underlying ink and paint have dried.

Click through to examine examples in the Tokyo National Museum collection:

12th century sutra decorated with gold leaf "glitter."

12th century record of a religious visit to India on indigo paper in gold and silver. 

10th century collection of poems and letters on colored paper with plants drawn in gold on one page. 

12th century poetry anthology bound as a book with gold and silver "glitter." (Due to age the silver leaf appears dark.) 

12th century album of sutras written on decorated fan papers.  

A paper marbling technique called suminagashi (floating ink) might also be used. This stunning example from the Honganji Temple in Kyoto dates to about 1100CE.

There are several common media for paintings and drawings that were used before 1600 and they may serve as inspiration for your work:

Portraits of religious figures (ranging from various bodhisatvas to priests and nuns), warlords, shoguns, poets, women of rank and more may serve as subjects. Below are links to some examples:

Kobo Daishi as a boy. Probably doesn't look anything like him as it was painted 600 years after he lived, but it's charming nonetheless. An adult portrait of Kobo Daishi in the accoutrements of a priest.

Daruma. Again, another portrait of a legendary religious centuries after his death. Daruma (Bohdidarma) is often represented with bristling eyebrows and a scowl of intense concentration upon his meditations. This one is mellow by comparison.

Ashikaga Yoshihisa looking magnificent on his horse.

Hosokawa Sumimoto, also on horseback.

Unknown samurai from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tosenin, whose clothing I've tried to re-create. Portrait is dated to 1610, a couple years late, but the style is very much of the Momoyama period. (Portrait appears in Japan's Golden Age: Momoyama by Money L. Hickman.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi, in a typically formal pose while wearing court dress.

Emaki, or narrative picture scrolls are a wonderful source for period images. Please visit my article on emaki HERE for links to picture scrolls online.

Shoheiga is a general term for paintings on walls, doors or screens.

Genre scenes of the Twelve Months is a set of 16th century folding screens in the Tokyo National Museum depicting seasonal activities - and a favorite of mine! Festivals, rice planting, fabric shopping, young people playing a game similar to badminton are among a few of the items depicted.

The Maple Viewers by Kano Hideyori, also 16th century, shows people enjoying the fall foliage with a picnic.

Other terms for your online searches

No need to panic because you don't know the Japanese names for things. You'll get hits if you Google "16th century Japanese art." That said, a few useful terms will help broaden your internet searches. 

Byobu: folding screens. Used to divide larger rooms into smaller spaces, screens are frequently painted with scenes of nature, historical events, vignettes from well known tales or images of festivals and daily life. 


Byobu: folding screens. 

Used to divide larger rooms into smaller spaces, screens are frequently painted with scenes of nature, historical events, vignettes from well known tales or images of festivals and daily life.

Monkeys and trees on a river bank, Sesson Shukei (1504-1589), Momoyama period. Freer Sackler Gallery, Washington DC. 


Emaki or emakimono: picture scrolls. 

These depict histories, religious texts, diaries or poetry collections. Unrolled and read from right to left, emaki can be a wonderful source of period images. See my web page on emaki HERE as it contains links to a number of scrolls which you can view online.

Master Ishiyama Gen'tarou Yori'ie has begun using emaki as inspiration for scroll blanks for use in his home Kingdom of Aethelmearc and has documented his process HERE. He's not only used images from extant scrolls as inspiration, you can actually see improvement in his skill level through the course of his projects.

Detail of female pilgrims, from Origins of the Yuzu Nenbutsu Sect, c. 1329, Freer Collection, Washington, DC, shot by the author.

Hakubyo refers to a very fine lined monochrome style used in emaki and kakejiku in which the illustrations are done in ink on a white ground. 


Kakejiku or kakemono: hanging scrolls 

Designed specifically to be hung as interior decoration, usually in a special alcove (tokonoma) where it may be admired. Introduced in the Heian period to display religious images, calligraphy or poetry, it came to include paintings of nature and portraits.

"Cat," c. 1500, attributed to Bokusho Shusho, Larry Ellison collection, shot by the author at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. 

Literally "Southern Barbarian." The first Europeans to arrive in Japan in 1542 were on a Chinese ship that came from the south and landed on the island of Tanegashima, thus the foreign visitors - and things associated with them - were known as namban. (You may also encounter a variant spelling of nanban.) Namban art refers to an entire genre of decorative arts which includes paintings depicting namban. This set of folding screens in the National Museum of Portugal date from about 1606.



Paintings on walls, sliding doors or folding screens.  Painted doors and walls at Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto, shot by the author. 

Sumi-e: Ink painting.
Sumi-e is monochrome and includes landscapes, religious subjects, or narrative picture scrolls.


Ukiyo-e: Floating World images.

These paintings (and prints) take their name from the commercial pleasure quarters known as "The Floating World." During the 17th century, the shogunate created districts in the city of Edo (now Tokyo) and other major centers where all the potentially troublesome eggs could be put in one basket. Brothels, tea houses, theaters and restaurants all were part of the hedonistic "floating world" behind walls. Ukiyo-e images of beautiful women, popular actors and sumo wrestlers, as well as illustrations from stories or travel landscapes became popular with the new urban population, particularly as they started to become mass produced by the carving of wood block prints.

Sorry, scribes, this stuff significantly post-dates SCA period!


Yamato-e: "Japanese painting."

Influenced by Chinese painting styles introduced in the Nara period, it developed a distinctly Japanese style by the Heian period. Yamato-e figures are stylized with simple, almost cartoonish facial features. Scenes may be divided by bands of stylized clouds, pigment tends to be flat and unshaded. Indoor scenes frequently employ a perspective that rips off the roof ("fukinuki yatai")so the viewer can peer into the room.

A fukinuki yatai scene from the Genji Monogatari emaki, Tokugawa Art Museum.

What about the calligraphy?

It's not only an unfamiliar hand, it's an unfamiliar writing system.

First a bit of background: Around the 6th century CE or so, the Chinese sent envoys to Japan, bringing all sorts of neat things to be culturally appropriated, including a writing system. Kanji uses Chinese characters (hanzhi, get it?) to represent Japanese words. That's the writing you see in the documents at the very head of this article - and what you'd most likely want to use for an award text. Characters are read from top to bottom starting from the rightmost column. 

Hiragana developed as a vernacular writing system. See the hanging scroll of the Poetry Contest between Ise and Fujiwara in the section above. This style is nicknamed "grass writing" and one sees it mostly in poetry anthologies from period. Katakana developed later to supplement that, particularly as the Japanese interacted with foreign languages and adopted loan words from them.

Yes, that's the daunting bit, isn't it? I am in the process of finding fellow SCAdians who are willing to translate award scroll texts for you. Please email me at wodeford@yahoo.com and I will  arrange a referral. You can also try making a request at the SCA Japanese Facebook group

You can find tutorials online to get the basics of Japanese calligraphy principles, such as stroke order. There are a ton on Youtube. Kanji-A-Day uses little animated gifs. About.com's Japanese kanji section is a bit simpler. Practice a few with a pad and pencil just until you're comfortable with the flow. Vertical strokes run from top to bottom, horizontals from left to right. I also highly recommend Christopher Earnshaw's Sho Japanese Calligraphy: An In-depth Introduction To The Art of Writing Characters if you're interested in getting into Japanese calligraphy on a serious basis. It includes information on making your own ink and carving seals too!

The hack hand question.

Back in the day, Mistress Danabren Madadh-Mara of the East Kingdom used a "hack hand," converting the 26 letter Western alphabet into something that looks Japanese-ish, if you don't look too closely. And that's the problem. It's NOT Japanese. Fake Chinese fonts have a history involving racist propaganda just as much as we think of them for restaurant menus. It's a sensitive issue and since our resources are getting better all the time, let's do better. If you want to do a scroll in English, do it in English. If you want to do it in Japanese - or any other non-alphabet-based language, find a translator to help you.


King's Order of Excellence (East) for Fujiwara no Aoi.


Order of the Pelican for Tanaka Raiko.


Order of the Laurel for Saionji no Hana.


The one on the right is the one she made for my Laurel. Isn't it stunning? (Click photo to enlarge) "The Great Western Emperor, Rolf, and the Dawn Empress do raise Saionji No Hana to the junior fourth rank of court, called ju shi-i for her knowledge of the Land of the Rising Sun. The right to a wall screen, per bend sable and gules, a swan rousant contourny, in chief three fleurs de lys, is hers alone by letters patent, and we permit to her a robe decorated with a wreath of laurel leaves. In witness whereof we set our hands this Twelfth Night, January Seventh, AS XLVI, Shire of Teufelberg." Yes, it includes my old European-style arms, as the paperwork on the Japanese one had not been completed. Note, however, the three fans mon directly above the text. She got them both in. Their Majesties and our Kingdom Principal Herald signed their names vertically at the left.

Putting up or shutting up.  

Right about now you may be thinking this may be more trouble than it's worth, right?

Well, here's the thing. I am not a calligrapher. Or at least, I didn't think I was. The extent of my ability was learning how to sign my name in Japanese in time for my elevation to the Laurel because I felt I should know how to be able to, even if I don't actually speak, read or write Japanese.  

But I did this: on a board propped on my lap, in my encampment, in under an hour without my reading glasses - Just to see if I could. It's a draft of the text for a scroll my Kingdom owes me but hadn't assigned yet, nor had any scribe requested the assignment. 


 I figured this was a great way to test the availability and the skills of my volunteer translator, who is himself a talented calligrapher and artist in the SCA. I emailed him the award text, he returned a translation. I then transferred the characters into an MS Excel spreadsheet so I could make a template for spacing and alignment purposes. (There's a precedent for this: modern Japanese use ready-made templates for the devotional practice of copying Buddhist sutras.) I printed it out and enlarged it on a photocopier to the size I wanted.


If you look closely, you can see the Excel copy underlying the calligraphy sheet placed on top of it.

I definitely need more practice - you can see in the large characters where I hesitated and went back over a line with the brush! As I said, I'd forgotten my reading glasses and I suspect some of the more complicated kanji have mistakes in them as a result. But if I can produce this on my first try, why not give it a try yourself?

Fast forward four years. This is my first SCA award scroll. REPEAT: This is my FIRST SCA award scroll ever!
The text was translated by Master Cristoforo Pallavincino of Northshield for me: the lines at the left in kanji are the award verbiage, those at the right, in hiragana, are an original poem. The wolf is based on a reconstruction of a Meiji era ceiling painting from Yamatsumi Shrine. Trying to find a period depiction of a wolf was problematic, and while post-period, the style of the ceiling paintings correllates well to period paintings of other animals. 

The text was traced off a lightboard with a fude pen on sumi-e paper, then mounted onto a ready-made scroll from Amazon.com. In hindsight, I should have thinned the glue. While trying to carefully smooth the fragile sumi-e paper along one edge, it tore. If you look very closely at the left margin, you can see where I patched it after having the appropriate hysterics. 

The edging is some Nishijin brocade I acquired in Kyoto in 2014. 


The Namban Option

In 1543, two Portuguese passengers on a Chinese vessel were shipwrecked at Tanegashima in southern Japan. As the ship came in from the southwest, the Japanese took to referring to the strangers as "Namban" or Southern Barbarians. In the decades that followed, trade and Jesuit missions followed, and Japanese converts even visited the courts of Europe and the Pope himself.

This diplomatic letter from the Portuguese Viceroy of the Indies to the Imperial Regent, Toyotomi Hideyoshi dates to 1588. If you look at the crowned capital C, it encircles the pawlonia plant that is Hideyoshi's mon (arms). (National Treasure, Reikihaku Museum, Sakura City, Chiba Prefecture, Japan, photo courtesy of Joshua Badgley.)

In short, re-creating a document in European style remains an option.

Art supplies:

Fude (brush) pens are a great way to get the look and feel of brushwork, particularly if it's not likely you'll be using more traditional brushes and ink on a regular basis. Kuretake and Tombow are well known brands. If you have a Daiso Japan retail store in your area, check their stationery section for inexpensive brush pens. 



Traditional brushes, inks, and calligraphy papers 


Searcheable museum collections online: 

Asian Art Museum, San Francisco 
British Museum
E-Museum (Japanese National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties) 
Freer-Sackler Collection
Japanese Art in the Asia Society Collection
Kyoto National Museum
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Shosoin Treasures
Tokyo National Museum
University of Oregon Library, digitized collection of scrolls from Itsukushima Shrine

Books on Japanese Calligraphy: 

Earnshaw, Christopher J. Sho Japanese Calligraphy: An In-depth Introduction To The Art of Writing Characters. Tuttle Publishing, 1989. ISBN 0804815682/ 978-0804815680 

Kuiseko, Ryokushu. Brush Writing: Calligraphy Techniques for Beginners. Kodansha USA, 1988. ISBN 0870118625/978-0870118623 

Nakata, Yujiro. The Art of Japanese Calligraphy. Weatherhill/Heibonsha (1973). ISBN 0834810131/978-0834810136 

Suzuki, Yuuko. An Introduction to Japanese Calligraphy. Search Press, 2005, ISBN 1844480577/978-1844480579 

Books on pre-17th c. Japanese genre art: 

Doi, Tsugiyoshi. Momoyama Decorative Painting (Vol. 14 Heibonsha Survey of Japanese Art). Weatherhill/Heibonsha (1977). ISBN 0834810247/978-0834810242 

Hempel, Rose. The Heian Civilization of Japan. Phaidon (1983), ISBN 0714822957/978-0714822952 

Hickman, Money L. Japan’s Golden Age: Momoyama. Yale University Press (2002). ISBN 0300094078/978-0300068979 

Ienaga, Saburo. Painting in the Yamato-E Style. Weatherhill/Heibonsha (1973). ISBN 0834810166/978-0834810167 

McCormick, Melissa. Tosa Mitsunobu and the Small Scroll. University of Washington Press (2009). ISBN 9780295989020/978-0295989020 

Murase, Miyeko. Emaki: Narative Scrolls From Japan. Asia Society (1983). ISBN 0878480609/978-0878480609 

Noma, Seiroku. The Arts of Japan, Vols. 1 & 2. Kodansha International (1966), ISBN 0870113356/978-4770029775 and 0870113364/978-0870113369. 

Okamoto, Yoshitomo. Namban Art of Japan. Weatherhill/Heibonsha (1972). ISBN 0834810085/978-0834810082 

Okudaira, Hideo. Emaki: Japanese Picture Scrolls. Charles E. Tuttle Co. (1962). ASIN B0000CLOZO 

Okudaira, Hideo. Narrative Picture Scrolls (Vol. 5, Arts of Japan). Weatherhill/Shibundo (1973). ISBN 0834827115/978-0834827110 

Smith, Bradley. Japan: A History In Art. Gemini-Smith; Revised edition (1964). ISBN 0385032404/978-0385032407 

Watanabe, Masako. Storytelling in Japanese Art. Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press (2011). ISBN 9780300175905/978-0300175905 

Yamane, Yuzo. Momoyama Genre Painting (Vol. 17 Heibonsha Survey of Japanese Art). Weatherhill/Heibonsha (1973) ISBN 0834810123/978-0834810129 

Yashiro, Yukio. 2000 Years of Japanese Art. Harry N. Abrams, Inc (1959). ASIN B001F3ERYQ 

Downloadable/Read Online books from the Metropolitan Museum of Art: 

Murase, Miyeko. Bridge of Dreams: The Mary Griggs Burke Collection of Japanese Art. Harry N. Abrams (2000).  

Murase, Miyeko. Japanese Art: Selections from the Mary and Jackson Burke Collection. Metropolitan Museum of Art (1975) 

Murase, Miyeko et al. The Written Image: Japanese Calligraphy and Painting from the Sylvan Barnet and William Burto Collection. Yale University Press (2002). 

Metropolitan Museum of Art. Momoyama: Japanese Art in the Age of Grandeur. Metropolitan Museum of Art (1975).

 My thanks to Master Ii Saburou Katsumori of Atlantia (Joshua Badgley), Mistress Danabren Madadh-Mara of the East (Leah Lloyd),  Master Ishiyama Gen'tarou Yori'ie of Aethelmearc (Elliott C. Evans) for sharing their work and to Master Cristoforo Pallavincino of Northshield for his assistance. 

Copyright 2015, 2019 Lisa A. Joseph

No HOBBY LOBBY products were used in these projects.