What are Shōsōin documents?

Shōsōin 正倉院 is the name of an eighth-century storehouse located on the grounds of the temple Tōdai-ji 東大寺. While it is most famous for its collection of treasures, including many objects that reached Japan via the silk road, it also preserves over 10,000 hand-written documents all dating from the Nara period (710–784). The manuscripts were originally part of a state-sanctioned scriptorium, but the corpus also includes records related to tax collection, censuses, temple construction, and even poetry. The material represents one of the best sources for understanding not only religious and economic aspects of early Japan, but also the Japanese language, the lives of commoners who have otherwise disappeared from the historical record, material culture, and political history.

Why haven’t I heard more about these sources?

English-language scholarship has barely scratched the surface of this rich source base. The primary reason for this neglect stems from the complexity of the collection, which has rendered it nearly impossible to use without specialized training. The manuscripts were cut apart and reassembled multiple times both in the eighth century and in the modern era. Publication further complicated matters, as the documents were again rearranged for the compilation of the Dai Nihon komonjo 大日本古文書 series. In Japan, publication on Shōsōin documents often appears in highly specialized journals that are seldom read in the west. Finally, research on Shōsōin documents requires consultation with photographic reproductions, but the publication of images of documents has progressed slowly. As a result of these difficulties in using and learning about Shōsōin documents, they have received surprisingly little attention. We hope this web site will be a first step toward launching English language Shōsōin studies. Those interested in learning more about the collection are encouraged to consult Sakaehara Towao’s excellent Shōsōin monjo nyūmon 正倉院文書入門.

What can I find on this site?

This web site intends to facilitate Shōsōin research through a bibliography of reference works, an ever-expanding glossary, and a blog on issues related to Shōsōin studies. It also includes an overview of the Shōgozō 聖語蔵, a repository for sutra manuscripts located at the Tōdai-ji compound next to the Shōsōin treasure house. The project was born out of a workshop on the Shōsōin corpus held at Princeton University in March 2012.

* Header image is a reproduction of a tax ledger from Izumo Township, Otagi District, Yamashiro Province (Yamashiro no kuni Otagi-gun Izumo-go ungeri keichō 山背国愛宕郡出雲郷雲下里計帳). Reproduction property of the National Museum of Japanese History and used with their permission. Original document property of Imperial Household Agency Office of the Shosoin Treasure House. Unauthorized use of this image is strictly prohibited.