First Encounters

I began studying Shōsōin documents 正倉院文書 for my dissertation research on sutra copying in early Japan (roughly seventh through ninth centuries). Although I had frequently heard of an important building known as the Shōsōin, I knew nothing of its collection of documents when I first decided to research sutra transcription. I had initially been attracted to the rich narrative tales in the Nihon ryōiki 日本霊異記 as well as continental sources as well as the dedicatory prayers (ganmon 願文) inscribed in the colophons of eighth-century sutra manuscripts. As I began to read the Japanese language scholarship on sutra transcription in the Nara period (710-784), I soon realized that the vast majority of work dealt with sources known as Shōsōin documents. At first, I was thrilled that there were thousands of hand-written documents related to an eighth-century scriptorium, which had received virtually no attention in English. The sources seemed like an untapped gold mine filled with potential.

And to some extent they were, but these documents also posed numerous problems. For one, I soon learned that the published print editions in Dai Nihon komonjo were riddled with errors. At first, I thought these problems related to transcription and dating errors would be easily overcome through careful consultation of the original documents, but these issues were really the least of my worries. The Dai Nihon komonjo series was not simply inaccurate, but it actually radically rearranged the documents into a new order that broke up what were once single documents into several pieces scattered about the collection. Looking at reproductions of the originals didn’t help either; these documents had also been cut apart and pieced together on at least two occasions. The first was in the Nara period, when many documents were cut apart, flipped over, and reassembled as new scrolls to be written on the verso. More recently, the documents were cut apart and reassembled again into new scrolls based on the research interests of modern scholars intent on collecting seals and gathering documents from the various bureaus of the eighth-century government. In rearranging these scrolls in this way, these modern scholars disrupted the order of the documents as they had been assembled at the state-sponsored scriptorium and stored in at the Shōsōin for over one thousand years.

As I was soon informed by Japanese scholars, Shōsōin research required highly specialized training in how to read and piece together these documents together to return them to their premodern configuration. In many ways, it is a mutli-thousand piece jigsaw puzzle that is only being pieced together bit by bit. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to study with two leading scholars in the field, Sakaehara Towao at Osaka City University and Miyazaki Kenji at Ōtani University. Both scholars provided me with rigorous training in using these important sources. The purpose of this web page is to introduce some of what I learned to help facilitate future English language research on the Shōsōin.

In this space, I plan to periodically write about Shōsōin research. I will introduce recent Japanese language scholarship, discuss individual documents, and provide updates with news related to the Shōsōin and the study of early Japan. I look forward to your comments.


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