Antique Japanese Yatate

Japanese kanji symbols for yatate A yatate, as it is known today, is a portable device used to easily transport a writing brush and sumi ink. The symbols in red to the left are the kanji for the word "yatate".

In old Japan, all writing was done with a brush (fude) and ink (sumi). Traditionally an ink stone known as a suzuri was used to grind a solid ink stick and mix with water. These stones and the whole process of grinding ink were not well suited to travel.

While away from home and station, it was common for samurai to write letters either home to their family or to send reports to their superiors. In order to facilitate this, at some point in history, samurai began to keep small ink stones and ink inside their arrow quivers. The arrow quivers were called yatate and the small ink stones became known as "yatate no suzuri" or "arrow stand ink stone". The name was later shortened to simply "yatate". This is the same word as that used for arrow stand, but identical words with different meanings are common in Japanese and native speakers use the context of the word to infer which is meant at the time. Additionally, these different words are almost always written with different kanji, even though they sound the same.

It was of course still troublesome to have to grind ink whenever one wanted to write but genuinely spill proof containers were few and far between so this was really the only option. That is until someone came upon the genius idea to soak a piece of cotton or moxa in ink and place this inked material into a container. The material held the ink in suspension and if the ink ever dried out, it took only a few drops of water to revitalize it. A much easier proposition than hand grinding ink each and every time you wanted to write. Thus was born the yatate as we know it today.

The first yatate were containers in the same shape as a fan with a top that folded to the side to allow for access to the writing materials. There were two separate compartments, one for the fude (writing brush) and one for the cotton soaked ink. This style of yatate is known as hiogi-gata.

The exact date of the yatate's birth is unknown, but we do know that they were in use at some point during the Kamakura period (1185 to 1333). A scroll painted during the Kamakura period (1293 AD specifically), known as "Moko Shurai-Zu" clearly shows a samurai using a fan shaped yatate. Those interested can view the scroll at the Museum of Imperial Collections in Tokyo Japan.

By the Edo period, beginning in 1603, the most common form of yatate was the hishaku-gata. Hishaku means "dipper" in Japanese and the term is fitting because these variety of yatate strongly resemble a small water dipper. Hishaku-gata yatate have a main tube body where the fude is inserted with an ink basin (sumitsubo) attached at the same end where the brush is removed. The lid of the ink basin doubles as the door keeping the fude held within the storage tube.

A Pair of Yatate Found in Kyoto

Pair of Antique Yatate from Kyoto

Some hishaku-gata yatate come with additional accessories that are highly prized by collectors. The most common is a small knife known as a kami-kiri. These small knives were used to cut paper and basic utility purposes. If you examine the tube opening on a yatate and find that the tube is sectioned off into two compartments, it's a sure bet that when it was originally made it came with a kami-kiri. These little knives were easily lost and not that common today, although you will come across one from time to time.

Yatate with Kami-Kiri Utility Knife

Antique Yatate with Kami-Kiri Paper Knife

Other examples of hishaku-gata yatate accessories were compasses and rulers for measuring. The rulers were not so much accessories as they were additions to the basic body of the yatate.

Japanese Antique Glossary


Daruma Magazine, Issue #43 Daruma Magazine Website Alistair Seton's Book, Collecting Japanese Antiques (Amazon Link)