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10     Japanese writing and their books, paper, ink and letters

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1. We write with twenty-two letters; they write with forty-eight in the kana alphabet and with infinite characters for a variety of representations.

The alphabet used by Romance languages at the time did not really have k or w, and i and j and v and u, respectively, were interchangeable, hence Frois’ twenty-two rather than twenty-six letters.[627]

The letters in the Japanese syllabary, known as kana (as opposed to kanji, or Chinese characters), are uniformly short, like the Greek mora. In kana, consonants invariably come with an associated vowel sound, e.g. “ka, ke, ki, ko, ku,” where each of these open syllables is represented in writing by a single letter. Japanese has only five vowels, and these are almost identical to those used in Latin. When a Japanese vowel appears alone in a given syllable (i.e. without a consonantal onset), it is also represented by a letter. The forty-eight letters in kana are the forty-seven comprising the syllabic poem on the vanity of life written by the abbot Kobo Daishi (d. C.E. 776), in which no syllable is used twice,[628] plus the controversial syllable “n,” the only consonant without an associated vowel and thus the only consonant that can end a written word in Japanese. (The syllables “su” and “se” at the ends of words sometimes only get as far as their “s” sound when they are spoken, as a result of a process of reduction and elimination of the vowel nucleus.) The syllabary most commonly used today (but also in use at Frois’ time) is not a poem, but is arranged instead according to the five vowel sounds. Its logic (unlike “our” somewhat illogical Roman alphabet) is reflected in its decimal-linked name: goju-on or “fifty-sounds.”

Because Frois does not give details about kana, the contrast here would seem to be between a finite number of letters in European alphabets and the “infinite characters” used in Japanese.

2. We study different arts and sciences through our books; they spend their entire lives coming to know the essential meaning of the characters [used in their writing system].

Frois grew up in a Europe that had been profoundly transformed during the fifteenth century by mass production of rag paper and Johannes Gutenberg’s development of the printing press. The production of hundreds of thousands of books and pamphlets on innumerable subjects encouraged people from many walks of life to learn to read and to engage authors and ideas that were previously available only to the privileged elite. Movable type and the printing press made possible the Humanist education that Frois alludes to, which presupposed the ready availability of books of Latin grammar and rhetoric or books on Roman history by Livy or the works of Aristotle.

With respect to Japan, Frois accurately emphasizes the great extent to which education in Japan focused on mastering written Japanese. The children of the nobility studied at home rather than at a school, usually with a tutor.[629] Fellow Jesuit and linguist Rodrigues wrote that there were as many as 80,000 letters and characters to be learned, although it was generally enough to know about 10,000 characters or a little less, “because if these are known, many others can be understood by their composition.” Note that not only the characters had to be learned, but the many ways that they may be pronounced and combined with the kana. As linguist and polemicist Roy Andrew Miller has noted, to say that Japanese employs a complex writing system is to risk the most sweeping understatement possible.[630]

3. We write across the page, going from left to right; they write going down the length of the page, and always from right to left.

On Jan. 14, 1549, Xavier wrote John III, King of Portugal, about this very matter:

I am sending you a copy of the Japanese alphabet. Their way of writing is very different from ours because they write from the top of the page down to the bottom. I asked Paul why they did not write in our way and he asked me why we did not write in their way? He explained that as the head of a man is at the top and his feet are at the bottom, so too a man should write from top to bottom.[631]

Paul, who accompanied Xavier as a translator, was from Malacca, where he learned Christian doctrine. There is a Japanese saying that “writing is the man” (bun-wa hito nari), which makes Paul’s reasoning even more poignant.

The Japanese on certain occasions also write horizontally, left to right, as well as right to left (on Buddhist plaques with the name of a temple, and perhaps most visibly, on the right side of a moving vehicle, such that the writing flows from the front to the back). Because both Chinese characters and Japanese syllables are written individually by moving the writing instrument from the upper left to the lower right in the space occupied by that character or letter, it would seem logical for the vertical lines to also go left to right, but for some reason this was reversed.

4. Where the final pages of our books end, that is where theirs begin.

If it were not for the reversal indicated in the note to #3 above this difference would not exist.

5. We hold printing in high regard; they use handwriting for nearly everything because their printing is unsuitable.

Block printing in Japan went back about 800 years before Frois’ time. It is not clear why Frois found it “unsuitable.” Fellow Jesuit Rodrigues seemed to be of a different opinion:

First of all they take a sheet of paper the same size as the proposed book and carefully write on it in the desired style with the required number of lines, spaces and everything else. Then they glue this sheet face down on the block and with great skill cut away the blank paper, leaving only the block letters … They then carve these letters on the block with iron instruments … They are so dexterous in this art that they can cut a block in about the same time as we can compose a page.[632]

6. We write with quills from ducks and other birds; they use paintbrushes with hare-fur bristles and a bamboo handle.

Quill pens made from the feathers of waterfowl, particularly geese and less frequently swans, crows, hawks, eagles, and owls, were the writing instrument of choice in Europe. Although a brush may seem a crude and inefficient instrument with which to write, the physical and aesthetic satisfaction of the brush far exceeds that of the quill, an instrument that originated for the purpose of cutting as much as covering sheepskin parchment. The lifelong mastery of characters (see #2 above) is in large part not about memorizing characters, which really does not take that long, but learning to write characters in many different styles, far more different than our printing and cursive. Therefore, practicing this is an art, which is tremendously satisfying in itself.

7. Our ink is liquid; theirs is made in loaves that are ground as they write.

Ink was made in Europe from carbonized plants (e.g. the burned branches of the hawthorn tree) and minerals such as salt, which were mixed with wine, walnut oil, or other mediums.

The sumi ink of the Japanese usually is made by the writer, who grinds a bar on the device Frois mentions in #8 below. Sometimes servants, wives, or children did the grinding. One ink stick the size of a small candy bar, mixed with water, makes gallons and gallons of ink. Rodrigues wrote that “the best kind is made from the smoke of sesame oil … which adheres to a vessel, and from this they make paste.” The paste was made into small loaves, “others long and others round,” stamped and “decorated with various flowers, serpents and figures from legends … they add some musk while making the best sort so that it will smell sweetly when they write with it.”[633]

Today most Japanese would say they have no time to make their own ink. Still, it is not unheard of to receive as a gift an ink-stick in the form of a cicada covered with gold.

8. Our inkwells are round and made of horn; theirs are made of elongated pieces of stone.

In Europe “horners” (a respected trade) cut, sawed, carved and pressed animal horn into sheets that were used for everything from window and lantern panes to combs, chess-pieces, and inkwells.[634] In English we can even call an inkwell an “inkhorn.” As one might imagine, these inkhorns ranged from simple to exquisitely carved works of art.

Frois’ colleague, Rodrigues, elaborated on the Japanese inkstand, noting it was made of a slab of smooth marmoreal stone that was usually rectangular or oval in shape, or somewhere in between:

They have a raised rim around the edge and a reservoir in the middle where the ink is ground. At one end of this there is a small well, gracefully carved, wherein they pour the water with which the ink is mixed … This is rather like the stone or palette in which artists prepare and mix the colours that they use in painting.[635]

One of the most magnificent Japanese inkstands that we know of has an otherworldly reservoir below the cosmic, Mt. Feng-lai, with its three peaks. Today, most inkstands have no well per se, but a graduated slope, resembling a boat-launching ramp.

9. Our inkwells have lids and pen wipers[636]; in Japan they have neither of these.

Because the Japanese made ink as they needed it they had no need of a well to store it or a lid to keep the ink from drying out. Pen wipers (one or more little brushes for removing excess ink from the quill tip as one wrote) also were unnecessary. But the Japanese were not lacking accessories, as this contrast might seem to suggest. The Japanese had beautiful lacquered boxes in which they kept their writing supplies and equipment.

10. We have only four or five varieties of paper; in Japan they have more than fifty.

European texts during the Middle Ages were inscribed on parchment made of specially prepared animal skins, often from sheep, which have soft skins. By the thirteenth century, rag-based paper was being used throughout much of Europe. With the advent of the printing press, which required a medium with an even and absorbent surface, it became the material of choice for all manner of writing and printing.

Europeans were “paper-poor” as compared with the Japanese and Chinese. In China, Marco Polo was amazed to find that paper money (made from the bark of the mulberry tree) was used throughout the empire and for every transaction. In Japan paper was made from dozens of plants. Alcock mentioned an “infinite variety of paper” and sent sixty-seven different kinds to The International Exhibition in London in 1862.[637] Even today, the Japanese are rightly proud of their rich diversity in paper.

11. On official documents, we use the notary public’s mark only; the Japanese each make their own mark on their letters, in addition to their signatures.

The notary public had its origins during the Roman Empire, when scribes or scribae were entrusted with drafting petitions to the emperor, recording public proceedings, transcribing state papers, and registering the decrees and judgments of magistrates.[638] The Japanese had no such office; individuals applied their own personal seal to whatever they valued, be it a contract or prints and paintings. Documents could be both signed and stamped, or just stamped, but they were seldom just signed.

12. Among us, the mark of the notary public never changes; in Japan they change marks whenever they want to.

Again, because there were no notary publics in Japan, it is hard to know who Frois was referring to with respect to the Japanese. Japanese “marks” or kao (“flower-stamp”) were a stylized signature or monogram, which changed when an individual was promoted, as might be expected given that individuals often changed their names upon securing a new office. Because they generally had more than one kao at any given time, individuals sometimes used different combinations of kao. Okada guesses that great men had an average of about twenty “official” kao over the course of their lives.

13. Among us, all paper is made from old pieces of cloth; in Japan it is all made from tree bark.

The Chinese apparently were the first to make rag paper from discarded rags that were disassembled and mixed with water, making a pulp that was pressed into sheets. The technology spread across the Arab world in the ninth century, reaching Spain and the rest of Western Europe following the Crusades and by the late thirteenth century.

The Japanese knew how to make paper from rags but preferred paper made from tree bark and shrubs (e.g. hemp). Alcock found this tree-bark paper tougher than any paper in Europe. “Even the finer kinds can only be torn with difficulty, and the stronger qualities defy every effort.”[639] As noted above, Alcock sent over sixty different kinds of Japanese paper to the International Exhibition in London in 1862.

14. We cannot convey complex thoughts in our letters without going on at great length; in Japan, letters are extremely short and very concise.

Frois was speaking from experience as regards the first part of this distich, as his lengthy annual reports even irritated Jesuit superiors. François Caron (1600–73), a French-born employee of the Dutch East-India Company, wrote that the terse writing style mentioned by Frois’ was common to the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans:

A man that can contract much matter into a few lines, and [make it] intelligible, which is that which they all practice, is greatly esteemed amongst them; for such they employ to write their Letters, Petitions and the like to great persons; and truly it is admirable to see how full of substance, and with how few words these sort of writing is penned.[640]

Caron would seem to be talking about the telegraphic Chinese style of writing. Women in Japan often used what Rodrigues described as a “soft and fluent style” with a particular vocabulary, which was every bit as long as “ours.”[641]

15. Among us, writing between the lines would be uncouth; in Japan they always intentionally[642] write between the lines.

Writing letters in which one shared experiences with fellow Jesuits, particularly one’s superior, was an integral aspect of being a Jesuit missionary.[643] The Jesuits were part of a long tradition going back to the apostles and Greek and Roman forebears (e.g. Cicero) who understood “letter-writing” as a distinct genre. This European tradition, which conceived of the letter as an intimate conversation between friends,[644] dictated that a letter received was answered with a “fresh” response.

With respect to Japan, Okada[645] mentions a number of types of recognized gyoukan-gaki or “line-between-writing.” There is otte-gaki or “chasing-writing,” something like our postscript; kaeshi-gaki or “return writing,” where one person’s letter is returned with the reply between the lines; and nao-nao-gaki or “this-too-this-too-writing,” which simply adds more detail.

If you did not read Okada’s notes, you might conclude that this writing between the lines was phonetic syllabary written small, next to Chinese characters, thus supplying the pronunciation in the case of hard-to-read names, unique usage, or for the sake of poor readers. Such wonderful little training wheels (called furigana) permit one to play with Chinese characters. They have nevertheless reaped scorn from the West: “One hesitates for an epithet to describe a system of writing which is so complex that it needs the aid of another system to explain it.”[646] Even the Japanese novelist turned pedagogue, Yamamoto Yuzo, has expressed exasperation at the procession of “disgusting black bugs” that crawl around our sentences.

16. Our letters are sent folded; Japanese letters are rolled up.

While the Japanese are fond of origami or “fold-paper” art, and at times folded their letters,[647] Frois may be correct that letters ordinarily were rolled. It is hard to say why rolls might have been preferred. One reason may have been the availability of cheap tubes in the form of bamboo. Japanese literature does offer examples of letters that were folded and stuffed into the bosom for carrying, so the difference was not absolute. When during the nineteenth century Japan began “modernizing/Westernizing” and sending mail by the packet, Morse wrote that the old style letterboxes big enough to fit a number of rolls (see #19 below) were abandoned as too bulky. Letters written on paper attached to a roll “… were torn off, … flattened by smoothing with the hand, and slid into a long, narrow envelope.”[648]

16A. Among us, we indicate the year in which we are writing; the Japanese give only the day of the lunar [month] in which it is sent.

(This contrast was not numbered in the original manuscript.) The European/Christian worldview is predicated on a linear, progressive notion of the passage of time, which it is believed will culminate in Christ’s return and life without end (for the saved). Therefore, marking the passage of years since Christ’s birth (i.e. AD, Anno Domini, The Year of Our Lord) has figured in European timekeeping since the early sixth century, when a Scythian Monk, Dionysius Exiguus, introduced the qualifier Anno Domini.

Many of the letters of Hideyoshi, translated by Adriana Boscaro,[649] follow the pattern suggested by Frois (e.g. “6th month, 20th day,” “12th month, 2nd day”).

17. The Christian era never changes from the birth of Christ to the end of the world; eras in Japan change six or seven times during the lifetime of a king.

As suggested above, Shinto and Buddhism, the religious foundations of Japanese culture, make no claims to the unfolding of time in a linear, progressive fashion. The Japanese did not live out their lives reflecting on their temporal place in “God’s unfolding plan.” What mattered was who was emperor; the latter could change the course of a million lives. Thus, the year in Japan was reset to “Year One” whenever an emperor died and a new reign began, or when a regent made a major policy change or there was a major disaster (the change was made for the sake of better luck). In the six decades before the Tratado was written there were new eras beginning in 1521, ‘28, ‘32, ‘55, ‘58, ‘70 and ‘73. And just before the Meiji Reformation (1868), we find eras beginning in 1844, ‘48, ‘54, ‘60, ‘61, ‘64 and ‘65.

In 1869 the gengo system was modified so that the era would only change with the inauguration of a new emperor. The system continues today alongside the Western/Christian system of reckoning time. Thus Japanese newspapers generally put both year dates on the top of each page (for example, 2005 appears alongside Heisei 17).

18. Our letters are sent sealed with beeswax or sealing wax; in Japan they place a small ink seal over the signature.

The Japanese actually had more ways of sealing letters than Europeans. Okada[650] mentions “glue-sealing, twist-sealing, knot-sealing, and fold-sealing and so forth.” But they did not stamp warm wax, be it bee’s wax or wax made from a mixture of shellac, rosin, and turpentine. The symbolic closure Frois referred to was achieved by making an ink mark, either an initial, a diagonal line, or a diagonal line with a small line crossing it to make a sign resembling the syllable me, which stood for shime or “closed=tight=done.” Today it is common to initial documents in the same way, with the mark crossing the divide to make what is, to use a printing term, a registration.

19. Our letters are sent in bundled stacks; theirs are sent in small, elongated lacquered boxes made for that purpose.

Every year, usually in March, a fleet bound for Asia sailed from Lisbon, arriving six months later in Goa, India. Another year might go by before the ships, loaded with spices, trade goods, passengers, and correspondence (collected from as far away as Japan), made the return trip to Europe. It was normal during this lengthy period between voyages for Jesuit correspondence to accumulate before it was eventually bundled and dispatched from Japan to India and then on to Europe.

As Frois indicates, the Japanese transported letters in special waterproof containers called fubako or fuminohako (letter-boxes).

20. In Europe paper is beaten flat with an iron mallet on a smooth stone; in Japan they roll it up on a round pole and beat it with two other poles.

One of the first stages of rag-paper production entailed soaking discarded linen cloth, including underwear, in water and sometimes lime to break down the fibers. The resulting mass was subsequently placed in a trough and beaten before being subjected to further processing in vats, drying on felt, and final pressing to remove excess water. Although Frois may have observed rag-pulp being beaten by hand during his youth, by the time he left Portugal (1548) water mills were being employed in Europe for large-scale paper production.[651]

In Kochi Prefecture, which is famous for its handmade paper (Toshi Washi), Japanese artisans still make some of the highest-quality paper in the world, employing methods that go back to the sixteenth century, including beating the still unfinished paper with poles.

21. We clean the ink off our quills by wiping them on our black clothing; the Japanese suck them clean with their mouths.

Although the Jesuit order did not require members to wear particular garb, the Jesuits early on distinguished themselves by a preference for the simple black cassock worn by priests (thus the appellation “the black robes”). With respect to the Japanese, any sucking that is done is done after the ink has been essentially removed from the brush by brushing it dry. Arguably the sucking is to smooth out the hairs and leave the brush with a sharp point. This has more to do with arranging the point of the brush before it fully dries than with cleaning.

22. We write our letters at a table or desk; the Japanese write theirs upon the fingers of the left hand.

When the Japanese teenagers sent by the Jesuits as ambassadors to Europe met with Phillip II at the recently completed Escorial, in 1585, they gave him a gift of a writing desk made of bamboo.[652] In point of fact, the Japanese had very nice portable desks and generally used them to write. Still, prints from the seventeenth century often show letter writers holding the paper in their left hand and the brush in their right. This delicate style of writing, with its touching body language, was possible because a brush does not need to push down on paper like a pen to release ink. Writing on paper held by the hand releases a different, connected sensibility physically (and perhaps mentally) that is not there when writing on a desk or the floor, where Japanese calligraphy is usually done.

23. We seal our letters with scissors; they seal theirs with a knife.

Frois wrote “seal” in both halves of this distich; he presumably meant to write “open.” The knife used by the Japanese as a letter-opener was called a sasuga (“stab sword”) and was kept in a writing box with the inkstand, ink stick, water vessel, etc.

24. We sprinkle sand on our letters [to absorb excess ink]; theirs is absorbed quickly by their paper.

Sand has a wonderful capacity to absorb water or oil, and of course, ink, which, as noted above, often consisted in large part of one or both mediums.

25. Our handwriting is very small; theirs is larger than our uppercase letters.

Small, indeed! The British Library has one of two extant copies of Alessandro Valignano’s 1601 manuscript account of the Jesuit mission to Japan (Libro Primero del Principio …), and the lettering is so fine and small that a modern reader requires (or certainly benefits from) a magnifying glass. The majority of classical texts discovered and celebrated by Humanists during the Renaissance were in Carolingian miniscule,[653] which does not use all upper-case letters. Well-educated Europeans such as Frois and Valignano grew up imitating the Carolingians. For this and other reasons (e.g. paper and ink were expensive[654]), European handwriting tended to be on the small side.

Now that brushes are used only for signing art gallery registers and writing old-style New Year greetings, Japanese letters are written by ballpoint or are printed about the same size as ours, despite, in the case of characters, holding ten times the visual information.

26. The stanzas in our ballads are made up of four, six or eight lines; all Japanese songs contain only two verses, with no rhyme.

During Frois’ lifetime the Italian Renaissance exerted a significant influence on Portuguese literature and many of Frois’ contemporaries followed Petrarch’s example of ballads that followed the octave and sextet rhyming scheme (i.e. abba, abba, aba, aba).[655] Even before the Italian Renaissance, Portugal had its own medieval tradition of poetic parallelism that resulted in ballads with even-numbered stanzas.[656]

The name for Japanese classical verse, waka, literally breaks down into “peace=Japanese + song.” Poets were said to “sing” poetry rather than to “make” or “write” it. (The Chinese character for the verb was different than that used for singing a truly melodic song, however.) Frois’ use of cantigas (‘canticles’ or poetry set to music) for Japanese poems suggests he understood the sung aspect of the verse. While Japanese poetry, unlike Chinese poetry, did not use obvious end-rhyme, it is not right to say that there was no consonance. There is considerable Dickinsonian rhyme, which is usually considered to be assonance or “vowel rhyme,” which can be brought out through parsing.

27. Our reading is done very quickly; when they read, they do so inserting pauses and taking little leaps [forward in the text].

Most Japanese can read as quickly as Westerners, despite the fact that the pronunciation of many characters depends upon a context that is sometimes not grasped until the word has passed before the eyes. Here Frois must be describing how the Japanese read Chinese or pseudo-Chinese, called kanbun. This is one of the cleverest ways to read that has ever been invented, for the Japanese mark the edges of the lines with a number of signs that indicate how to change the word order and parse the grammar of the original as one reads. They are translating, then, or rather, doing simultaneous interpretation. One method of doing this does not vocalize; the other, which does, also gives native Japanese word equivalents for many of the characters.

This writing is of intellectual interest because it shows how Chinese characters (or any large vocabulary common to more than one language) allowed for communication between different languages.

28. We write on tall tables, seated on chairs; they write while seated on small stools placed on the ground or on mats.

This distich appears to be related to #22 above, where the focus is on one style of Japanese writing that does not entail use of a desk. Ironically, the traditional Japanese desk (going back to at least the sixteenth century) is one of the few examples of “furniture” in Japan. The small desk has folding legs and sometimes a writing surface on which the angle can be adjusted. Arguably, during the latter half of the twentieth century Japan could boast more desks per capita than any nation in the world. A Japanese child may not have their own bedroom but they invariably have their own desk.

29. In Europe books are bound by sewing the pages together along the margins; in Japan they sew the ends together but the folds remain loose.

Well into the twentieth century, particularly in Portugal and the Spanish-speaking world, the pages of books were, as Frois suggests, sewn together close to both the left and right margins. The task or honor of cutting the right edge of the pages was left to the individual who purchased the book.

It may be difficult for the reader to gather from Frois’ description how Japanese books were bound. Imagine a very long piece of paper, folded back and forth on itself like the folds of an accordion. Then imagine it sewn on one side only, and not right at the edge but half an inch or so from the edge where the spine would be, if there were a spine. The other side is just left as it is. Because the leaves are not cut with these books, one can remove the thread and be left with a very long piece of paper that has print on just one side.


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