Documents, or komonjo, were treasured in medieval Japan, for they were replete with legal and social meaning. They could be used to uphold rights to the land, but possession of these records also revealed social status. Warriors, nobles, and commoners carefully preserved and copied these pieces of paper because of their legal and social meaning.

Preservation proved easier than one would think, for these documents are created from mulberry fibers, dissolved in water and collected and dried in fine mesh. This paper is soft, and does not yellow or turn brittle. It may be burned, or consumed by wood-eating insects, but otherwise they were virtually indestructible. The significance of these records too meant that warriors, courtiers, and monks first rescued these documents, which were preserved in boxes or, as some scrolls revealed, stored at a warrior’s sleeping quarters.

This paper proved intrinsically valuable, and one warrior lamented the fact that his paper-maker had absconded. The imperial court took to recycling documents, dissolving old papers and making documents anew which took on a charcoal color because of the ink residue. These documents, called shukushi, were issued only by chamberlains for emperors or retired emperors, and were prestigious vehicles for conveying land rights, or court appointments. Numerous examples appear in the Awazu collection, each document of a slightly different color depending on the paper recycled.

Many court documents evidence particular peculiarities. The format is such that they are structured as reports of the emperor’s spoken words, conveyed through either a chamberlain, in which case they are known as a kuzen an, or copy of a spoken statement, which is used to convey promotions, or for that matter, a nyōbō hōsho, or court lady’s communiqué.

Details about the size and style of documents reflect much about the status of the issuer and the recipient. Those in authority could dispatch large documents as a sign of their wealth and prestige. The location of the addressee’s name vis-à-vis the date of the document proved a sign of respect and relative rank, a trait that is most evident in the Uesugi records. And in cases where an individual, such as a general, dispatched a document to a warrior of significantly lower rank, he might fold the paper in half, called origami. A document of praise from the general Aso Harutoki to Mikita Sukehide provides a good example of this.

The notion of adequate compensation for one’s service, or chūsetsu, proved to be a central concern, and both warrior (Mikita) and court (Awazu) documents represent attempts to verify and compensate individuals for their service. In the case of the Mikita, they can be documented as besieging a castle and some of their warriors were wounded. These wounds were inspected, with administrators adding notations such as deep or shallow. In the case of the Awazu, one Kiyonori rescued imperial clothes during a battle, and as a result of his service, he, his sons, grandsons and great-grandsons received ranks and offices.

Thus documents provide windows into the past, recording particular events, or for that matter, the transmission of knowledge. Ashikaga Yoshiteru, for example, favored Uesugi Kenshin by providing him with a useful treatise on how to manufacture gunpowder in 1559. With this scroll, Yoshiteru and his messenger provided elaborately folded letters that were carefully sealed. They contain no remarkable content, unlike the gunpowder recipe, but served as a means of certifying that this recipe was in fact from the shogun. Furthermore, some of the phonetically written documents reveal that the readings of terms lacked consistency. The Awazu records reveal that term chūsetsu, for example, which denotes service worthy of compensation, was sometimes read as chūsechi. 

Even after their immediate significance had passed, these documents were carefully preserved. For example, the Mikita preserved their documents from Kamakura even though this regime collapsed approximately a month after the events described. The need to preserve evidence of their merit, and praise from a commander, proved more important than hiding traces that they actually simultaneously fought for both sides in a civil war. Recognition in battle, and the need to be compensated for service mattered more than erasing signs of pragmatic allegiances

Uesugi Kenshin was also responsible for recording the documents of his house in their original format. Kenshin in fact hailed from the Nagao family, who had served as deputies to the Uesugi, but when he was made the Uesugi heir, he carefully preserved all of their records, but did not make any effort to preserve the Nagao documents. Thus, the documents themselves served as the defining element of warrior families.

The Uesugi documents are remarkably, and unusually preserved in their entirety, in their original format. This allows for a reconstruction of how particular letters were sealed. This is unusual, and is one reason why they have been designated as a National Treasure in Japan. In most other cases, documents were not preserved in their entirety but instead, the outer cover sheets were discarded, and each document was glued together in a scroll, as is evident with the Awazu documents.

In Japan, some land rights proved so durable that they remained for centuries, but this alone does not explain the survival of so many records. Rather, because they were invested with such social meaning, and prestige, these documents were preserved long after their original political context had disappeared. Hence, many records survive from lost and defunct governments of Japan.

Exploring this site

 This website introduces seven document collections. The first, Not So Secret Secrets, explores the elaborate safeguards for ensuring that Uesugi Kenshin could know that a gunpowder recipe that he received was in fact from the shogun. These documents also reveal the rapidity of transmission of Portuguese knowledge, and show the subtle social distinctions that are evident in these records. The second, The Emperor’s Clothes, provides four generations of documents relating to a particular incident where Awazu Kiyonori rescued the imperial wardrobe. Originally a low ranking noble, this act of valor allowed his great grandson to enter the lowest echelon of the court nobility. The third, The Shogun’s Mother, reproduces a 1338 letter by Uesugi Kiyoko (Seishi), the mother of the first Ashikaga shogun, who witnessed a decisive battle. Such letters rarely survive, and the condition of this record makes it challenging to read. A fourth section, The Better Part of Valor (Mikita), reproduces six documents in the Mikita collection that reveals how they were called to battle and fought for both sides in a civil war in the fourth and fifth months of 1333. A fifth, The Better Part of Valor (Kumagai), reproduces thirteen documents of the Kumagai collection. When combined with the Mikita documents, one can view all of the surviving original documents that are linked to the army of Aso Harutoki, which was the last surviving army of the Kamakura bakufu. A sixth section, Sea Lords, highlights six documents held by the Princeton library that pertain to the Ōuchi, the Kōno, and the Murakami, all prominent warriors who were active in the environs of Japan’s Inland Sea. Finally, a seventh section explains how one document, currently owned by Princeton, was transmitted and published.

One can explore this site in a variety of ways. After perusing this overview, one can read English summaries and translations of each document to get a better sense of the content of each. Those interested in translating Japanese documents can compare the original text with the English translation. And finally those interested in paleography can compare photographs of these documents with transcriptions, so as to learn how to better read these remarkable records.