Last revised July, 2010
The yatate sales page can be found here
If someone were to bring up the topic of Japanese antiques, what images would come to your mind? Kimono? Swords? Armor? Possibly netsuke? A few might even know what an inro is. How about the yatate?
I have shown a yatate to many of my Japanese acquaintances here in Tokyo, and was surprised to discover that most did not even know what it was! Artists and calligraphers usually knew right away, though.
A yatate (pronounced yah-tah-teh) is a Japanese portable writing set. The yatate has been around since the Kamakura period (1185-1333). It contains a traditional Japanese bamboo brush and an ink pot filled with cotton or silk which holds liquid sumi ink.
Yatate literally means "arrow stand."
The Japanese traditional way of writing is with a brush (fude) and ink (sumi). Before the invention of the yatate, whenever anyone wanted to write or draw in ink, he had to make his own ink by grinding the ink stick in water on the grinding stone (suzuri). This method has been used for many centuries, and is still being used today.
Warriors (samurai) often had to write letters and reports from the field, and so carried a small grinding stone in a small drawer at the bottom of their quiver along with the arrows.
This grinding stone became known as the "yatate no suzuri" (arrow stand's grinding stone). Eventually it was simply called "yatate."
It was burdensome to have to pull out the grinding stone, ink stick, and water container every time one needed to write, but in those days before spill-proof containers, carrying liquid sumi ink could lead to disasters, especially on the battle field.
Then sometime during the Kamakura era (1185-1333 ) someone came up with the clever idea of saturating a piece of cotton or silk in liquid ink. This could be carried about in a simple container without any worry of spills.
A truly portable writing set was finally born. Now one could quickly dash off a letter by just sliding open the lid and pressing the brush into the cotton.
These new writing sets were made in the shape of a folded fan (hiogi-gata) which contained both the ink soaked cotton and brush.
Warriors continued to carry these in the quiver with the arrows, so they were also called yatate just like the grinding stones they replaced.
These new writing sets were very convenient, but the ink capacity was rather small in this slim, compact design. As the yatate grew in popularity, the demand for larger ink containers brought about a change in its shape.
By the time the Edo era had arrived (1603-1867) almost all were shaped like a dipper (hishaku-gata) with a tube-like container for the brush, and a hinged ink pot (sumi tsubo).
Originally used exclusively by the Samurai, the yatate became very popular with merchants, scholars, and the common folk. They were no longer carried in military quivers, but were carried on the kimono waist sash (obi). Still, they retained the name yatate, although they were no longer associated with arrows.
Although some people hung the yatate from their waist sash (obi) by a cord with an ornamental button (netsuke) which kept the cord from slipping, judging from old woodblock prints it appears that most people simply tucked the yatate in their obi for quick use. Hanging such a heavy object from the belt was just inviting injury.
It has been said that yatate with the lid opening to the right were for Samurai who wore their sword on the left side (and their yatate on the right side) while yatate with the lid opening to the left were for all other people who wore their yatate on the left side instead of a sword. This might be conceivable if one were able to use a yatate while it was still tucked in the obi, but I haven't been able to manage that feat; I've used my yatate when wearing a cotton kimono (yukata) and obi, but it is still nearly impossible (and potentially very messy) to use the yatate that way. I've had to pull the yatate out of the obi first. Besides, as the woodblock print on the right shows, some people wore their yatate in the back rather than the side anyway.
Since only the samurai were allowed to carry swords, it is said that many men preferred a big heavy yatate in case they needed a handy weapon.
Other items often seen hanging from obi included pipe (kiseru) and tobacco holders and small cases (inro) for carrying seals, medicine and small objects. I've studied hundreds of prints specifically to see what was hanging from the obi (sagemono in Japanese), and have seen very few yatate or inro. By far the most common hanging objects were the kiseru holder and tobacco pouch. It was almost universal.
For those who went on journeys, the yatate was an indispensible piece of equipment for sending word to their families that they were safe, and for writing in their travel journals. Many masterpieces of literature from the Edo era owe their existence to the yatate. Traveling artists were able to fill their sketchbooks with on-the-spot drawings thanks to the yatate.
Although the dipper shape was practically the only yatate style for centuries, there were as many variations in design and decoration as there were craftsmen producing them.
A variety of materials were used to create the yatate such as copper, brass, gold, silver, iron, shibuichi, sentoku, shakudo, ivory, bamboo, rattan, and chinaware. Decorations included mother of pearl or ivory inlays and maki-e (gold sprinkled into urushi lacquer).
The yatate was a part of daily life. Not only was the yatate an extremely useful invention, it was also a fashionable accessory. During the middle of the Edo era, there was a ban on luxurious homes and clothing in Japan, so those who had the money to afford luxury would enjoy it in the form of a fancy yatate which was not covered by the ban.
Craftsmen continued to experiment with new designs, and it was not uncommon to find a yatate that resembled a short sword or an arrow.
Near the end of the Edo era, a new style of yatate appeared with separate brush and ink containers connected by a cord or chain (inro-gata). One could insert the tube shaped brush holder in the obi and let the ink pot hang loose like an inro. This style became fashionable for a short time, but eventually the one-piece dipper shape returned as the prevalent style.
Even after new styles came along, the older styles remained popular, so it is not possible to determine the date of a yatate based on the shape alone.
By this time many craftsmen stopped using brass for yatate production and began using an alloy of copper and gold called "shakudo". Shakudo is a Japanese invention, and has no English equivalent term. New shakudo looks just like copper, but over time the surface turns a beautiful dark purple color, almost black. This is due to the addition of gold. Regular copper would turn green. The coloration, or patina, will come off if you rub it enough, but since shakudo was created with this beautiful patina in mind, it's best left as it is, in its patinated state.
In the early 20th century, an new invention, the fountain pen was imported from the west, causing many Japanese to abandon the yatate.
However some people continued to prefer them over their western counterparts.
One notable example was Kokichi Mikimoto (1858-1954) the founder of Mikimoto Pearls who was said to have favored the yatate over the fountain pen, saying "It has the spirit of the merchant." He carried one on his obi wherever he went.
Although some of the early fountain pens had very flexible gold nibs, none could compare with the expressiveness and line variation of a brush, especially for drawing, as well as writing Japanese characters.
Even today the yatate is popular with artists as well as brush calligraphers. American watercolorist Fred Harris who is renown for his Japanese sumi ink painting always carries a sketchpad and yatate as he searches for new subjects in Japan. For those who enjoy sketching outdoors, nothing compares with the yatate for versatility and portability, not to mention the "cool" factor of having a hundred years or more of history attached to your writing set.
The fountain pen as we know it has been around for a little over a hundred years, but before that the yatate was widely used as the only portable writing system in Japan for some seven hundred years.
These days you will rarely find a yatate hanging from kimono sashes, but modern artists still do keep them in the pocket of their jeans, or in their bag, ready to pull out for a quick sketch. You can always hang one from your belt if you want to get a reaction from folks around you.
You can walk around for hours with your yatate open and not worry. If the ink dries out, add a few drops of water to the ink pot and/or brush and you're back in business (this doesn't apply to special waterproof sumi). So the old yatate is still superior and more convenient in some ways than its modern cousins.
Granted, brush pens are lighter, more convenient, less messy, and faster to whip out, and most sketchers will opt for these rather than a yatate. However, for some brush and ink artists, the superior line control and ink flow of a bamboo brush dipped in ink is more important than all other considerations. A brush pen is lighter than a yatate, but once it is taken out of the yatate, the bamboo brush is much lighter and more slim than any brush pen.
I would love to hear from other yatate artists. Drop me a line!
Although the yatate is still being put to good practical use, it has also become popular with collectors all around the world. And as the photo on the left indicates, it also qualifies as a genuine museum piece.
Yatate are becoming increasingly difficult to find in antique stores throughout Japan, and are very rare in the west. Sometimes I find them and sell them from my yatate sales page.
Occasionally one can find a yatate on eBay.
Some yatate photos:
Brass yatate with "kozuchi" and "koban" design on the lid.
Brass yatate with unusual design that defies description.
Frightening dragon yatate with long tongue.
Yatate with butterfly decoration
This yatate resembles a pool of water.
Yatate with crab decoration
Yatate made in the shape of an Edo-era pistol.
Quite intimidating when tucked in the waist sash!
Unusual yatate made of a deer antler
My own yatate for sketching.
An antique shop owner told me it comes from the Edo era.
The leather holster came from a hardware store and fastens to a belt.
The old black and white drawings on this page were taken from woodblock prints done by Hokusai
Regarding the dating (what era) of the yatate examples on this page, I have relied on what the previous owners have told me.