Japanese archaeologists and historiographers of premodern Japan classify all wooden objects with text—written by government officials in India ink—as “wooden documents” (mokkan). These administrative texts can be anything from shipping tags to wooden plates with scribbles. The seemingly trivial nature of these documents provides a rich source of unedited and raw information. While a single wooden document rarely contains anything revelatory, the sum of information gathered from thousands of texts provides a remarkably detailed picture of the inner workings of government. These wooden documents are particularly important primary sources of information, especially when compared with paper-based historical documents which are often copies made decades or even centuries after the originals.
The wooden documents bundled together here as a single National Treasure bear witness to both the workings of the central government during the eighth century and its officials’ struggles coming to terms with expressing their language in a new, foreign writing system. The characters used on the documents are an eclectic mix of various calligraphic styles chronicling the confusion of officials trying to master Chinese characters.