Shosoin (正倉院)

Shosoin is a large warehouse with a raised floor in the Azekura-zukuri style (a style of architecture in which the sides of the building are made by placing logs across each other), which is located in the northwest of the Daibutsu-den Hall (the Great Buddha Hall) of Todai-ji Temple in Nara City. A variety of arts and crafts were stored there, mainly from the Tenpyo culture, including articles associated with Emperor Shomu and Empress Komyo. Shosoin is registered as a World Heritage site (Cultural Heritage) as part of {Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara} by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

It was a storeroom in Todai-ji Temple, but after the Meiji period it was taken under national control. In 1884, the Imperial Household Ministry assumed the administration of Shosoin after it had previously been administered by the Ministry of Interior (Japan) and then the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce. Shosoin was also administered by Kunaifu (the Imperial Household Office) after World War II, and currently it is administered by Shosoin Jimusho (the Shosoin Office). The Shosoin Office is an organization under the Imperial Household Agency ("Kunaicho" in Japanese) that manages the Shosoin treasures and Shosoin treasure house.

The treasures in Shosoin are from Japan, China (Tang) and the western Orient as far as Persia, and include numerous paintings, calligraphy, metalwork, lacquerware, woodwork, swords, ceramics, glassware, musical instruments, and masks, thus constituting the creme of ancient arts and crafts. In addition to these treasures are the Shosoin archives ("Shosoin Monjo" in Japanese), which are important historical records that aid in the understanding of Japan during the Nara period; historical articles related to the Todai-ji Temple Great Buddha Eye-Opening ceremony; and ancient medicines, all of which make Shosoin one of the greatest reservoirs of cultural assets to be found. Shosoin is described as being at the eastern end of the Silk Road.

The meaning of the word "Shosoin"

Records have revealed that many warehouses were built in government offices and large temples during the Nara period. "Shoso" originally referred to warehouses in which to keep the "shozei" tax. They were built in administrative offices (including the Treasury Ministry, or "Okurasho" in Japanese) to keep rice and other articles from different regions, which were paid as a tax during the Nara period. Additionally, large temples had warehouses in which to keep the articles offered by their estates, as well as temple household goods and treasures. This warehouse was called "shoso," and a fenced-off area containing a shoso was called "shosoin." Each of the Seven Great Temples of Nara once had its own "shosoin," but they were all lost except for the one in Todai-ji Temple. Therefore, the name of 'Shosoin' is now a proper noun that specifically means the treasure house located in the northwest of Daibutsu-den Hall, Todai-ji Temple.

Shosoin treasures

In the year 756, Empress Komyo dedicated approximately 650 items associated with her late husband, Emperor Shomu, along with approximately 60 kinds of medicines, to Rushanabutsu (Great Buddha) on the forty-ninth day after the Emperor's death. Empress Komyo dedicated articles associated with Emperor Shomu and herself to the Great Buddha on three different occasions. These articles are listed among the five kinds of Kenmotsu Cho (list of treasures dedicated to a temple) still in existence. These treasures were stored in Shosoin.

Hokuso, Nanso, Chuso

The treasure house in Shosoin is divided into three sections; Hokuso (north section), Chuso (middle section) and Nanso (south section).

The articles associated with Emperor Shomu and Empress Komyo were kept in Hokuso; the articles used in the rituals of Todai-ji Temple, written documents and articles related to the Office of Todai-ji Temple Construction ("Zotodaiji shi" in Japanese) were kept in Chuso. In the year 950, when the twin warehouses called Narabikura of Kensakuin (the official treasure houses of the Todai-ji Temple) were damaged, the items originally kept there were moved to Nanso, Shosoin. The treasures kept in Nanso include {Buddhist altar fittings} and the articles used in Kaigen-e (the ceremony of "kaigen "whereby a newly built Buddhist image is brought to life by having its eyes opened) for the statue of Birushana Buddha in Todai-ji Temple. Later, in 1185, these {Buddhist altar fittings} were used by Cloistered Emperor Goshirakawa in the Kaigen-e of the restored Buddha statue. Additionally, over time the treasures were often taken out of the warehouses for repair or some other reason. Some of them were then returned to the wrong warehouse, consequently losing their original places.

The reclassification of the articles by warehouse (as mentioned above) is based on modern research of cultural properties after the Meiji period.

Not all the items listed on Kenmotsu Cho still exist, and many of them, such as weapons, medicines, books and musical instruments, were taken out of the warehouses when they were needed but never returned. Many swords were taken out in FUJIWARA no Nakamaro's War, and instead swords different from those listed in Kenmotsu Cho were returned.

Out of the three warehouses of Shosoin, Hokuso in particular was placed under strict administration from early on, since it held the articles associated with Emperor Shomu and Empress Komyo. Opening the door of the treasure house required an inspection by an imperial envoy ("chokushi" in Japanese). The word "Chokufu" (Imperial seal) originally meant to lock by twisting paper with the emperor's signature around a key. The Shosoin treasure house became Chokufu in this strict sense after the Muromachi period. However some written records in the Heian period also express Shosoin as a Chokufu warehouse, so we can regard it as practically Chokufu even then. In the mid-Heian period, all three warehouses (north, middle and south) were regarded as Chokufu warehouses, but later the south section became "Kofu," administered by temple and monk organizations run, for example, by the head secretary of Todai-ji Temple instead of by Chokufu. After the whole of Shosoin was placed under administration by the Meiji Government in 1875, the south section reverted back to Chokufu.

Shosoin Ten (Exhibition of Shosoin Treasures)

Shosoin treasures are normally not open to the public. Some of the treasures were opened to the public in the cloister of the Great Buddha Hall of Todai-ji Temple as part of the Nara Exhibition, which was held annually from 1875 to 1880. From 1889 to 1940, limited numbers of people were given the opportunity to see some of the treasures in Shosoin on display shelves during "bakuryo" (the regularly held airing of treasures). Moreover, Shosoin sometimes opened especially for foreign high-level public officials (for example, Great Britain's Crown Prince, who visited in 1992).

Before the war, in November 1940, there was a large-scale public opening in which approximately 140 items were shown. This opening was for the Special Exhibition of Imperial Articles in Shosoin, held at the Imperial Museum, Tokyo, to commemorate the 2,600 years of the Imperial era. Subsequent to the war, each autumn since 1946, the exhibition has been held at Nara National Museum inside Nara Park near to Shosoin, in accordance with the two-month airing.

There are 9,000 items of treasure organized and administered by the Imperial Household Agency. Only some tens of items are displayed at each exhibition, and the selection is changed annually. Consequently, several years' visits would be needed in order to see its most famous treasures. It takes approximately 40 days before and after the exhibition for curators to carefully hand-check the items to be displayed. This makes the duration of the exhibition rather short, at only about two weeks. The sixtieth exhibition was held in 2008. The exhibition receives many visitors each year.

Shosoin as a building

Shosoin is built in the Azekura-zukuri style, while its roof is tiled and in the style of yosemune-zukuri (a square or rectangular building covered with a hipped roof). The front of Shosoin is approximately 33.1m wide, the inside depth is approximately 9.3m, and the height of the columns under the floor is approximately 2.5m.

It is not known exactly when Shosoin was built, but it is generally accepted as around 756, when Empress Komyo dedicated the late Emperor Shomu's favorite articles to the Daibutsu. We know that it was already built by 759 because there were records of the treasures being taken in and out that year and the year after. The original building structure of Shosoin is not known, and according to a written record there remained only one treasure house by the late Heian period.

Horizontal materials called "daiwa" (architraves) are placed on 10 x 4 columns built under a floor. To build a wall (called Azekura-zukuri) on top of the daiwa, Hokuso and Nanso have a layer of 20 wooden beams the section of which is triangular ("azeki" in Japanese). Only Chuso is not in the Azekura-zukuri style but is instead in the "Itakura" style, having been made by dropping thick wood panels between columns. There are various theories as to why only Chuso has a different structure and whether it is actually the original style. The treasure house of Shosoin was referred to as twin warehouses (called "soso" or "narabikura" in Japanese) in a document written during the Nara period. For that reason, the original form of Shosoin was considered to be the Azekura-style of Hokuso and Nanso, which were the only warehouses, while the center Chuso part was open to the breeze without the use of wall or floor panels. This is generally accepted as the reason Shosoin was referred to as twin warehouses.

It has been assumed that the benefit of the azekura-style was that it helped in the preservation of articles by maintaining a stable interior environment because, when the humidity is high, the wood swells and prevents moisture from entering the warehouse. On the other hand, when the outside air is dry the wood constricts and spaces appear, thereby allowing the breeze to pass through. However, because the logs carry the heavy load of the roof there is no room for azeki (corner logs) to swell or contract, so this theory cannot be correct. Also, this construction method is very similar to the one used to a assemble a log cabin, and therefore Shosoin is sometimes referred to as the oldest log cabin in Japan.

Shosoin is the largest of the existing warehouses dating from the Nara period. Also, it is the only relic that gives a true picture of "shoso" in the Nara period, so it is an extremely important part of architectural history.

The treasure house, which is in the Azekura-zukuri style, has protected the treasures for a long time. The East Treasure House was built in 1952 and the West Treasure House in 1962, both of concrete, and the treasures were moved there in 1963. Today, most of the treasures are kept in the West Treasure House, while the East Treasure House holds articles undergoing repair and many textiles for which the West Treasure House does not have sufficient space. These treasure houses are "chokufu" (having the Imperial seal).

The process of designation as a national treasure

The Grand Steward's Secretariat, Imperial Household Agency, the Board of Chamberlains of the Imperial Household Agency, Imperial Household Archives, The Museum of the Imperial Collections ("Sannnomaru Shozokan" in Japanese), the Imperial Household Agency Kyoto Office and the Shosoin Office administer the imperial properties, which the nation owns. These properties are not included among the objects to be protected by the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, since the Imperial Household Agency asserts that it fully administers the properties. Consequently, neither the Shosoin building nor its treasures have been designated as national treasures or important cultural properties. It was decided to list the {Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara} as a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage site. One of the conditions for the listing of cultural sites is that they must be protected by the law of the country in which they are located, so on May 19, 1997 the Shosoin building was designated as a national treasure regulated by the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, under the name of "Shosoin Shoso." Only the treasure house building was designated as a national treasure, whereas the treasures kept inside were not.


Shogozo, another small warehouse in the Azekura-zukuri style, stands on the premises of Shosoin. It is a sutra repository that was built in the Kamakura period and subsequently moved from Sonshoin, Todai-ji Temple. Approximately 5,000 of the scriptures kept there were dedicated to the Imperial Family in 1894. Together with the other treasures, the scriptures are administered by the Shosoin Office, Imperial Household Agency.

Signature treasures in Shosoin


Torige Ritsujo no Byobu: A six-panel folding screen of painted women dressed in the Tang style
It is a Japanese product.

Sumie no Butsuzo (Mafu Bosatsu)
Musical instruments

Raden Shitan no Gogen Biwa: A five-string biwa decorated with turtle shell and seashell or precious metal inlay

Raden Shitan no Genkan
Kingin Hyomon no Kin
Furnishings (lacquerware, woodwork)

Mokuga Shitan no Kikyoku: A table for the "Go" game

Taimai Raden Hakkaku no Hako (a box decorated with seashell inlay)

Shikkohei: A Persian-style pitcher

Urushi Kinpakue no Ban (Koinza): An incense holder
Funji Saie no Hakkakuki
Furnishings (metalwork)

Ginkunro: A spherical incense burner
It is designed so that the dish on which the incense is placed always stays level.

Kingin no Kaban (a flower-shape, legged dish)
Ginko (silver pot)
Hei Raden Hai no Enkyo (mirror decorated with shell inlay)
Kingin Heidatsu Hai no Hakkakukyo (mirror decorated with gold and silver)
Furnishings (others)

Koge Bachiru no Shaku: A shaku (approximately 30cm) ruler made of ivory


Hakururi no Wan: A glass bowl
It is presumed to have been produced in Sassanian Persia.

Kon Ruri no Tsuki: A blue glass goblet with a metal stem
Kingin Denso no Karatachi (a Chinese-style sword)
Rokechi no Byobu (a standing screen with a rokechi design produced with wax-resistant dye)

Murasakiji Hogata no Nishiki (a pillow with phoenix patterns)
Koboku (fragrant wood)

Ojukuko: Also called Ranjatai. A kind of fragrant wood, called Jinko (agalloch). Records remain to indicate that Yoshimasa ASHIKAGA, Nobunaga ODA, Emperor Meiji cut it out.

Calligraphy and documents
Todai-ji Kenmotsu Cho: Catalogs made when Empress Komyo dedicated articles associated with the late Emperor Shomu, among others, to Great Buddha in Todai-ji Temple. Particularly, Kokka Chinpo Cho (List of the Nation's Rare Treasures) is the most famous of the five kinds of Kenmotsu Cho.

Zasshu: Written by Emperor Shomu
Gakki Ron: Written by Empress Komyo

[Original Japanese]