San-shikishi (三色紙)

San-shikishi is a collective term for the "Tsugi-shikishi" (spliced shikishi), "Sunshoan-shikishi," and "Masu-shikishi" (square shishiki) and is one of the best examples of "kana-gaki" (writing in kana, as opposed to Chinese characters) calligraphy from the Heian period.


Since ancient times, the san-shikishi has been known as the "san-zetsu" (meaning unparalleled in poetry, calligraphy, and painting). Although called 'shikishi' (which means square paper specially prepared for writing poetry), it was originally a booklet that was divided into shishiki-like parts. The "Tsugi-shikishi" has been attributed to ONO no Michikaze, KI no Tsurayuki for the "Sunshoan Shikishi" to KI no Tsurayuki, and the "Masu-shikishi" to FUJIWARA no Yukinari, but these are all refuted today and the authors remain unknown. The time of their writing is also unknown, though the "Tsugi-shikishi" is believed to be from the mid-10th century to the first half of the 11th century and the "Sunshoan Shikishi" and "Masu-shikishi" from the second half of the 11th century.

Around the middle of the 10th century, kana arose as "sogana" (a cursive style of writing Chinese characters used for their phonetic value) developed into "onnade" (hiragana syllabary) and the "Tsugi-shikishi" is written in sogana. Then, during the time of FUJIWARA no Yukinari and FUJIWARA no Michinaga, 'kana-gaki' flourished and poems such as "Koya-gire" were produced. "Sunshoan Shikishi" and "Masu-shikishi" appeared around the beginning of the cloister government, which was a little later.

Characteristics of San-shikishi

Each piece of paper contains one waka poem, though the beginning and end of the lines are not aligned. None of the lines are straight, with many tilting towards the lower right. Spacing between the lines is inconsistent and even in the "Sunshoan Shikishi," which is written with comparatively even spacing, the last line appears to trying to cuddle up to the previous line. Furthermore, there are no rules governing line breaks; in one example the line is broken even though there is enough space left in the lower part, and in another, the break disrupts the flow of meaning and the cohesiveness of the words. In the "Masu-shikishi," the lines go from right to left and then the last line is written to the right of the first line. Also in the "Masu-shikishi," one line is written over the preceding line.

In works representative of Tang dynasty period China, such as Ouyang Xun's "Jiu Cheng Gong Li Quan Ming," Yu Shinan's "Kong Zi Miao Tang Bei," and Chu Suiliang's "Yan Ta Sheng Jiao Xu," the start and end points of the lines and their position left and right are always aligned and the lines are written straight, in contrast to the uneven 'chirashi-gaki' style described above.

Beauty of kana-gaki

The following passage appears in the "Suetsumuhana" (Safflower) chapter in "The Tale of Genji," 'as for the handwriting, the characters are surely strongly written, but the skill is mediocre, and both the top and bottom are written aligned.
Not worth of looking at, therefore, it is left unread.'
As can be seen from the above, since letters written with lines of equal length and height were considered behind the times, 'chirashi-gaki' was being used even in daily letters in the second half of the 10th century.

Straight lines and uniform sizes create beauty possessed of a sense of unity. It takes hard work to make characters the same size, to align starting positions, to have even spaces between characters, to write in a straight line, and to have even spaces between lines. However, the San-shikishi is unaligned and inconsistent, as if it is laughing at hard work.
In "Sho-no-Shinen" (The Chasm of Books), Kotaro TAKAMURA says, 'I have never seen beauty in the abstract lines of foreigners equal to the beauty in one line of Heian period kana-gaki.' (excerpt)
He praises Heian period 'kana-gaki' a great deal like this, but what makes the unaligned 'kana-gaki' beautiful?
Kyuyo ISHIKAWA says as follows:

The postwar so-called kana-gaki experts have classified 'the beauty of kana-gaki' as including 'chirashi-gaki,' 'the beauty of renkin-yushi' (gracefully-linking threads), 'the beauty of blank space,' 'the beauty of contrasting density,' like a mosaic, but this hardly gives us an answer. We have to return to the cause that brought those results.

Evaluation of San-shikishi

For the "Sunshoan-shikishi," Suiken SUZUKI says, 'in the flavor of its strokes and excellent continuity of its lines, there is no equal in ancient calligraphy. First, the lines are extraordinarily strong. It is dashed off at will and goes where the brush goes, but without becoming manic.
There is no option but simply to admire.' (summary)
For the "Tsugi-shikishi," 'the quality, streaks, and continuity of its lines do not come up to those of the "Sunshoan Shikishi," but its chirashi-gaki style is unique and it cannot be deemed inferior.' (excerpt)
As for the "Masu-shikishi," 'a good reference for studying chirashi-gaki, but inferior to the "Sunshoan-shikishi" and "Tsugi-shikishi".' (excerpt)
He thus concludes that the "Sunshoan-shikishi" is the best of the San-shikishi. He also harshly criticized the three styles of the most well known version of the "Koya-gire" and this proves that he held the San-shikishi, especially the "Sunshoan-shikishi," in high esteem.


The "Tsugi-shikishi" was originally a booklet bound in the decchoso style and containing poems from works such as the "Kokin Wakashu" (A Collection of Ancient and Modern Japanese Poetry), "Manyoshu" (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), with one poem written across two pages which are made of thick 'tori no ko' paper that is dyed various colors including purple, indigo, brown and green. Now fragments of the book are bound together as if two pieces of shikishi were tied together to complete one piece of waka, thereby earned it's name.

In "Utsuho Monogatari" (The Tale of the Cavern), sogana, which is described as 'neither manyo-gana (the use of Chinese characters for their phonetic value), nor onnade,' is skillfully mixed with onnade in an extremely natural way and also uses unusual characters, which are not seen in the later jodaiyo kohitsu.

Its calligraphy is elegant and full of feeling; the truly magnificent chirashi-gaki makes superb use of spaces with margins, gaps between characters and lines, and excellent slanting and sumi-tsugi (adding sumi-ink in the middle of characters). This chirashi-gaki is ingenious and there is no equal in ancient calligraphy. Effortlessly rising and falling, the poems seem to be written in four or five lines, but the use of width, height and shading is excellent. Kana,' which retained the ink brush used for Chinese character, established a refined mental state and is an extremely elegant piece of work.

The incomplete book of sixteen waka poems and a half were transmitted to the Maeda family in Daishoji-cho, Ishikawa Prefecture until 1906, but now one from unknown source, twenty-seven included in "Kokin Wakashu," and six in "Manyoshu" are the confirmed waka poetry of "tsugi-shikishi." The size is 13.1cm to 13.3cm tall and 25.0cm to 26.4cm across. They are in the possession of Tokyo National Museum, the Gotoh Museum, Tokugawa Art Museum, Hatakeyama Memorial Museum of Fine Art, Yuki Museum of Art, Itsuo Art Museum, MOA Museum of Art, Fujita Museum of Art, Idemitsu Museum of Arts, and others, as well as various families.


The "Sunshoan-shikishi" contains waka poetry from the "Kokin Wakashu" relating to the four seasons and was originally a decchoso-style booklet but was divided, giving it a shikishi-like form. This name comes from the fact that it used to be in the possession Sunsho-an, the teahouse of tea master Sanekatsu SAKUMA, who was a vassal of Nobunaga ODA. This hermitage was built in the precincts of Ryuko-in in Daitoku-ji Temple (Kita Ward, Kyoto City) and given the name of Sunsho-an (small pine hermitage) because small pine trees were planted all over the front garden.

The shikishi were originally at Nanshu-ji Temple in Izumi Province, but Sanekatsu obtained 12 of them from Mitsuhiro KARASUMARU via Sogan KOGETSU and made them into a book, adding kinji senmen-ga (gold-background picture) that depicted the meanings of the poems to each piece. Karakami (imported Chinese paper) is used and the colors include white, light blue, reddish yellow, and light brown, in all of which grains are put with a wide variety of patterns.

The calligraphy is graceful and refined. The lines are powerful with impressive changes of pace and have been known as a superb example of chirashi-gaki since ancient times. There are two main types of chirashi-gaki, one where it is separated into upper and lower or right and left parts and the other where four or five lines are written broader in the upper part and narrower in the lower part like the bones of a fan. The latter is particular to the "Sunshoan-shikishi" and shows indescribable composure in a simple naturalness. The length is 12.9cm to 13.3cm and the width is 12.3cm to 12.8cm. About 40 pieces still exist and they are in the possession of Tokyo National Museum, Nomura Art Museum, the Gotoh Museum, Hatakeyama Memorial Museum of Fine Art and Yuki Museum of Art amongst others, as well as in various private collections.


"Masu-shikishi" was a booklet containing copies of a collection of KIYOHARA no Fukayabu's poems which was later divided and given this name due to the square shape of the paper. The types of paper used include white torinoko paper, pale indigo paper, dyed paper, and kumo-gami paper (a type of torinoko which has blue cloud patterns in the upper part and purple ones in the lower part), and all of them are sprinkled with mica, giving them a refined look.

The calligraphy is elegant and graceful with a charm worthy of the name of the Heian court. The characters flow smoothly with no interruptions and are composed of some of the thinnest, most graceful lines in ancient calligraphy; the beauty of the chirashi-gaki is outstanding. The fuller lines have a truly seductive air, and the sumi-tsugi, which brings out changes in shading, together with the technique of interweaving thick and thin lines make this Shikishi stand out. The length is 13.7cm to 13.8cm and the width is 11.8cm. They are in the possession of Tokyo National Museum and other museums, as well as in various private collections.

Classification of Heian court ancient calligraphy and the position of san-shikishi

The high-quality calligraphy of 'kana-gaki' written from the Heian period to the Kamakura period is known as ancient calligraphy, but that of the Heian period, when it started, differed from that of the post-Kamakura period. Heian court ancient calligraphy is divided, based on style on lineage, into the 'developmental period' (masculine style calligraphy), the 'complete period'' (classic style calligraphy), the 'mature period' (romantic style calligraphy), and the 'transitional period' (individual style and straightforward style calligraphy). Ancient calligraphy up to the complete period is usually called jodaiyo and, because it represents classic calligraphy, it is still used today as a model by many learners. San-shikishi belongs to this jodaiyo, with the "Sunshoan-shikishi" and the "Masu-shikishi" placed in the complete period. The "Tsugi-shikishi" is placed between the developing and complete period, but is included in the developing period here.

Ancient Japanese calligraphy in the developing period

This can be found in texts copied in the Sogana style of calligraphy at the end of the 10th century and are represented by texts descended from ONO no Michikaze's "Akihagi-jo." However, this was also the period when onnade was at it's height and works such as "Shihai-monjo Inaba no Kokushi no Gean Shihai Kana Shosoku" and "Shihai-monjo Koku-zo Bosatsu Nenju Shidai Shihai Kana Shosoku" were being written daily.
Handwriting researcher Kiyoshi WATABE wrote that the reason sogana was used at such a time is 'it may have been used for the original and just been copied, or copied from a little older calligraphic style with more formal attitude.'

Akihagi-jo lineage (masculine)

All are 'masculine' documents in the sogana style.

"Akihagi-jo" (attributed to ONO no Michikaze)

"Jikashu-gire" (attributed to KI no Tsurayuki)

"Ayaji Utagire (Ga Utagire)" (attributed to FUJIWARA no Sukemasa)

And others

Tsugi-shikishi (refined)

An excellent piece of chirashi-gaki that uses a mix of sogana and onnade; an elegantly simple calligraphy that is closer to the complete period style.

"Tsugi-shikishi" (attributed to ONO no Michikaze)

Ancient Japanese calligraphy in the complete period

Ancient calligraphy of the complete period, considered to be works copied down from the mid- to late 11th century, is known as an archetypal kana to which the words of elegant and graceful can be applied and in which intensity remains in the background. Furthermore, variations in character shape are poorer than in the ancient calligraphy of the mature period, but the lines are full of intensity and tension. The lines are filled with strength.

Ancient calligraphy of the complete period is divided into four lineages. That is, three "Koya-gire" lineages and one "Sekidobon Kokinshu" lineage. The "Sekidobon kokinshu" lineage, in comparison to those of the "Koya-gire," has more variations in inflection, strongness and weakness, and lightness and heaviness, and freedom.

Koya-gire, the first type (refined style)

Refined, elegant, and relaxed calligraphy. Handsome characters with aristocratic pride.

"Koya-gire, the First type" (attributed to KI no Tsurayuki)

"Shinsho Hisho" (attributed to Imperial Prince Munetaka)

"Daiji Wakanroei-shu" (attributed to FUJIWARA no Yukinari)

And others

Koya-gire, the second type (grand style)

It is the relaxed calligraphy with tenacious and powerful strokes. It has a powerful, majestic, and elegant appearance.

"Koya-gire, the Second type" (attributed to KI no Tsurayuki and possibly MINAMOTO no Kaneyuki)

"Katsura no Miya Bon Manyo-shu" (attributed to KI no Tsurayuki)

"Masu-shikishi" (attributed to FUJIWARA no Yukinari)

"Sekidobon Roei Shu" (attributed to FUJIWARA no Yukinari)

"Tsutusmi Chunagon Shu" (The Collection of the Riverside Counselor) (attributed to KI no Tsurayuki)

And others

Koya-gire, the third type (clear-cut style)

Light, bright, and youthful calligraphy. Intelligent, clear-cut, and very modernized.

"Koyagire, the Third type" (attributed to KI no Tsurayuki)

"Decchobon Wakan Roei Shu" (attributed to FUJIWARA no Yukinari)

"Horai-gire" (attributed to FUJIWARA no Yukinari)

"Konoe Bon Wakan Roei Shu" (attributed to FUJIWARA no Yukinari)

And others

Sekidobon Kokinshu lineage (rhythmical)

Steady lines, tenacity, and a feeling of rhythm are common characteristics.

"Sekidobon Kokinshu" (attributed to FUJIWARA no Yukinari)

"Sunshoan Shikishi" (attributed to KI no Tsurayuki)

"Masu-shikishi" (attributed to FUJIWARA no Yukinari)

"Manju-in Bon Kokin Shu" (attributed to FUJIWARA no Yukinari)

"Honami-gire" (attributed to ONO no Michikaze)

"Hari-gire" (attributed to FUJIWARA no Yukinari)

And others

[Original Japanese]