Shoso-in through Foreign Eyes / International Exchanges May Help Solve Mysteries on Treasures

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Photos of a Shoso-in treasure being taken by a ultra high-definition camera.

The 75th Annual Exhibition of Shoso-in Treasures will start Saturday at the Nara National Museum, showcasing a selection of precious items that have been preserved for centuries in the Shoso-in repository and convey glimpses of Nara period (710-784) culture. This is the third and final installment in a three-part series focusing on the history of the connection between the Shoso-in and people from other countries.


With the Saturday opening of this year’s annual Shoso-in exhibition approaching, China’s social media site Weibo was found to carry several posts about the exhibition with titles such as: “The richest collection of arts and crafts of the Tang dynasty” and “I bought a ticket.” A Chinese travel site Ctrip also advertises the exhibition as “a meeting that transcends millennia.”

The treasures preserved at the Shoso-in repository include some that came to Japan from China and other countries 1,300 years ago. It is also an archive of ancient international exchanges.

“More and more people have become interested in the exhibition each year. I frequently receive inquiries from friends in my homeland these days,” said Zhang Xiaojuan of the Nara National Museum, the venue of the exhibition.

“Mirror Box with Floral design in Inlaid Silver,” which will be exhibited at this year’s exhibition, is a lacquered box with elaborate patterns depicted with the heidatsu technique using silver on its surface. The term “heidatsu” referring to a lacquer decoration technique also appears in Chinese historical records. Tang dynasty general An Lushan is said to have presented Emperor Xuanzong with “sho,” a bed-type couch, with a silver heidatsu design in 750. Its decoration must have been magnificent.

Courtesy of the Office of the Shosoin Treasure House at the Imperial Household Agency
Mirror Box with Floral design in Inlaid Silver

The history of international exchanges can be remembered not only in high-profile treasures.

Courtesy of Min Byung Chan
Min Byung Chan

Min Byung Chan, 57, former director general of the National Museum of Korea, says it is surprising that various old sheets of paper have been kept in the Shoso-in.

The sheets even include those used as packing material for metal tableware called “sahari” imported from the Korean peninsula. The papers were originally administrative documents in the ancient kingdom of Silla that were no longer needed and repurposed. They bear a record of how commodities such as meat, rice, and soybeans were managed by a Silla governmental office.

“In South Korea, there are few materials on the history of Silla. The Shoso-in treasures are a cultural heritage of Asia and even the world,” Min said in Japanese.

The Shoso-in treasures have been admired by people visiting Japan since the Meiji era (1868-1912). But they have never been exhibited overseas, even though there have been requests for Shoso-in exhibitions.

The main reason is the difficulty of transporting them. Aged furnishings and textiles among the collection can be damaged by the slightest vibration, and could even disintegrate.

As their preservation is paramount, items from the collection are displayed basically only once a year in Japan, at the annual Shoso-in exhibition. The exhibition period also only lasts around two weeks. Before each exhibition, the pieces selected for display are transported with great care by a truck led by a police car over the roughly one-kilometer distance from the repository to the museum at the slowest possible speed.

VR technology

Due to the preciousness of the treasures, they cannot be exhibited often. The situation makes it impossible to sufficiently respond to the degree of interest in the collection both domestically and overseas.

“We are always facing the dilemma of choosing between preservation or exhibition,” said Takehiko Iida, 55, head of the Office of Shosoin Treasure House at the Imperial Household Agency.

To compensate for the problem, the Office of Shosoin has been creating videos of treasures in recent years with the use of virtual reality digital technology.

More than 1,000 images of a treasure are taken by an ultra high-definition camera from all directions and processed into three-dimensional videos based on its measured shape and texture.

Akira Hizawa of Toppan Inc., the major printing company that cooperates on the project, said: “The images reproduce textures as realistically as possible and show treasures from any direction by freely changing their angles. Their quality can satisfy the eyes of researchers.”

The virtual reality videos will be used for international audiences as well.

To start, a video produced in 2019 featuring “Red Sandalwood Five-String Biwa Lute with Mother-of-Pearl Decoration” will be shown at this year’s Shoso-in exhibition.

Courtesy of Yukio Lippit
Yukio Lippit

“Shoso-in must be studied within the context of the history of world civilization,” says Prof. Yukio Lippit, 53, at Harvard University.

Lippit focuses not only on the collection itself but also on its unique history, especially the locking of the repository doors with the Emperor’s seal and its survival in good condition, which was achieved by the efforts of numerous people in the past.

Lippit is currently writing a book on Shoso-in. Books about the treasures are still rare in Europe and the United States, he said in Japanese. “I hope that Shoso-in will be understood more deeply by being examined by people in various countries,” Lippit said.

The possible expansion of international exchanges may lead to unraveling Shoso-in’s many unsolved mysteries.

One of the treasures, a pair of bronze scissors, lacks metal fittings at its tips, so its use had not been known. The mystery was finally solved due to excavation work in 1975 at an archaeological site in South Korea.

A pair of similar scissors excavated at the site was found to have a semicircular metal fitting at each tip. When the scissors are closed the fittings form a circle with a tip so that a cut object is held within and will not fall to the floor. It was thus determined that this type of scissors was used to trim a wick.

Courtesy of the Office of the Shosoin Treasure House at the Imperial Household Agency
Red Sandalwood Rack

One of this year’s exhibits, “Red Sandalwood Rack,” is still a source of mystery. It is a fine piece made of expensive red sandalwood and decorated with ivory and taimai sea tortoise shell. Its use is still unknown.

Who will solve these mysteries? It would not be surprising if they are solved by someone who is not Japanese.


For more information on the exhibition, see “Official Web Site” .