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Muromachi Culture and Reading Marks

However, by this point, these men were very conscious that authority could not be maintained by force alone and had already started to diversify their interests by embracing Zen and cultivating not only scholarship and Buddhism, but also tea, painting and architecture, all under the able guidance of Zen monks.
© Keio University

Near the end of the Muromachi period, the devastations of the Ōnin Wars (1467-1477) forced many aristocratic scholars and priest-scholars to leave behind the ruins of Kyoto and head out to the provinces to seek the protection of powerful local lords.

Muromachi – Culture Beyond Military Strength

For their part, late-medieval provincial lords were eager to expand their interests in the sphere of culture, beyond military strength and to find ways to economically develop their fiefs. Known as sengoku daimyō (daimyō of the Warring States), these men are usually regarded as the bedrock of the system which made military strength its primary feature. However, by this point, these men were very conscious that authority could not be maintained by force alone and had already started to diversify their interests by embracing Zen and cultivating not only scholarship and Buddhism, but also tea, painting and architecture, all under the able guidance of Zen monks. Their involvement in culture is an important aspect of what is called “Muromachi culture” (Muromachi bunka).

Their example paved the way for late-Muromachi/early-Edo leaders with an uncommon understanding of culture, like Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Commitment to Books

To seek books and learning in times of constant war requires an incredible amount of commitment and focus.

Under the protection of the Shimazu clan in Satsuma, the Rinzai-sect monk Bunshi Genshō (1555-1620) developed his own method of marking the Analects for rendering it in Japanese (known as Bunshi-ten or “Bunshi-style markings”) and took the world by storm with his edition of the Four Books (The Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, the Analects, and the Mencius). He was a follower of Keian Genju (1427-1508), who had travelled to Ming China at the end of the Ōnin wars and had brought back with him a new approach to scholarship. They both returned to their native Satsuma to contribute to the cultural initiatives of the Shimazu after living for some years in Kyoto temples.

Old Book Fig.1 Shisho Taizen (The Complete Four Books) 『四書大全』
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Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s strategist, Takenaka Hanbei, had a son called Shigekado (1573 – 1631). Though top-class military men, both father and son were also extremely fond of books, so much so that they are said to have loaded their horses with books as they headed out to battle. During the Battle of Sekigahara, Shigekado first joined Ishida Mitsunari’s Western Army, but subsequently he defected to the Eastern Army. Clearly, in war, there is no time for hesitation. Shigekado’s personal copy of the Analects survives (fig. 2). It is likely that he kept it with him at all times and carried it with him everywhere he went. And it is also possible that the reading marks (kunten) that we find in in the book are also by him. More than for the mighty warrior, it is for Shigekado the devoted book-lover that we feel more sympathy.

Old Book Fig.2 Takenaka Shigekado’s copy of the Analects (Shisho shicchū) 『四書集注』
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What are Reading Marks (kunten)?

Reading marks were added to Chinese texts to allow readers to read them in/as Japanese. There are several types of reading marks.

Word Order Marks

Word order marks: Japanese is an SOV or OSV language whereas Chinese is a SVO language (S=subject, O=object, V=:verb). Several kinds of marks categorized as kaeriten (return marker) are used to indicate how to change the order of the Chinese characters in order to read them as Japanese.

Punctuation Marks

Punctuation marks: Original Chinese texts often do not have punctuation marks. kutōten, such as commas (、)and periods(。)were added in Japanese are added to help readers.

Phonetic Reading Guide

Phonetic reading guide: As in Japanese Chinese characters can be read in several ways, phonetic reading guides were added beside a character when necessary to indicate how to read it.

As an example, let’s take a look at fig.2 more closely. This is a famous passage from the Analects. The figure below (fig.3) will help you to identify the original text, the commentary, and the kunten marks on the page.

What are reading marks (_kunten_)? Fig. 3 What are reading marks (kunten)?
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© Keio University
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