with the suffering of a torn heart,
but approaching the sudare,
I can listen through it your loving voice
like the waves of the sea
– Poem of Fujiwara no Kanesuke, Gosen Wakashū [Book 11], Renka, love song 3 (“48th poem”)
In a quiet backstreet of Kyoto, at the edge of the town’s geisha district called Gion, a gentle old man with snow-white hair and a magical twinkle in his eyes patiently and mindfully arranges thin slats of bamboo. These pieces are alligned onto a mysterious manual contraption that resembles a cross between an organ and a large antique sewing machine. This historical machine that resides in the old craftsman’s humble atelier, produces an odd and uneven clacking sound rhythmed to the pace of the foot pedal.
This man, Minoru Tanaka, is making sudare, which are Japanese blinds or screens made from bamboo, wood, reed, or natural resources. These materials are whittled into uniform-sized slats that are woven together with string or yarn. To weave and sew these materials together, Mr. Tanaka uses an old foot-operated, hand-fed machine that has been in use since the Taisho Era (1912-26). Although sudare are mass produced today at cheaper costs or imported from countries such as China, there still remain a few craftsmen who handmake and manufacture them as a form of traditional handicraft.
However, behind this seemingly-ordinary everyday object that Mr. Tanaka painstakingly crafts, lies something more than its obvious functions and excellence in Japanese craftsmanship. Unbeknownst to many, the sudare’s fascinating roles and nuanced uses date over 1,400 years in Kyoto. They blended into both the ordinary life and imperial settings, and even appeared in historical literary forms.
Due to its prevalence, sudare’s significance is not apparent, especially when compared to other craft forms that, on the outset, appear to be higher forms or seem to hold an honorary status.
Yet, sudare were amongst carefully considered furnishings by a Japanese host as a way of conveying hospitality, respect and honor. This represented both a refined Japanese aesthetic sensibilility and concern for hospitality, values that align with the spirit of Shintoism.
Sudare blinds are also referenced as far back as the Man'yōshū (literally “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”), which is the oldest collection of Japanese waka (poetry in Classical Japanese) compiled during the Nara Period (710-794 AD):
While waiting for my lord,
I yearn from my home, waving the blinds,
blows the autumn wind
In its functional role, sudare regulates and filters the elements such as the sun, heat, and wind. As such, it is a traditional form of a fan that cools down the environment during hot summer seasons. They filter sunlight while subtly letting air pass through; the light wind slips freely. They shield the veranda and openings of Japanese homes from not only sunlight, but also from insects and rain.
However, its use extends beyond the summer. During colder seasons, some are hung on the nothern faces of a building to be utilized as a shield to wind and drafts. Also, their lengths can vary depending on the directions they face: ones facing south are long in order to block out the sun that extends all the way to the bottom of the windows, while those facing east are shorter as the sun never extends that low. (1)
Sudare are also more than blinds or screens in that there are fascinating subtleties beyond their functional use. They also play a role in concealing and partitioning. In this sense, they embody the notions of duality and asymmetry: separating two spaces while connecting them; one-way masking or concealing. “[…] it becomes this device which sharpens the human sensibility.” (3)
Since the Nara Period, su, as it was called during that time, functioned as a door or a wall to partition the rooms. As one of the partition devices, it suggested space beyond it while hiding it from view. During the Heian Period (794–1185), the misu (name changed from su; literally means “holy blind”) were amongst the indispensable furnishings in the imperial court.(2) Used in nobles’ rooms, these bamboo blinds were “dressed” in silk, and embellished in gold embroidery and tassels.
Misu of the Heian Period were often used on the four sides of shinden-zukuri, artistocratic mansions of Kyoto. This gave views on the outside landscape, but also on the movement of men outside the house. Hence, the expression sudare-goshi (“through the sudare”)(3) was born.
During those periods, not only were they purposed to separate the rooms, but also to separate the Emperor or the nobles from the masses, as both a physical and symbolic division. In this sense, it established a code of rank by forbidding the ordinary people to look directly at the Emperor’s face. Thus, it was historically used to shield the “heavenly ruler” because a visage so noble required a respectful distance.(3) It was not until the 1860s that commoners were allowed to utilize these, and misu were then called sudare.
Misu were also hung in temples and shrines during Medieval Japan (1185-1603) to symbolically represent a separation between the spiritual world and the secular world.
During the Heian Period, sudare was used for seductive games, such as revealing a piece of silk to both hide and hint at the identity of a person hidden behind it. In the 20th chapter of Makura no Sōshi, one reads this passage: “[...] On the interior, on the other side of the misu, kara ginu of cherry blossom, fuji and yamabuki that the courtisans wore nonchalantly on the shoulder..[…] At this moment, on the side of the Emperor's seat, the sound of the steps of the service of the dishes.”
It was also a barometer of etiquette that played with, and regulated the codes of intimacy, for example, between a court lady and a man who is not part of her family. While the lady was concealed from the man who was obligated to maintain a physical distance, she was able to peep through the screen to see the man. It was in her power to decide to raise the screen at a given moment, or allow him to approach closer. Any unpermitted move from the man would be considered compromising of the lady’s honor.
During the Edo Period (1603 - 1868), the pilgrimage of the Tokugawa Shogun passed through the towns of Kaneiji, Ueno, or Shiba. In order to prevent any unexpected attack from enemies who were hidden behind the sudare, all the houses that were situated along the way were ordered to keep them rolled up.(3)
In a similar token, boats transporting commoners were obligated to use sudare instead of the more encumbering shoji screens. The flexible and agile nature of its construction allowed the inspectors to quickly lift the blinds, thereby faciliating swift last-minute inspections that cracked down on prostitution.(1)
Despite the new building techniques and influences that evolved Japanese architecture and interiors over history, the design and principles of the original misu and sudare blinds have basically remained unchanged and unsubstituted since the Nara Period. Most importantly, they embody both the high level of Japanese craftsmanship and nuanced symbolic roles throughout history that goes beyond their function as we perceive them today. Behind the sudare, which we often see hanging outside or inside traditional Japanese homes which craftsmen such as Mr. Tanaka painstakingly make, their legacy reminds us that culture can imbue meaning and more subtle, symbolic functions to an object than what meets the eyes.
Mona Kim is the Founder and Editor of Moowon. As the Creative Director of award-winning multidisciplinary design studio, Mona Kim Projects, she has been conceiving public space experiences and large-scale experiential projects for global brands and cultural institutions. Her museum and exhibition design for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, World Expo, Museum of Tomorrow (Museu do Amanhã), and UNESCO-sponsored projects, gave her the opportunity to document and be exposed to some of the most distinctive examples of social realities and cultural expressions. On these projects, she had co-curated world issues such as endangered languages, cultural diversity and sustainability. The Moowon project is an extension of this background. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, WWD(Women's Wear Daily), The Creative Review, and in publications by Gestalten and The Art Institute of Chicago.