Friday, June 25, 2021

Likka and Yatate

 One day I will possess the faculties and resources to write the scientific research paper this topic is deserving of.

In the interim however, please enjoy rambling, near-baseless conjecture. Much of the information I have to work with is wikipedic in nature, things I recall from art history studies in college, there is no secret knowledge here.

Writing, upon its invention, cemented itself rapidly as a pillar of a strong and versatile civilization. And as vast amounts of information became more portable, it was necessary that the means to transcribe information become portable as well. Ink became a choice material for mark making, it is easy to produce large quantities from relatively simple materials, it has good adhesion qualities, and provides a more finished permanence to work. But, adversely, it can ruin unsealed surfaces in the blink of an eye. 

To this end, there are two interestingly similar developments in this technology, the likka of the (Arabic?) world and the yatate in Japan.

Likka, in and of itself is a fairly simple contraption. Mulberry silk fibers soaked in liquid ink, sitting in one's inkwell.

raw likka
likka with ink in well

The objective here is to saturate the silk with enough ink that it can readily load up a brush or dip pen, but not so much that if the well is tipped you risk spillage.

The Japanese yatate is an extrapolation of the likka, in fact making use of the same mechanism for ink retention. Yatate actually refers to a portable writing system that is a kit rather than one item. It includes the ink-soaked silk or cotton fibers (alternatively ink-paste, sometimes called moxa, but I digress), a brush, and a case to carry it all.

a simple yatate, very often cast in bronze

lid on the inkwell open, and brush tucked into the hollow stem

like with modern writing devices, they can be made into intricate displays of taste and wealth

One the most widely seen styles of yatate is the aptly-termed "smoking pipe," but there are variations where the inkwell and brush-stem are connected by cord or chain, rather than welded together.

Now, not that there is a contest at stake here, but who developed what first? These two developments share such particular and specific similarity that one wonders if one culture passed it off to another, or were they both developed synchronously?

There are other mutual material uses between the Arabic and Japanese worlds: mulberry silk and bamboo pens.

It is difficult to date the advent of likka, we can presume it happened shortly after someone spilled ink on a pile of silk, which is... a large window of history. However, we can approximately date the yatate. The original yatate really just refers to the habit samurai had of storing ink-stones (for grinding ink-sticks) in their arrow quivers. but it was during the reign of the Kamakura Shogunate (about 1185-1333a.d.) that someone or some folks started implemented ink-soaked fibers into their writing kits.

Imagine carrying a bottle of ink in your arrow quivers. Just accidents waiting to happen.

But back to the Kamakura Shogunate. Things get interesting here.

The Kamakuras, amongst other things, were quite good at keeping the Mongol Hordes (then under the command of Kublai Khan) at bay and from conquering Japan (they also had the help of some very belligerent weather).

The Mongols serve as a convenient bridge between the Arabic and Japanese writing worlds, though it does not settle who decided to soak fibers in ink first. There is another explanation as well, that in all possible likelihood it was all invented by the Chinese, who in the region very often spearheaded many material technology innovations, and then dispersed it to their neighbors.

You can still buy likka from contemporary calligraphy suppliers, and yatate (of dubious validity if prices are to be believed) too. You can even make your own. They're unique period pieces and still quite fun to use, even if they have been rendered irrelevant ever since an impatient Romanian man saw fit to invent fountain pens (thank you Mr. Poenaru).

- NW

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