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The Japanese Byobu: A History

Even if you haven’t been to Japan, you’ve probably have been to authentic Japanese restaurants, or seen movies situated in Japanese settings, and most likely you have noticed artsy folding screens or panels with beautiful elaborate artworks. These screens are called the Byobu. They are composed of a number of panels designed with calligraphy and ornate paintings. The Byobu is primarily used as a divider to close in private spaces. Regarding its etymology, it literally translates to “wind protection”, which means the byobu was originally meant to block drafts.

As with other Japanese arts, the Byobu’s origin can be traced back with fellow Asian country China, tracing its roots from the famous Han Dynasty. After being much influenced by the Chinese, Japanese craftsmen began creating and designing their byobu on their own. As the times passed, different factors have influenced the byobu to evolve as well, with various integration of different techniques and use of materials.

The Nara Era

The Byobu started as a one-legged panel. It was during the 8th century when the panels evolved from single to many, and the byobu were used as a décor in imperials courts for special events. During the Nara Era, the byobu with six panels was the most common, and these were the ones coated with silk and sewn together via silk cords or through leather. Even the décors per panel were framed with silk, but the whole panel enclosed using wooden frame.

The Heian Era

During the 9th century, the byobu became a furnishing requirement especially in homes of Daimyos, and also at Buddhist shrines and temples. Metal hinges shaped like a coin, called Zenigata began to be used to connect the byobu panels instead of silk or leather.

The Muromachi Era

During the 1300s, the Byobu became more popular and began to be used in homes, shops and dojos. This era also gave rise to the two paneled Byobu, and instead of the Zenigata, overlapping paper hinges were used. This made the byobu lighter and more portable, but still durable at the joints. Because it had just two panels, the design can now be more freely uninterrupted by borders which inspired Japanese artists to create nature landscapes and Japanese settings. The paper hinges though necessitated the byobu to be lightweight, which prompted craftsmen to use lattices from softwood via bamboo nails.

The Azuchi Momoyama Era and Early Edo Era

As the Byobu became more popular to the people, the Japanese’s penchant for the arts heightened as well. The Byobu became a regular to homes of the samurai, which then stood as a symbol or power and wealth. This in turn led to a major change in byobu designs, which then consist of gold leaves and colorful drawings of nature, and depictions of daily life.

The Byobu of today

With the advent of technology, the byobu of present day is now made via machine, but traditional byobu made by hand are still made, especially by those Japanese families dedicated to preserving Japanese customs and traditions.