Subscribe to Art + Ideas:

“To really read into the fragment that you have in front of you and to imagine the rest of what was the whole text is really romantic and an enjoyment of tekagami viewing.”

The rise of tea drinking ceremonies during the Edo period (1615–1868) brought about another new cultural phenomenon: calligraphy albums. Called tekagami, or “mirror of hands,” these albums showcase calligraphy by 8th-century emperors, famed poets, and other illustrious figures from Japan’s past. The calligraphic samples are often fragmentary, containing a few lines of classical poetry, Buddhist sutras, or snippets from personal texts such as diaries and letters. These fragments gain meaning not only from their content and form, but, importantly, from their arrangement on and within the pages of tekagami. In March 2021 the Getty Research Institute gathered together scholars to discuss this unique art form in a colloquium titled “Tekagami as/and Fragments.”

In this episode, the colloquium’s organizers, Akiko Walley, the Maude I. Kerns Associate Professor of Japanese Art at the University of Oregon, Eugene, and Edward Kamens, the Sumitomo Professor of Japanese Studies at Yale University, discuss the origins of tekagami, its place in Japanese art history, and avenues for future research into this fascinating medium.

More to explore:

The Tekagami-jo Project explore Yale’s Tekagami-jo album
Tekagami and Kyōgire explore University of Oregon’s digital exhibition on fragmented calligraphy


JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
AKIKO WALLEY: To really read into the fragment that you have in front of you and to imagine the rest of what was the whole text is really romantic and an enjoyment of tekagami viewing.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Getty Visiting Scholar Akiko Walley and Professor Edward Kamens about Japanese calligraphy albums called tekagami.
Highly popular during the Edo-period, dating from 1615 to 1868, tekagami is an album of calligraphy fragments. It can include of poems, stories, religious scriptures, historical documents, and personal correspondences, known collectively as kohitsu or “antique writing.”
These albums were the subject of a March 2021 colloquium of the Getty Research Institute titled “tekagami as/and Fragments,” organized by Akiko Walley, the Maude I. Kerns Associate Professor of Japanese Art at the University of Oregon, Eugene, and Edward Kamens, the Sumitomo Professor of Japanese Studies at Yale University. I recently discussed the history and character of tekagami with Akiko and Ed.
Akiko and Ed, many thanks for joining me on this podcast. Ed, what is a tekagami?
EDWARD KAMENS: A tekagami is a calligraphy album. And most tekagami are bound in the format that we would call an accordion. Or sometimes it’s called a leporello, I think, in the European tradition. It can be unfolded to see all the pages side by side. But usually, each opening would just be flipped, one panel at a time, to view samples of calligraphy that have been assembled by a professionl appraiser, who has verified that the sample is a verifiable, authentic, or reasonably authentic copy of the written calligraphy, by some noted person of the past.
CUNO: Akiko?
WALLEY: Tekagami, if you were to translate literally, it means a mirror of hands.
CUNO: So these calligraphies have been cut out of some prior book or something, and put together on this page.
KAMENS: That’s right. That’s why we in the Scholars Program this year associated them in so many different ways with the concepts of fragments and fragmentariness. They are indeed cutouts.
And for that reason, they don’t read as a coherent text as such, but I think of them more as a kind of metatext. Probably one way that makes sense of looking at a tekagami in its entirety is to think of it as displaying a history of the practice of calligraphy in Japan.
CUNO: So just one last question on this. Each of the cut-out pieces has on it a script made by a separate calligrapher.
KAMENS: Yes. And usually not necessarily a script or a text originally written by that person. Many of the samples might be copies of portions of a Buddhist sutra; might be a letter or a portion of a diary; and very frequently, they’re literary texts. Because until the sixteenth and seventeenth century, when in fact, tekagami come to be quite popular, printing was not widely used in Japan. And so to transmit a text, one had to copy it. So for example, for one poet to pass along a text of poetry to another generation, they had to be copied by hand.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, Akiko, what is the earliest mention of the term tekagami? And is it strictly a Japanese phenomenon, or was it found in China or Korea?
AKIKO WALLEY: So the earliest mention of the word tekagami comes up in the sixteenth century. The idea of cutting or dismantling a collection of calligraphy started to happen with the popularity tea-drinking practice. When the rustic tea drinking started to be very popular in the sixteenth century, what happened was people wanted to have calligraphy as decoration in the alcove inside a tearoom. And in order to make it into a hanging scroll, it had to be cut into pieces that was appropriate-sized for hanging. And it couldn’t be a book. So that was the beginning.
So the earliest mention of tekagami actually comes up in a document by a tea master named Sen no Rikyū, who lived between early sixteenth century to end of sixteenth century. And he sort of lists all these items that will be good for tearoom decoration. And one of the things he mentioned was tekagami. So that’s the earliest mention of tekagami.
And we actually don’t know exactly what sort of format that tekagami took. And the earliest mention of tekagami as we know today, the album format with all these fragments, comes up in early seventeenth century, in a Japanese-Portuguese dictionary that mentions the word tekagami. And the definition that it gives is very much what we think of tekagami when we hear the word.
And in terms of the sort of collecting of calligraphy into an album format, it was already practiced in China by the eighth century. But many of the pieces that were collected were stone rubbings of a famous calligraphy. So in terms of the format that we see in Japan, of these hand-written calligraphy collected into an album format, has not been found in other places in East Asia.
CUNO: Was the reading an oral experience or a visual experience?
WALLEY: That’s a difficult question to answer, because we have records of people having a party and looking at tekagami when it was first produced. But we don’t actually know what sort of viewing that took place.
And in some cases, there are fragments, for instance, of a Buddhist chant that has notation on how to read them. So theoretically, one could say a few lines from it. Or many of them are famous poems, so one could read aloud. But the speculation is that for the most part, it’s more of a visual experience and reading experience.
CUNO: Was it read as a group experience or a singular, private experience?
WALLEY: So that, too, could’ve been different experiences. So we have record of group viewing, so we know that something like that went on. But for instance, if it was used in a tearoom, tekagami would be placed open or closed on a shelf. And maybe none of the guests actually took it off the shelf to look at it, so it’s more of a display.
But you know, tekagami could’ve been used as one’s own pleasure or for calligraphy practice. So in those cases, it’s more of a solitary experience. And in fact, there is a national treasure tekagami in a museum called the Idemitsu Museum of Art[s] in Japan that has a title called The Friends from Unseen Past. So in that respect, it’s more of an idea of you as a viewer being among these past cultural celebrities and great calligraphers. And being in almost like a party situation. And that could be also group experience or, you know, more of a solitary experience, imagining yourself being among this group of great past people.
CUNO: And were these fragments taken from a complete written document? Did they make sense, one fragment next to the other fragment, or did that not matter?
WALLEY: It really did not matter. The arrangement is more of a visual effect. And there could be some connection. For instance, you know, one page could be poems that could be linked together thematically, for instance. But that was not necessarily a requirement.
The convention, in fact, was more based on social status of the calligraphers. So you know, there was a convention to start the calligraphic album with an eighth century imperial couple; but then it was more about the imperial emperors and imperial family and courtiers, warriors, women, monk-poets, et cetera. So it was more about how to group the calligraphers together in almost like a— spatially—so that the right kind of people are brought together on the same page.
CUNO: I see. Ed, I gather there was a boom in tekagami during the Edo period 1615 to 1868. Tell us about that aand why there was such a boom at thata time.
KAMENS: Right. So as Akiko explained, the origins of the practice of collecting and displaying calligraphy, fragment texts, lies in the culture of the tea ceremony. But something that coincides with this development are social and economic changes—the rise of the merchant class, the gathering of wealth, and the increase in literacy, especially among women.
So to demonstrate their literary knowledge and good taste, and to provide, say, the daughter of a wealthy family, either in the samurai or merchant class, with a very admirable and very special item for her trousseau on the occasion of her wedding, a tekagami might be ordered and made precisely for that purpose, because women of those classes were increasingly highly literate. Also, it would be desirable for them to demonstrate in calligraphy. We think that these are among the reasons why we see the increased production and circulation of tekagami at that time, during those periods.
CUNO: Do we have any records of their being ordered, made-to-order, as it were?
WALLEY: As far as I understand, not from the seventeenth century. But for nineteenth century, there is a tekagami that we know the provenance of. And it was a commission for the wedding of a former Tokugawa shogunate’s daughters[sic] when she was married. So we have an example like that. But that’s in early Meiji period, so it’s past the period that we’re mostly focusing on.
The other reason why scholars believe that tekagami were produced as a trousseau item is because miniature tekagami is sometimes included for a hina doll, the imperial doll, which, for the most elaborate ones, often come with a variety of miniature trousseau items for the princess, for the doll. And sometimes miniature tekagami is included in it. So it was common enough as a practice to be included in children’s toys.
CUNO: Why was the eighth century Emperor Shōmu and Empress Kōmyō so closely linked to tekagami?
WALLEY: The exact reason is a bit of a mystery, and also when that practice started. Shōmu and Kōmyō were eighth century imperial couple who became very popular as accomplished calligraphers. And their pieces were highly coveted by calligraphy fans.
There were certain conventions for tekagami assemblage. And one was to group the calligraphers and calligraphies based on the social status of the calligraphers. And the other was to begin with Shōmu and Kōmyō’s calligraphy.
But what we know is by the eighteenth century, this pairing at the beginning was understood to be something that is auspicious and very appropriate for wedding gifts. So including wedding trousseau.
CUNO: Was there a particular time when there was a flowering of the production of tekagami, both in the quality, visual quality of the tekagami, but in the sheer volume of the tekagami?
WALLEY: In terms of quality, the booms really started in the seventeenth century. And it started off among the imperial family and courtiers among the imperial court, and then it expanded to warrior class, and then the common people.
But in terms of amount, what we have today, many of them were from latter half of the Edo period. But you know, it’s actually difficult to identity the date of these tekagami because oftentimes, these tekagami were assembled after enough number of calligraphy fragments were amassed. And sometimes earlier tekagami might’ve been disassembled into new tekagami. So the history of each tekagami is very complicated.
But we know that the trend really continued all the way to the end of Edo, and even into the modern period, which is the Meiji period. And in fact, some people still practice tekagami assembling today.
CUNO: Are there examples of tekagami that have as a text, a particular poem or poem that is valued because of the poet or because of the legacy of the poem?
KAMENS: Yes, there is a trio of highly-regarded great calligraphers from the early seventeenth century, one of whom is Konoe Nobutada, for example. And any piece of writing that can be attributed to him would be especially highly prized.
You asked about Emperor Shōmu and Empress Kōmyō. A verifiable authentic example, if one could be found, or even the high-quality copies of Emperor Shōmu’s so-called large character writing, which is always going to be an excerpt from a Buddhist sutra, those are, in and of themselves, are highly valued.
A scholar from Japan, Uno Keisuke with whom both Akiko and I have worked, when he opened up the first page of our tekagamijō in the Beinecke Library at Yale and looked at this ojomu, this large-character piece of writing attributed to Shōmu, he said, “Wow.” You know, the value of this alone is probably greater than everything else that’s in the album.
In addition, certain poets, such as the great poet from the late twelfth, early thirteenth committee, Fujiwara no Teika, who is known for extremely eccentric brush-writing style, and whose style was then also imitated and highly influential in later schools of calligraphy, those samples are very highly desirable. There are also many that are truly inauthentic out there.
CUNO: You know, I think I’ve asked this question before in a slightly different way, but I wanna ask it again, ’cause I think it’s so interesting. Take us, Ed, back to the formal properties of tekagami. And do the text fragments of tekagami ever tell a poetic story in and of itself? Or is their attraction simply visual?
KAMENS: Well, I think that the attraction and interest is primarily visual. And that when we talk about reading a tekagami, as I said earlier, I think we have to think about reading in a kid of meta level, meta dynamic. As a literary scholar—and I study classical poetry of the kind we were just talking about—of course, we want to know what is in the sample. What does it say? Are we seeing, for example, a variant transmission, version of any given poem? This has been largely, until relatively recently, what Japanese scholars have been investigating in their work on tekagami.
But more recently, there has been the raising of the question, so how can we think of these as integrated entities? And I think that the poetic story is about how such and such text was written in such and such a way by some named person.
What I find so interesting about that aspect of tekagami, again, is that the content is not what is relating one sample that might be in a page next to another; it is that other set of stories about the identity of who wrote it in the first place. Maybe what might have been their interest in their particular text. Were they copying this Buddhist sutra for some particular devotional purpose? Were they copying those poems from such and such an anthology for their own study? To emulate them? To pass them on to the next generations? And so forth.
So in that sense, what the text is about might have some significance, but what is superseding that is whose hand is it supposed to be. And there is a kind of romance in the idea that one is looking at, if not the actual traces of the brush that was held by an eighth century emperor or empress or a thirteenth century poet, that you’re looking at a faithful copy. And so you’re getting as close as you possibility could to the moment when they inscribed that ink and those words on that piece of paper.
So as one pages through the album, one sees such a great variety of different styles of calligraphy, as I’ve said, from the highly disciplined, very tightly-controlled kind of writing to the most extremely cursive styles that are very, very difficult to decipher, even sometimes by experts. So I think that that visual experience of seeing that array of styles and the history of writing and calligraphic practice that they speak to is, to my mind, a very poetic story.
CUNO: Akiko, is the visual attraction of tekagami now limited to the writing of text fragments, or does it extend to the interplay between text fragment and support sheet? That is, is the sheet of paper to which the text fragments are attached, and which often have images on them like cloud formations or evocations of mountains?
WALLEY: Yes. I think the paper support is very important. As you mention, many of these fragments come with lush paper decoration with colorful underdrawings to use of precious materials like gold and silver. So that was very much a point of appreciation.
And also, you know, although it was not necessarily required to match the underdrawing and what you inscribe on top, but there was always a potential to do so. So to kind of think about what the calligrapher was thinking in arranging the calligraphy on a particular piece of paper was really part of calligraphy appreciation. So without considering the paper, you know, you were only half appreciating the calligraphy, in one sense.
But in terms of how one spaced the calligraphy—is the poem in two lines or one line? Are there other notations in the margin? All of these things were a point of appreciation.
In a sense, to really read into the fragment that you have in front of you and to imagine the rest of what was the whole text is really romantic and an enjoyment of tekagami viewing.
KAMENS: Sometimes what one can learn about the paper from that underlying design or ornamentation can be understood as evidence that might tell us more about the origin of the copy, and the original text itself.
The example I’m thinking of is the disaggregated and widely-scattered elements of a text that’s known as the Todaiji-gire. It’s a collection of pages that were copies made by a poet and scholar named Minamoto no Toshiyori in 1120. And he was copying the contents of a late tenth century collection of Buddhist tales.
But he did it on very beautiful papers that have a stenciled design, four different stenciled designs made with mica, that were printed onto the paper. Then columns were drawn for writing the text across each page. And so the suggestion of that special quality and special design of that paper, which is not just your ordinary note paper that you would pick up for calligraphy practice, suggests that he was probably making this copy, yet again, for an important patron or someone to whom he was going to give it as some kind of very special offering or gift. Which, by the way, would be understood as having sacred or perhaps even semi-sacred content, because it’s about Buddhism.
CUNO: In the fragments of the calligraphy, are they ever each individually signed, so you can identity the author or the draftsperson, or is it all having to determine iconographically or stylistically, by the hand of the artist? Akiko?
WALLEY: So there are different kinds of fragments included in tekagami. The word, the old calligraphy fragment or old brush fragment kohitsugire, which is what is often used to refer to these pieces. The word kire literally means to cut. But for many of the tekagami albums, it also included pieces that were disassembled in other ways.
For instance, a square poetry card that often originally were used as a set, to be paste[d] in others kinds of albums or a folding screen, but taken apart from the original backing and sold as individual pieces and landed in a tekagami.
And the other is what is known as tanzaku, or oblong poetry slips. And these were used during poetry contests, where one would inscribe one’s own poem and read during the contest. And afterwards, oftentimes they were gathered and bundled together for future compilation into anthology or other purposes. And in those cases, if the poem is your own poem, the poet calligrapher often signed your own piece.
So those are the definitive cases when you know who did the calligraphy. And oftentimes they were used today as a way to identity some other pieces that may be unknown. But for pieces that were taken from codexes, in many cases, the information about calligrapher and how he pieces came about were only placed— the reference at the end. So when they were taken apart, you really couldn’t, unless you do a stylistic analysis, you really couldn’t tell who the calligrapher was.
KAMENS: And that’s why the additional labels, called kiwamefuda, that accompany each sample are so important. These are written by the appraisers. The appraisers but their seal on the label, indicating the name of the calligrapher to whom they are attributing the work. So we’re really put in the position of having to rely on the expertise and the accuracy, or lack thereof, of the appraisers, in telling us this is by Fujiwara no Teika or this is by Konoe Nobutada or any other calligrapher.
CUNO: Let’s see. Akiko, you speak of the arrangement of tekagami in a book as like the display of works of art in museum galleries. Tell us more about that.
WALLEY: Yes. So this idea is, in one sense, inspired by an exhibition that took place in Japan in 1990s or early 2000s that titled itself Tekagami as Desktop Museum. And that, I thought, was a very provocative title. And it’s quite spot on, in terms of sort of understanding what tekagami is.
And tekagami, in fact, is kind of an institution. That the album format existed before the Edo period, but it really became popular in the seventeenth century onward, and it was used to display two-dimensional aesthetic objects. It could have been a painting, could’ve been calligraphy, could’ve been stone rubbings. But it was meant for an aesthetic object. And that is, in fact, different from other ways to store writings and paintings.
For instance, hanging scrolls or folding scrolls, which both existed since the eighth century. But in those cases, they could’ve been used in, for instance, secular context, devotional context. So the way of storing was not predicated upon the function, right, of the pieces. So you had to see what is inside to understand what something is.
Tekagami are often very ornately decorated on the covers with, you know, silk brocade and metal corner fittings. And that, too, represents the preciousness and the worth of the pieces that are inside. So even, you know, without opening it, just by having the presence of the album, can make you understand that you are in the presence of an aesthetic object. Just like if you are in the presence of a museum, you know exactly what you will get, and you know exactly the pieces that are right in there are precious pieces that are worth paying attention to as aesthetic object. So it works very nicely as kind of an institution.
And you know, beyond that, in terms of the viewing experience too, tekagami is organized based on certain conventions, but also on the ideas of the collectors who act as curators. But because of the format, you could open it up to a few pages and look at it together or jump to certain pages. So you have a certain path that is laid out for you to meander through; but at the same time, you have certain liberty how to engage with the pieces that are inside. Just like, you know, if you are walking around a museum gallery and looking at pieces that are on the white wall.
CUNO: So one of the scholars participating in your colloquium, Kris Kersey of UCLA, asked three especially provocative questions, I think, as they pertain to tekagami. He asked, “What is a fragment? Does style have materiality? How are tekagami related to the history of art history?” Ed.
KAMENS: I’d like to take a stab at the first difficult question.
I think a fragment can be understood, basically, as a piece of something that once was, or could have been, or might still, at some future point, be part of a whole thing. And I find that I frequently correlate that aspect of the content of tekagami, these assemblages of fragments, with one of the fundamental aspects of classical Japanese poetry, which is my main area of study and research.
Because Japanese poems, too, can be thought of as assemblages of fragments. The vocabulary, the repertoire of figures, names of birds and flowers and trees, and place names, and various kinds of formalized expressions and epithets is, although huge, nevertheless limited. And from century to century, Japanese poets made a point of gesturing, through illusion, to their predecessors, by redeploying those figures again and again.
So in that sense, the Japanese poem, to my mind, can be characterized also as an assemblage of fragments, things that have been collected and preserved in memory and in text, for reuse, redeployment, and to be admired again and again over time, just the way that calligraphy samples in a tekagami can be thought of being there for that purpose.
CUNO: Akiko?
WALLEY: Yeah. The relationship between fragment and whole in tekagami is very interesting, complex, and fluid. So in terms of the connection to museum, I often think of tekagami more as a special exhibition, rather than a permanent collection or exhibit of permanent collection, because tekagami as [a] whole is a whole. When you finish pasting everything and all the pages are full, then you could consider that as a full assemblage, a holistic idea of a collector-curator.
But it was very common, even in the Edo period, for people to peel off pieces and sell and trade. And once you get a new piece that’s better or something you like, then you replace and you reorder. So even the tekagami pages were often sized with mica, so that it’s easy to do that sort of peeling and pasting and repasting. So in that respect, the wholeness of tekagami was never stable.
So that sort of idea of wholeness, but unstable whole, is something that is very important to understand the tekagami as object, but also tekagami assembling as an activity.
CUNO: What about the second question, does style have materiality? Who wants to try an answer to that question?
WALLEY: I think when Kris mentioned this, he was talking in terms of how calligraphy interacted with the materiality of the paper. And I think that’s very true. So the style is, in a way, part of materiality. If there is an ornament, ornamentation in the paper, calligrapher may chose to begin where the ornamentation starts, and stop where there is a break in ornamentation.
Then you can’t fully appreciate the calligraphy without thinking about the materiality of the paper support itself. So I think that’s very true. And you know, I mentioned that that sort of intimate engagement with paper was not necessarily a requirement, but still, because some people did it and thought very carefully about it, all the pieces are potentially, a material, very material engagement. And the calligraphy is part of it. And if the calligraphy is part of it, the calligraphic style is part of the materiality, as well.
CUNO: What about the last question? How are tekagami related to the history of art history?
KAMENS: I would just begin, before yielding to the true art historian here—or there are two of them, but one studies Japanese art history—that I think tekagami are a part of the long history of art connoisseurship, and help us understand an important phase in the connoisseurial appreciation and the transmission and preservation of calligraphy as an art form.
East Asian art holds calligraphy in very high esteem. This is true from ancient times in China. We often associate very dramatic styles of calligraphy with the Zen Buddhist tradition in Japan. But when we look at a tekagami and we think about the collectors and connoisseurs and those who appreciated these writings and wanted to bring them together in this album form in the seventeenth century, they really did seem to be evincing an interest in what had been valued in the art and practice of writing from the earliest times from which they could retrieve writing in Japan, the eighth century and onwards.
CUNO: Akiko?
WALLEY: So this question is a very interesting and difficult question that needs to be understood or thought about in at least two different ways. One is what “art history,” quote/unquote means in today’s context. And the other is what tekagami meant for the people of the Edo period, when these albums were primarily produced.
And for Japan, the history of art history as we know it did not really start until the modern period. So it’s something that really came about through Japan’s renewed interaction with the Western intellectual traditions. And Japan learned how to establish a narrative of Japanese art based on the Western conventions. And within that, tekagami held an interesting position because of the appraisal system that it used. And calligraphy was the highest of the high form of art in East Asia throughout history, until the modern time. And it was surpassed by the Western understanding of art hierarchy and painting and sculpture became sort of top and calligraphy went down a few notches.
But the appraisal system that the Edo period professional appraisers were using sort of got carried over to calligraphy studies. And until very recently, scientific study of paper was not really conducted on calligraphy pieces. And a lot of the identification of these calligraphy pieces were based on the connoisseurial eye of the scholars.
So now that we’re doing scientific analysis of paper, scholars are realizing that there are many pieces that were identified to be authentic somebody-somebody was actually an Edo period piece, because the paper was Edo period paper. So that’s one.
The other is how to think about it in terms of the Edo context. If you were to think about history as a kind of consensus, then tekagami definitely was something that built that consensus for Edo period people. Tekagami had a convention on how to organize things. And even in the seventeenth century, there was a very popular printed version of a tekagami that came out in the mid-seventeenth century that had a preface that said history of Japanese calligraphy begins with Emperor Shōmu.
So there is a sense of a beginning of a history of calligraphy. So if that’s what people were thinking about and learning, then tekagami practice and tekagami as object was an instigator in formulating certain kind of consensus about history of calligraphy in Japan. Then that had a lot to do with the history of art history, I think.
CUNO: Ok, let me combine a couple of questions here at the end, as we wrap up. First, what did you find especially surprising or illuminating about your colloquium? And second, what are the next steps in your research into tekagami? Akiko?
WALLEY: So the colloquium was a collaborative effort. But from my part, in many respects, I sort of steered it so that it’s most beneficial for me. So there were many illuminating aspects to listening to all the presentations. But one aspect that was particularly illuminating to me was the fact that we were able to make it into kind of a transdisciplinary and transperiod gathering of scholars, and inviting not just scholars in Japan studies and East Asia, but also from Middle East and Western context. And I was quite especially happy to invite David Brafman and Caroline Lafurier, who were able to provide insights into aspects of contemporary LA graffiti culture, for instance, and in ancient Mediterranean, and how the writing interacted with sound. And all of that, I think, informs my work on tekagami as I move forward.
KAMENS: Well, both Akiko and I have developed websites that are focused on our respective tekagami of interest. Hers in the University of Oregon’s special collections, and the Yale Beinecke tekagamijō. These websites are very different in their formats, but we both seek to assemble, along with high quality, high resolution digital images of each sample in each of these tekagami, as much metadata about them as we can.
We’ve talked about the fact that in a certain sense, what each text says matters less than many other factors. Nevertheless, we do wanna know what the text says. In the case of the Yale album, we’ve been able to read and identity the source of about 85- to 90% of our 140-some samples. So there’s still a little work of basic decipherment and reading to be done, and to add that to the metadata.
But beyond that, why would that information be of any use? My hope is that as we move forward with our Japanese and European colleagues who have great interest in this genre of artifacts, that we can move beyond the extremely expensive work of publishing as books, photographic reproductions of the content of tekagami to a widely open, sharable, digitized format on the web that would allow us to compare the content of all the major tekagami that we could assemble in such an aggregated site.
So that then we can see, indeed, how that page from what is supposed to be Shōmu’s copy of that sutra from the eighth century looks beside the page that’s in three or four or five other tekagami that might be scattered around the world. And likewise, the twelfth century copy of my tenth century Buddhist tale collection, I can see perhaps all the pages of it that are in tekagami here and there and lay them side by side and be able to develop a different story about how these fragmented texts have traveled, what their journeys have been through time, whose hands have they passed through, and how have they come to rest, say, in the vaults of the University of Oregon’s special collections or the Beinecke Library or the British Library, and so forth?
CUNO: Well, it sounds like there’s a lot of work to be done. But I wanna thank you both for joining me on this podcast, and we look forward to seeing what comes next, of tekagami. Thank you.
KAMENS: Thank you.
WALLEY: Thank you.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Mike Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and more resources, visit or if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at Thanks for listening.

JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
AKIKO WALLEY: To really read into the fragment that you have in front of you and to imagine the rest ...

Music Credits
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824

Logo for Art Plus Ideas podcast
This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
See all posts in this series »