The discovery of a multitude of multi-purpose mokkan

Mokkan used in Sagami Province (AD 733) Yokohama History Museum

Mokkan used in Sagami Province (AD 733) Yokohama History Museum

More than 100,000 wooden tablets (called mokkan) have been uncovered from around 300 sites in Japan, including the palaces at Heiankyo, Fujiwara-kyo, Naniwakyo, Asuka Kiyomihara no miya and Nagaokakyo, as well as at the remote military outposts of Dazaifu and Tagajo. The largest finds were the 30,000 mokkan unearthed from the ruins of the residence of Prince Nagaya (676, 684-729).

The oldest mokkan date from mid-7th century and the dates of the artefacts continue through the 8th century.

Mokkan wooden tablets were instrumental in administrative, logistics and commercial activities

Mokkan wooden tablets were instrumental in administrative, logistics and commercial activities (Yokohama History Museum)

Uses of Mokkan

Mokkan were used for many purposes – they were used as charms, as scroll tags, for calligraphy or for jotting notes. But mostly, mokkan are associated with uses as labels on tax goods; record-keeping or directives dealing with the movement of goods and people within the palace precincts, requests for commodities, summonses, permits, etc. In other words, they were important tools for administrative, logistics and mercantile and trade purposes.

The origin of mokkan

Mokkan had their beginnings in the invention of bamboo slips of the Shang dynasty in China. The mokkan were used to denote appointments or ritual promises and the writing held the power of a sacred oath and sanctified the appointments. The mokkan were then placed on ancestral altars or sunk in rivers.



Allan, Sarah (1991), The shape of the turtle: myth, art, and cosmos in early China, SUNY series in Chinese philosophy and culture, SUNY Press,ISBN 0791404609

Oldest koseki record unearthed at the Kokubumatsumoto

Oldest Mokkan with Family Register Discovered at Dazaifu, Jun. 14, 2012: 

Archaeological excavations at Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture, have unearthed the nation’s oldest mokkan with a family register. A mokkan is a strip of wood used for keeping records during the Nara period and in China. Judging from the language used, it dates from 701 or earlier. It is also a valuable discovery because it demonstrates that the family registration system dates from at least the 8th century.

The Center is open from 09:00~17:00 and closed on the 18th of June. For further information call Dazaifu City Education and Culture Department: 092-921-2121. The artifact was on display at the Dazaifu City Bunka Fureai Center from the 16th-24th of June, 2012.

Photos copyright: Heritage of Japan

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