Nihon Zatsuroku
An Online Japanese Miscellany

= Jinmaku =

by Anthony J. Bryant

      Curtains are often used to segregate or otherwise delineate spaces. They are ephemeral, for they can be set up, rearranged, or taken down, as the spaces they create and functions they define are temporary. They serve to keep out wind, to keep out prying eyes, and even to provide a sense of purpose to the space they define.

      The word “jinmaku” literally means “camp curtain.” These are commonly seen in battle scrolls surrounding the headquarters of a given army. They are also readily visible in films such as Kagemusha, Ran, and Shôgun. Similar curtains are also readily seen in pictures from the Heian period where they are set up in the courtyard of a nobleman’s estate to demarcate areas for some festive or religious purpose, or in temples and shrines.

      The terms “jinmaku” and “tobari” are often used and taken to be interchangeable for camp curtains and the like, but technically, jinmaku are camp curtains in the military sense, and tobari are the screens used for other purposes, like as backdrops or sectioning devices at religious, social, and private functions.

      The earliest tobari were made of vertical strips of various colors in a repeating pattern which was held together by a long horizontal strip running along the top and the base. Often, as shown at left, the strips were decorated with a repeating floral or mon motif over and over. This motif may be the same on all the strips (invariably white on colored strips or black on white ones) or different designs on different colors.

      The tobari above and left is a very common pattern for the Heian style, and is still seen as the backdrop for outdoor gagaku concerts and many other functions. They might even be used indoors for this purpose, though modern curtains in common use among the public at large tend to be alternating white and red stripes with a red horizontal band at top and bottom (for festive occasions) and alternating blue and white (for funerals). At right is another common pattern.

      The loom-widths of Japanese weavers set the spans for each panel. It made construction very simple, as seams were sewn on the selvage.

      Curtains intended for outdoors made in this fashion suffered in high winds, and could almost turn into sails as they billowed in the wind. To alleviate that problem, makers began to create curtains with horizontal strips, and often left unsewn gaps regularly situated between the strips which formed openings through which wind could blow. As time passed, the ordering and placement of these holes became— in some quarters at least — standardized, and each hole was even given its own unique (and poetic) name.

      Rules of etiquette came to apply to these holes, and for instances when people might be allowed to look into the closed off space through these holes, it was a rule that men of such-and-such a rank would be allowed to look through the top-most holes, men of lesser rank through the second level of holes, and the men of the least rank through the bottom set of holes. (Hey, I don’t make this stuff up.)

      This horizontal pattern became a near-standard for the jinmaku used so often during military campaigns. Certainly by the Muromachi period they were in wide use; but they were not the only form.

      Some still used vertically sewn panels, but with a single horizontal unifying panel across the top. In this model, the bottom was allowed to have an opening up to about a foot tall between every few pairs of panels just to make it a bit less likely to blow out. Pictured at right is one such model.

      As early as the twelfth century, if one is to judge by the iconographic evidence, jinmaku were being decorated with the crest of the owner. Of course, at this time period there was no clear usage of heraldry — so any designs were likely just those the owner’s liked (many being based on fabric designs). At any rate, this design could take the form of large (two- and three-foot diameter) crests dyed in the center of each panel or at a points along the curtain, or smaller (one-foot diameter) crests dyed every few feet either in a line along the upper half, or even zig-zagging up and down across the length of the curtain.

      Some military professionals (the same people that suggested different holes should be used for peeking by different ranks) suggested a standardization of mon placement and size that could be used to identify whose camp — and whose curtains — they were, based on the position of the commander/owner in his household. The chart below depicts the placement and sizes of crests set out in the Gun’yôki, a manual of military equipment, disposition and function.


Making tobari and jinmaku

      As a rule, both jinmaku and tobari are six feet tall from base to top, but they have no set width. For most tobari, eighteen feet would seem to be a good base width. As necessary, they would be linked together side by side to form a space of whatever dimensions would be required. Note that the width of the curtain is irrelevant to the placement of the support poles, as you can have supports in the middle of the curtain just as easily as at the ends. On a windy day, you’d be glad to have a few supports in the middle.

      We are blessed with the ability to get fabric in widths up to sixty inches, rendering much of the piecework going into making tobari and jinmaku unnecessary for all but the most purist-minded among us. I like to recommend Trigger for camp curtains, as they really can survive quite well out in the worst weather Kaminari-sama can inflict. Though it might be heavier than the original, a set of Trigger (or other poly-cotton–blend broadcloth) should survive for years.

      Feel free to use solid panels, but remember that this means you have a maximum depth of five feet, and if you run the cloth horizontally you will still have to add a foot as running length along the top (or bottom) to make the six feet. If you’re using the same color, that’s fine, but it would look odd with that one-foot section added to a five-foot one. To eliminate this problem, you could do what I once did; the bottom one foot was black, the body was gold, and the silkscreened mon were in a suitable (in my case, red) color.

      If you really are into doing things right, and have the time, you might want to cut the fabric down to a width that will allow for five panels that when sewn together total six feet. That means 14 1/2" of finished fabric (cut it with a width 15 1/2" to allow for some good, strong French seams). As for the length — go as far as you want, up to twenty-four feet.

      Along the top, every foot or so, sew a loop of heavy-duty webbing and really cross-sew that thing in place. It needs to be there permanently. This forms the “channel” through which the rope than holds the curtain up will run.

      At either end, at the top, bottom, and at the joins of all the panels (or three more, evenly spaced, if you’re using a solid panel), sew two strips of the same webbing about eight to ten inches long. These will be used to tie to the support pole at the side of the curtain.

      The supports themselves can be done in one of two ways; the original, authentic method, or a more easy to work with modern method. Originally, metal rods were used, and these were thrust into the ground. They were a bit over seven feet long, with a sharpened base that would allow about one foot to be shoved down. At the six-feet-from-the-ground position, a hook or loop juts out from the pole. This loop or hook holds up the rope that supports the curtain. A modern method would be just to use six-foot wooden dowels or similar rods that fit into “portable holes” you drive into the ground, and have a hook or eye attached to the six-foot point. Obviously, you can’t jam poles into the floor if you’re setting this up indoors, so you’ll need some sort of solid base (like those used to support flagpoles) if you plan to set up on a floor.

      If the construction of jinmaku and tobari sounds simple, it’s because it is. The only problem with them is their great bulk. But they can make a campsite look so impressive.




  This page was last modified on: 12/15/2014

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