For many years, the population of Japan’s Ryukyu Islands noted numerical values, calculation results, enumerations, and more with knotted cords from rice straw.
Even after World War II, fishermen, moneylenders and simple merchant were observed working with these cords of rice straw. Warazan were used as a simple calculation tool for adding, subtracting, multiplying but also to generate invoices and supporting documents. Laborers recorded their working results as well as crop yields.
But the local administration used this Warazan for accountancy as well. The already complicated calculation of taxes to be paid in kind, such as rice or fabrics or in cash required documents and “Conversion tables”.
Today this form of “writing“ is almost forgotten.
The meanings of these cords often differed from island to island. The greater the influence of the main island administration became, the more standardization became necessary. Also, the amount of information increases, and the information itself became more complex, so the warazan became even more complex. Later some were combined even with written letters.
Only a few examples of the Warazane were examined scientifically. Edmund Simon, a German ethnologist published an essay in the book “Asia Major” (Leipzig, 1924) in which he describes some Warazane in detail. This documentation serves as the basis for the replicas we made. It was the initiative of Mr. Ryska, CEO of the HNF Forum Paderborn, to bring this unusual way of writing in his museum for Information Technology in Paderborn, Germany.
Prof. Kichuki from Japan supported us with further information, images and especially with rice straw.
For me as an artist and weaver, the fascination of these strange characters is not so much in the importance of the individual nodes and strands. It is its complexity within the simplicity of the material which makes them very enigmatic in a subtle way — mysterious signs from a foreign land.
by Hansgert Butterweck, a basket maker, designer, artist who lives in Beverungen, Germany
His website is: butterweck-geflecht.de