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(1)Sappanwood - 蘇芳 (Suō) 


 It is an Olympic year, with the event being held in the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The name of the country, Brazil, derives from the sappanwood tree, which produces a red dye, called suō in Japanese. 

 Suō is generally written using the characters 「蘇芳」, but it has been alternatively written as 「朱芳」 or 「蘇方」 in Japanese, and also appears as 「蘇枋」 in Chinese references (such as the “nan fang cao mu Zhuang” (南方草木状) of Han Ji (嵇含), written in 304 CE). Originating from places like the Malay Archipelago in Southeast Asia, the tree was never grown in either China Proper or Japan, but was used as a source of medicine and red dye for a long time in both places. The name suō comes from the Malaysian sappang via supan in Chinese. 

 The sappanwood tree (Caesalpinia sappan) is an arborous tree of the Fabaceae family, and the red dye is contained in the heartwood and pods. In Japan, it was used from the Asuka era (550-710 CE) onward. From then until the Edo era (1603-1868 CE), under the name of soboku (蘇木) the heartwood, which is the source of the red dye, was an important item of trade, appearing frequently in the records. Sappanwood can dye textile (eg. silk) a rich red relatively easily with alum, while if the dye is used under an alkaline condition with an iron component, it colors violet. Therefore, it is thought to have been widely used for dyeing both red and violet.

 The existence of this tree in Southeast Asia became known in the 13th century to Europeans, who knew it then as bresil or brasil. This word stems from the Medieval Latin brasa, meaning glowing charcoal, so the word brasil refers to "the tree from which red dye is collected." The main red coloring matter in dyeing is called brazilin, and even today the general term for those trees containing brazilin is brazilwood, meaning "red wood." When Japanese sources mention "red wood" (赤木 or 紅木), they are thought to be referring to soboku as well.

Why did this red wood come to be the name of Brazil, the country? Actually there is a tree native to Brazil with the same brazilin red dye as the sappanwood. This is from the same Fabaceae family as the Southeast Asian sappanwood and is generally known as brazilwood or Pernambuco tree (named for the region of Pernambuco, where it grew). Strictly speaking, it is distinct from the Southeast Asian sappanwood, and its scientific name is Caesalpinia echinata Lamarck.

 In February 1500, the second Indian expedition led by Pedro Álvares Cabral drifted near the South American coastline. A member of the expedition realized that the trees growing near the shore were those that produced red dye. As a result of this discovery, the land was named Brazil and provided a new source of the red wood, which until then had had to be imported from Southeast Asia.

 Today these red trees are not used in dyes, but those from Pernambuco are valued as material for the bows for violins and other string instruments. This stems from an event some 200 years after the tree was discovered, when a French bow maker named François Tourte produced a bow from the Pernambuco tree. Vibrations made by Pernambuco bows are said to resist attenuation, resulting in clear notes. Interestingly, if the dye material is extracted beforehand, the wood loses its quality of resistance to attenuation. Since the discovery of the South American continent, the Pernambuco trees have been felled to provide materials for dyeing and later for bows, and today they are endangered and their export is restricted. We might think if the sappanwood can be used instead, but the Southeast Asian tree’s trunk is too slender to make good bows. 

 Even prior to its discovery by Europeans, the red dye of the Pernambuco tree was used by the indigenous population. Meanwhile it was also being used along the Silk Road, where  sappanwood-dyed textile from the 9th and 10th centuries was found in the archeological excavations. In Japan, the oxidized brazilin (brazilein) was found in a violet rug and a mulberry Go board among the Shōsōin treasures, what has shown using sappanwood for dyeing. Also, from its appearance in many historical documents and in classical literature like The Tale of Genji, we can surmise that sappanwood was used from a long time ago. Although it took different forms, the same red dye was being used on a global scale even before these different regions of the globe came into contact with one another.




The Asahi Shimbun Company (Ed): Some no Jiten『染めの事典:風土を映す人の技』 (Dictionary of dyeing: Reflecting local cultural by dyeing techniques)(Series, Textile culture, 1), The Asahi Shimbun Company, 1985.2. (in Japanese).

The Asahi Shimbun Company (Ed): Senshoku no Michi 『染織の道:文明交差の回廊』 (Roads of dyeing: Crossing civilizations, Series, Textile culture, 4), The Asahi Shimbun Company, 1985.8. (in Japanese).

Uemura, Rokuro: Nihon Jodai Somekusa-kou『日本上代染草考』(Essays concerning plant dyestuffs in ancient Japan), Ohokayama shoten, 1934, pp.169-171 (in Japanese).

Uemura, Rokuro: Tohou Sensyoku Bunka no Kenkyu『東方染色文化の研究』(Studies of dyeing culture in the Asia region), Dai-ichi shobou, 1933, pp.90-94 (in Japanese).

Nakamura, Rikiya and Naruse, Masakazu: HPLC analysis of dyes used in the Shosoin textiles, The pre-prints of the 38th annual conference, The Japan Society for the Conservation of Cultural Property, pp.32-33(2016) (in Japanese). [Accessed 12 June 2016]

Matsunaga, Masahiro.“Koubou mo yumi ha erabu –violin” (Even a maestro choses a bow—violin), 101 hints of enjoying ‘woody life’.Japan Forest Technology Association.p.106-107 (2001). (in Japanese) [Accessed 12 June 2016]

Judith H. Hofenk de Graaff: The colourful past: origins, chemistry and identification of natural dyestuffs. Abegg-Stiftung, Archetype, 2004, pp.141-143.

Dominique Cardon:Natural dyes: sources, tradition, technology and science. Archetype, 2007, pp.275-278.


(Written by: Yoshiko Shimadzu, The National Museum of Japanese History)


2016 February 2 (Tue.) - March 31 (Thu.)

Part 1: February 2 (Tue.) - February 28 (Sun.) 

Part 2: March 1 (Tue.) - March 31 (Thu.)

Organizer: Shizuoka City Tokaido Hiroshige Museum of Art

Designated Manager: NPO Hexaproject

Cooperation: Tohoku University of Art and Design, Department of Fine Arts

Textile Course

Public Foundation GALLERY A4

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