Japanese screens, known as byobu in Japanese, originated in China as far back as the Han dynasty (206 B.C. ~ 220 A.D.). Byobu literally means "wind wall", so their original purpose was most likely blocking drafts in homes. The concept first arrived in Japan in the late Nara period, around 8th Century. During the Nara period and subsequent Heian period (794-1185), byobu design progressed from a standing single-panel screen to multiple-paneled folding screens, although the hinges were still Chinese-style metal ones.
In the Muromachi Period (1392-1568), as screens became more popular and common, the Japanese applied their own developments to the traditional Chinese design. The metal hinges were replaced with paper hinges, which allow folding in both directions, and make for a lighter, stronger design. Paper hinges are also more aesthetically pleasing, as the space between panels is vastly reduced, meaning that the painting can flow from panel to panel. At the same time, the frame construction became much lighter through use of a bamboo lattice frame and washi paper as the covering.
Screens as Status symbols
In the subsequent Azuchi-Momoyama (1568-1603) and Edo (1603-1868) periods, the popularity of byobu continued to increase, and samurai lords displayed screens in their homes as symbols of wealth and power. As a result, byobu began to be made using gold leaf backgrounds, and more colourful painting techniques than up until that time. The sheen from the gold leaf covering also helped bring light into the otherwise dark castles and homes of the period.
Screen making has been an industry in decline ever since the late Edo period. These days, there are very few places still making authentic byobu, and many are manufactured cheaply by machine in Tokyo (which has no screen-making tradition) or even imported from China. The maker of our screens, Iohara Seijudo in Kyoto, is a family-run business now in its 3rd generation, and the only screen studio in Japan still making screens from the very start to finish of the manufacturing process, entirely by hand.