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The Fascination of Japanese lacquer Inro and Boxes

A personal view by John Neville Cohen


Japanese lacquer inro and boxes are such incredibly beautiful works of art, particularly, pieces from the late 18th and early 19th century.  I consider many of them to rate very highly, amongst the finest treasures of the World!

Without I hope being too technical, my intention is to use and to explain the terms and names, that are most commonly in use.  This way readers who might be tempted to look at sale catalogues, will be more able to appreciate and understand the descriptions. 

Inro Fashion
With the introduction of the kimono, the 'Inro' became one of the most important and essential fashion accessories used to carry on ones person such items as ink seals and medicines. 

The Kimono had no pockets so the inro was a clever container, consisting of a number of interlocking small separate sections, all held together on a silk cord and worn hanging from the sash tied at the waist.  Soon it evolved from a purely functional item to one of very high fashion, and the designs and decoration gradually became richer, finer and even more lavish.

Netsuke and Ojime
A bead known as an 'Ojime' kept the various sections closed tight together.  A toggle normally a small wood or ivory carving known as a 'Netsuke' would also be threaded on to the silk cord.  The netsuke (these are such superb little sculptures) would be pushed up under the sash (known as the 'Obi') that was tied round the waist, and would thus hold the inro hanging below.

The silk cord would have had to be about 56 inches long, and was threaded in such a way, that about 3 to 4 inches of the cord would show below the 'Obi' to the 'Ojime' and inro.  Are you still with me?  Under the inro a many-looped special bow was formed, with normally six loops all of the same size.  There would only be one knot and this would be hidden in the larger of the two cord holes, within the netsuke.  No loose ends would be visible. 

Sometimes a 'Manju' would be used instead of the netsuke.  These are rather like a thick pocket watch shaped carving, comprising two sections that open up.  The lower piece has a central hole, and an eyelet for the cord is fixed inside the upper section.  Once attached to the cord, the knot would remain hidden inside but unlike the netsuke, the carving or decoration of a manju is only two-dimensional.

The earliest 'Ojime' were simply a drilled bead, often of coral, as they had faith in a superstition that coral would disintegrate if near to poison.  Quite valuable to them, if only it had been true, as they carried and took some very strange medicines.  Later semiprecious stones and ivory were used, some of them are beautifully carved, and there are also many very fine metal ojime.  Today collectors even specialise in just ojime and they have become quite valuable.

I do think it is rather a shame that so many of these items are now collected separately, when they really all belong together. 

For many years there have been netsuke collectors, and I can appreciate why, as they are complete artworks, as well as being wonderful handling pieces.  Anyway, so many netsuke collectors given time find they are tempted by inro too!  I always considered myself to be rather a specialist collector, but I would not be happy to own inro, without ojime or netsuke, as they would seem so incomplete!  I could not imagine being satisfied with only collecting the ojime, beautiful as some of them are.  Obviously these high prices have been the main reason for such specialisation! 

Keeping Lacquer
Great care needs to be taken when handling lacquer, as it can so easily be damaged by knocks.  The most common cause occurs when the inro is picked up, for if the netsuke is allowed to swing and bump into the inro, the lacquer will dent and chip. 

One should always try to hold the silk cord when inspecting inro, rather than finger the lacquer, as there is something in our perspiration that dulls the shine in time. 

All lacquer is best kept in a reasonably humid atmosphere avoiding sudden changes of temperature.  This is not so difficult to arrange in this country, it is simply a matter of keeping a bowl of water in the same cabinet and avoiding the use of any hot spot lights.

Lacquer Boxes
Most of the early boxes were made to keep things in, such as 'Suzuribako', these were fully fitted writing boxes that contained the ink block, water dropper, all the brushes and tools.  Some were fitted with all the requirements for pastimes such as the 'Incense Game' or the 'Shell Game', whilst others were designed as picnic sets. 

A lot of lacquer boxes were used as a means of packaging, for deliveries of documents, or sweet cakes and gifts.

The practice used to be that once filled with gifts, they were then simply wrapped in a material that was formed into a sack.  This was then carried, over the shoulder, by the messenger and delivered.  The recipient would later have all the boxes returned, normally with a note and something little in them, as a gift to say thank you, and so these boxes would be used over and over again. 

They all are beautifully decorated and it is surprising to us that these boxes were not, in those days, considered more valuable. 

The Designs
Nearly all the designs were taken from early classical literature, paintings or woodblocks.  Printed picture books had become very popular in the 17th century.  They hardly ever had any text, but many of the illustrations were copied and used by lacquer artists, in the same way as other craftsmen had done, such as enamellers, potters and metal workers.  This is why we find various popular scenes recurring in inro, such as the young herdsman playing the flute next to his resting ox, and 'Rosei's dream' is another subject frequently found.

The photograph of an inro depicting Rosei's dream is a very fine example: it shows him partially hidden by his fan that is inlaid with a very thin piece of iridescent shell.  At certain angles of light his face can clearly be seen.  On the reverse, in superbly fine gold work, is the subject of his dream. He is dreaming of his ride in a stately court procession.  This inro is Signed Komo Kyuhaku.

John Neville Cohen: An International award winning photographer who also became a well known Asian antiques collector and an enthusiast of Jensen British classic cars.  Other interests are skiing and Salsa dancing.  The author has been a very keen collector for many years in helping to create 'The Cohen collection'.    Please have a look at: -   

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