Monday, June 20, 2016

The Japanese Inro and Netsuke

Today, I'm going to take a look at the ancient Japanese pill case/wallet: the Inro, as well as the button that holds the inro on the obi (sash): the Netsuke. This article is a little more technical than my usual posts, so bear with me. And, as with my last post, I cite my references at the end of the article.

An inro is a Japanese medicine case, consisting of at least three compartments. Some inro can have as many as five compartments. Each of the compartments has two holes, one on either side, to allow a cord to run through. The cord serves to keep the compartments nestled together and closed. A small bead can be slid up or down the length of the cord, depending on whether the user wants the inro to be open or closed. “Originally, as its name implies, a little bag or wicker- work receptacle for holding the seal (in signifies seal, and ro, a bamboo basket) which in Japan took the place of a written signature, the inro was subsequently made of wood, lacquered black; and thereafter being converted into a tiny medicine chest … three to four inches long and two or two and a half inches wide, its corners rounded and its thickness reduced so that it was always handy and never obtrusive.”

Unlike some inro, which are purely decorational, these three lacquered inro are well used pill containers, each of which depicts Matsushima. Inro will have a netsuke tied into the color scheme, and sometimes the theme, of the inro. In one instance, there is an inro that depicts a cat chasing a mouse. The netsuke depicts a cat with a mouse in its mouth. Each inro takes a great deal of time and patience to assemble and lacquer. Sometimes, assembling an inro can take even longer than normal if the creator had to discard an earlier version. The depictions of Matsushima on these inro represent the Japanese’s love of the islands. Matsushima supports the title of San-kei, one of the three most beautiful scenes, which happens to coincide with how many inro we will be discussing.

 Also an important part of the inro is the netsuke. The netsuke associated with an inro may or may not obviously tie into the theme of the inro. For instance, an inro might be decorated with white cranes, but the nestuke might be three turtles. Generally, though the netsuke will match the inro, at least in colour scheme. The inspiration for the nestuke, as well as the inro, may come from any of a number of different sources. “[The] netsuke … [draws] from a large repertoire of motives; from the pages of history, of legend, of folk-lore, and of every-day life.” “Sometimes the netsuke is simply a reproduction of natural objects - flowers, plants, animals, or fish, but penetrated with a sense of natural beauty and enlivened with a gay humour which is eminently and almost unfailing characteristic of the Japanese, and of their naturalistic art.”

The origin of inro or when they started being used regularly is not entirely known. Nor can it be agreed upon when inro went from being purely functional to becoming artistic masterpieces.

“We know little of the origin of the inro. As regards the date of its introduction, an official handbook to Japanese Art industries, published at Tokyo Museum, states that they came into fashion during the period Keicho (1596-1614) ; another authority states that Iwasa Matahei, the founder of the Ukiyo school of painting, who died early in the 17th century, was the first to decorate them artistically. It would seem, then, that in no case have we authority for assigning an earlier date than the beginning of the 17th century to any specimen.”

 One of the most important features of an inro is the lacquer. While some inro do not use lacquer, as in the case of woven lacquer, the inro we are looking at are lacquered. The lacquer that the Japanese use is acquired from ‘trees of great age’ through a process that will eventually kill the tree. “‘Lac’ is the gum of the ‘urushi’ tree … Each ten year old tree yields, by incision, two to three ounces of sap, and the process of extraction destroys the tree either in one or two years, according to the method employed.”

The lacquer is used at the bed for the design of the inro. The lacquering process “requires two basic coats of lacquer: a bed coat and a cover coat.” The bed coat holds the powder used to make the design. “Powders do not adhere to a dry surface. They are sprinkled on a moist, sticky lacquer bed. After this has dried … a layer of cover lacquer is applied to the powdered area.” The process of lacquering an inro involves not only layering on the lac, but also allowing the lac to dry in a special set up. “Nearly all the objects in lac … are made … by the use of lacquer laid on in successive layers, and hardened in damp presses.” The wood that the inro is made of, and thus the ‘canvas’ for the lac, is an important component. The wood selected is generally a wood known as Honoki. “The basis of these [inro] in lacquer is one or other kind of selected woods, chosen for their capability of receiving a finely polished surface, and as not being liable to warp.”

 The process of making an inro is long and, one might say, tedious. The maki-e-shi, the master lacquerer, sprinkles powdered gold, silver, gold-silver alloy, etc. carefully on to the wet lacquer, as was discussed above. Flakes of the same materials may also be used. The metal is then coated with another lacquer layer, and is allowed to dry. The lacquer coating is not beautiful and shiny by nature. It takes countless hours of polishing to bring out the shine. After the lacquer has dried, the maki-e-shi will slowly work away at all of the lacquer, especially over the sprinkled powder with a dog-tooth polisher. The maki-e-shi can’t work at the lacquer too much. If the lacquer over the metal is completely worn away, the maki-e-shi will discard all of his work and start over.

 In the case of Inro 3, it is more likely that a lacquering technique descended from Tsugaru lacquering. “Lacquer is inlaid on lacquer of various colours. It is done by carving out the pattern on the coloured ground, filling in the cavity with lacquer of the desired colour, and then rubbing it down until the pattern comes out sharp and clear.” Since the colour of the islands does not have the quality of Inro 1 and 2, which appear to be made with gold, it seems likely that Inro 3 was made by the Tsugaru-esque process.

The inro we are looking at each have a different lacquer applied to them. Inro 1 appears to have a golden lacquer applied over a red lacquer. Inro 2 has had roiro urushi, a shiny, black lacquer, applied to it. And inro 3 has what appears to be a shu or benigara urushi, a red lacquer. The material used for the design on the inro are different for each inro. Inro 1 was made with kinji koban, a shiny gold. Like inro 1, inro 2’s design was also made with kinji koban. Inro 3, however, has a matte appearance to the design. This could be because a fundame koban, a matte gold, was used. It could also be that the design was created with a darker lacquer under the lighter cover coat.

 The netsuke itself, while part of the inro, is a piece all on it’s own, a miniature, fine piece of sculpture. “Belonging strictly to the category of costume, but elevated to the rank of art-products by the beauty of their workmanship and the wealth of fancy lavished on their modelling and ornamentation, the netsuke, djime, kagami-buta, kana-mono, and kuda-kusari must be accorded a high place in any account of Japanese sculpture.” The function of the netsuke is to keep the inro on the girdle of the owner. It would function as a button at the top of the girdle, allowing the string to lay beneath the girdle, while the inro hung down, easily accessible. “The dress of the Japanese having no pockets, except the recesses of the sleeves, which could not be used for anything heavy, it has been the custom, from a remote era, to attach to the girdle various objects of every-day service … ne means ‘root’ or ‘end,’ and tsuke, ‘to fasten.’”

 The netsuke attached to each inro are each made of a different material. The netsuke associated with inro 1, netsuke 1a/b, is most likely made out of a whale bone. The netsuke depicts what is most likely chrysanthemums on one side, and something that could be a persimmon on the other side. Netsuke 2a/b/c is made out of bone, potentially a thigh bone. It seems to be a kappa, a creature of Japanese legend. And netsuke 3a/b is wood with a brown lacquer coating. It’s hard to tell what is represented in this netsuke; it is not immediately obvious, or at all obvious. The material it is made of is a common material for older netsuke.

Almost as much work went into creating the netsuke as went into the inro. Each netsuke, as we discussed above, is a miniature sculpture, with as much effort in sculpting it as a full-sized sculpture.

 As to the creators of each inro, there is generally a seal marked somewhere on the piece. “Many of the signatures are of men of whom nothing is known, although in other cases only the family name is given, leaving the date quite uncertain, although others again are of somewhat doubtful authenticity.” Some inro will have the seal on the netsuke, as in the case of Inro 2, where the seal is on the base of the kappa on a rock. Others will have the seal on the inro, itself.

Although each inro has a different type of material that went into creating it, each inro depicts the same scene of Matsushima. Matsushima is “located in the bay of Matsushima, along the northeast coast of the mainland. It consists of 260 small islands adorned with [ines, intricate shorelines, and strange and amusingly shaped rocks. The geological form of this whole area is called rias, which resulted from the submergence of the Matsushima hills cause by a geological fault.

 “This scenic place has been celebrated throughout Japanese history. For example, a garden constructed in the ancient capital of Kyoto by a ninth century aristocrat included a miniature representation of Matsushima … It also provided a subject matter for noted painters, such as Tarawaraya Sotatsu … and Ogata Korin.” Each of the islands of Matsushima has a name. “One, for instance, being designated ‘Buddha's Entry into Nirvana,’ whilst a little bunch of a dozen is called ‘The Twelve Imperial Consorts.’”

It’s interesting to look at the different representations of Matsushima. In inro 1 and 3, the same island prominence is represented, as are the little houses and islands in the distance. It is interesting to note, however, that one is at a slightly different angle from the other. It's easy to see that the inro depicts almost the same, exact view from the tall, protruding rock featured in the foreground. Inro 2 also depicts the Matsushima islands, but it doesn't have the same tall, protruding island. It does have the waves and multiple islands, similar to the other inro. It's also possible that the tall island to the right is the same protruding rock of the other two inro, but from a very different angle.

Considering Sotatatsu's depiction of the Matsushima islands, yet another angle is portrayed. All the inro are similar to Sotatsu's painting in that each has two islands, one on the right and one on the left. Sotatsu's painting has an island on the left that looks like an upside-down 'u.' In inro 1 and in Matsusima's painting, the larger islands are depicted with smaller outcroppings of rocks around the base of the island. It's interesting to note that both of the taller islands depicted in the painting and on inro 1 seem to be representing islands that are roughly the same size. This could be because the painting is depicting the backside of the island on inro 1. Inro 1 and the painting are also the only two pieces we are considering that show pines growing on the islands.

The inro not only serve in functionality, but also as beautiful pieces of sculpture. The process of making such a beautiful inro is a time consuming one, but the results are amazing. Even in the utilitarian inro we looked at, the representation of the Matsushima islands was comparable in quality to Sotatsu's painting of the same subject. I think that inro are summed up best by the following quote:

“‘It has been with justice said,’ says Mr. M. Gonse, ‘that works in lac are the most perfect objects which ever issued from the hands of man; at the very least they are the most delicate. These productions have been for long ages, and still are, the glory of the Japanese.’”


Brinkley, Frank. Japan, It’s History, Arts and Literature: The Goddess of Fortune, Volume VII. J. B. Millet and Company, 1902.

Bushnell, Raymond. The Inrō Handbook: Studies of Netsuke, Inrō, and Lacquer. Weatherhill, 1979.

Catalogue of Specimens of Japanese Lacquer and Metal Work. Burlington Fine Arts Club, 1894.

Hart, Ernest. Lectures on Japanese Art Work. Society for the Encouragement of Art, Manufactures, and Commerce, 1886.

---. “Notes on the History of Lacquer.”

Ponting, Herbert George. In Lotus-land Japan. J. M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., 1922.

The Pursuit of Comparative Aesthetics: An Interface Between East and West. Edited by Dr. Mazhar Hussain, Robert Wilkinson. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2006.

Transactions and Proceedings of the Japan Society, London, Volume 3 (1893­-95): 7­19.

Tomkinson, Michael. “Inro.” Transactions and Proceedings of the Japan Society, London, Volume 3 (1893­-95): 22­33.

Urushi: Proceedings of the Urushi Study Group, June 10–27, 1985, Tokyo. Edited by N. S. Brommelle, Perry Smith. Getty Publications, 1988.

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