Inrō – Japanese Box

Bekesy-034

Inrō were used by men to carry seals, medicines and aromatic herbs. Later, they became mainly decorative accessories, especially when the sumptuary laws, which regulated things such as the design of clothing, were in force. The custom of wearing inrō probably began in the early 17th century. Japanese clothing, for both men and women, lacked pockets. Women could place small items in the arms and in the belt, while it was mainly the men who attached their possessions to the belt.

Inrō, tobacco pouches and boxes were laced together with a silk cord and a sliding bead to hold the cord together. At the end, a netsuke (miniature sculpture in the form of a toggle, often exquisitely carved from ivory or wood) was attached; this held the inrō tightly attached and prevented it from sliding down from the belt. How the accessories looked varied according to the wearer's taste, finances and the fashion of the day. When western clothing became popular at the end of the 19th century, the necessity of these objects decreased. It was not uncommon for inrō, with their various parts, to be divided up and sold to westerners.

Each inrō was the product of time-consuming precision craftsmanship. Well made inrō were completely airtight and were made in three to four sections. The wooden core had to dry out for several years, after which the lacquer artist applied many layers of lacquer. This contributed to inrō becoming desirable status symbols.

Image texts

Portable box (inro) decorated in relief with dragonflies (symbol of late summer). Toggle (netsuke), a miniature ivory sculpture in the form of a bat. Sliding bead (ojime) of root or hazel. The inro is gold lacquered and decorated with inlays of lead, mother of pearl, malachite and turtle shell. Photograph: Karl Zetterström

Illustration: Carolina Ståhlberg