Object: Inrō

E/1956/18/2
Inrō box
Japanese
Japan
20th century
Materials: ceramic, glaze, cord

Traditional Japanese clothing like the kimono, hakama, yukata, jūnihitoe, and uwagi didn’t have pockets, which meant that most personal items had to be carried by hand. Often containers, called sagemono, were hung from belts, or obi, to help carry small objects like personal seals, tobacco, pipes, or writing brushes. One of the most common types of these containers was the inrō. Inrō, which literally means “seal basket” were small containers consisting of one or more compartments held together by a cord. The ends of the cord are passed through a sliding bead, called a ojime, and the ends are secured by a toggle, called a netsuke. While inrō and netsuke started off as basic utilitarian objects they evolved over time to become symbols of wealth and status.

The following video shows how to tie a traditional Japanese obi.

This example of an inrō is made of glazed ceramic but most traditional inrō are made of lacquer. Japanese lacquer is made from the sap of the Lacquer tree (Rhus verniciflua). Native to China, this tree is in the same family as poison oak and ivy. In its raw state the sap is also poisonous (not so when it hardens), and apprentices can take years to build up a tolerance. Japanese lacquer objects are made by applying many layers of the liquid sap over a wooden or leather form and allowing it to harden. The sap can also be mixed with ash or sawdust to create a putty (thayo) which can be sculpted. The natural sap is almost clear, but it was often mixed with charcoal or cinnabar to produce black or red. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

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