Japanese Inro - Originally used for carrying seals and medicines, the inro became the ultimate fashion accessory, embellished with lacquerwork, gold and silver. Traditional Japanese garments such as the kimono had no pockets, so the inro proved to be a useful container. By the 16th century, it was being used for carrying medicines or other small objects: the sections of an inro fit so closely together that anything kept inside will keep fresh for some time. However, by the 18th century, inro were being made in such numbers as to suggest that they were being used purely as decorative adornments.

 

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Japanese Inro
 
 Originally used for carrying seals and medicines, the inro became the ultimate fashion accessory, embellished with lacquerwork, gold and silver.

 The inro (literally a 'seal-basket') is a portable container with a number of interlocking sections. It was first used in China for holding personal seals and paste, and was probably brought to Japan some time in the 14th century.

 Traditional Japanese garments such as the kimono had no pockets, so the inro proved to be a useful container. By the 16th century, it was being used for carrying medicines or other small objects: the sections of an inro fit so closely together that anything kept inside will keep fresh for some time. However, by the 18th century, inro were being made in such numbers as to suggest that they were being used purely as decorative adornments.

 The inro was hung from the belt (obi) by a cord, usually of silk, which passed through tubular holes running down either side of the case. This cord was pulled tight by a bead pierced with a single hole (olime) and suspended from a toggle (netsuke) caught above the belt at the waist; the excess cord was tied in an elaborate bow beneath the inro.

 The way the inro was worn determined its size (around 7-12cm/3-5in long) and its shape, which was usually flattened so that it lay flush against the body. An inro can have just one compartment with a lid, but most have three to six compartments.

 A MALE ACCESSORY

 Small containers such as the inro and other items like the tobacco pipe and pouch were carried mostly by men, and were traditionally worn on the right side of the body. As trade prospered in the 18th century, the rising middle class began to commission lacquer artists to make them inro. By the 19th century, inro were being worn by all classes of society.

 Most inro were made from lacquer. The basic ingredient of lacquer is the sap of the oriental urushi tree, which is bled between 4 une and November. Most inro were of lacquer over a wooden core (often hinoki cypress), but some were of thin leather, hemp cloth or mulberry paper coated in lacquer.

 A PAINSTAKING PROCESS

 A layer of lacquer was applied to the core and the piece was placed in the drying cabinet and then polished. This time-consuming process was repeated again and again - some pieces were decorated with more than 100 layers of lacquer. It was only when the final layer of lacquer was added that the elaborate decoration of an item could begin. An inro could take months to finish.

 The most important method of decoration involved sprinkling gold or silver powder on the moist lacquer with a bamboo quill. The artist could then produce various textures, some with small areas of gold or a whole surface with the appearance of solid gold.

 INRO COLLECTOR'S NOTES
You will need considerable resources to build a large collection of inro, but, if you have the opportunity, there many areas in which to specialise. Subject matter is an obvious one. During the 18th and 19th centuries the range of subject matter expanded to encompass every aspect of life from landscape scenes to mammals, fish, fruit and flowers. In addition, there was the portrayal of figures from Japanese history and folklore, as well as Japanese working life in all its forms, both urban and rural.

 Some inro featured images from Shintoism and Buddhism, while others had scenes from the theatre or local festivals. Many schools and artists had their favourite sketches, and designs were handed down through generations. Leading painters of the day provided books of designs to be used on inro.

 By the mid-19th century, designs adapted from the Ukiyo-e school of painting and woodblock prints were used on lacquerwork, including portraits of Kabuki actors and pictures of ladies in flowing kimonos holding fans and wearing large hairpins. Many artists, however, preferred to maintain the more subtle designs of famous predecessors, some of whose motifs could be traced back to medieval Chinese paintings.

 Good 19th-century inro are often lavish in their gold designs, or else superbly subtle in their lacquer techniques and finishes, and condition is a determining factor in their price. Remember that restoration is a lengthy and expensive business. Buy an inro only if the subject matter and design interest you.

 Inro should not be placed near radiators as these affect the wood base, and the lacquer then cracks and flakes. Keep water nearby to maintain moisture in the air and prevent cracking. Clean them with a soft cloth.


 


 

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