; ; ; 1 Feb 2017

Inrō: Craft, Fashion, Collector’s Item

Featuring Inrō from the Shibata Zeshin Calendar collection, with haikus by Vivien Chan, Sophie Châtellier, Olivia Gecseg, and Melissa Tyler.

From a gallery presentation in the Toshiba Gallery of Japanese Art, V&A, for the Everyday in Modern Asia module in May 2016.

Swings from man’s obi,
Hanging from silk and netsuke.
Why don’t you fall down?

by Olivia Gecseg
A set of twelve inrō, on display in the Toshiba Gallery of Japanese Art at the V&A, was designed and made by the important lacquer work craftsman, Shibata Zeshin, in 1865. Zeshin was a proud advocate of traditional Japanese techniques, defying the Westernisation of craft during one of the most significant periods of social change and upheaval in the history of Japan. [1]

Based on our discussions in class of the everyday in modern Asia, we made the decision to research this set of inrō because of their dichotomy of the practical and the ornamented. Inrō, segmented lacquer boxes, were originally made to store medicines and identity seals as far back as the 16th century (inrō literally translates as ‘seal basket’), but later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, they became fashion accessories and status symbols. We were also thinking about the everyday in Asia through Western eyes, and how these objects might have played into those imagined fantasies back in the 19th century, when inrō, and their counterparts, netsuke, started to become collectors items for Westerners.

Inrō were worn hung from the obi (or sash) of the man’s kimono. The netsuke – a carved toggle – was attached to the end of the silk cords, and latched over the top edge of the obi from the inside. There were no more fastenings, such as buttons or hooks involved, which meant that the inrō and netsuke were vastly interchangeable. Men used their obi to carry other possessions too, because of the lack of pockets in a kimono. Also dangling precariously from the obi, would have been money pouches, smoking paraphernalia, and swords.

Shibata Zeishin, Inrō, 1865 (made), V&A East Asia Collection, W.303-1922 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Created for the twelfth month, this sheath inrō, has a clever construction. The inner section functions as a typical inrō, with its segmented compartments, but this is entirely encased by an outer sheath and can be slid out. The inner part depicts two of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune, and the outer has been designed with a cut-out window, that allows us to see the image through the bamboo bars of a hut. The two parts represent the old and the new year respectively; my guess is that the outer section with the window is the old, that allows us to see through into the new year (or inner section of the inro). This design element makes this particular inrō a novelty piece, a kind of elegant gadget for a man to show off to his friends.

The Seven Gods of Fortune (Sichi Fukujin) are seven popular gods of good luck and happiness and represent the best characteristics of man. [2] The gods are honoured every New Year, which ties them in this case to the twelfth inrō. Ebisu is one of the most popular of the seven Gods because he is the god of fishermen (in an island nation) and he represents luck. He is depicted on the inro with an orange fish. Ebisu is the son of Daikoku, another popular god because he represents wealth. Since 1873 and the Meiji restoration, the New Year has been celebrated in Japan according to the Gregorian calendar (1st January). What this changed about the way New Year was celebrated is uncertain, but unofficial New Year festivities took place in Japan according to the lunar calendar until the 1950s. [3] One residual practice is the Setsubun (‘seasonal division’) festival that is celebrated on the 3rd February each year and is now part of the Spring Festival.

Which one should I wear?
The men are jealous of my
Finest ensembles.

by Vivien Chan
As well as quality, it was also about the quantity of inrō that a wealthy Japanese man owned. In the journal of Lord Matsuura Seizan, he says that ‘naturally it wouldn’t have done for me to have worn the same things repeatedly under those circumstances. Since I was continually changing my accessories, I developed a reputation for eccentricity.’ [4] The inrō served a social purpose in a time when sumptuary laws prohibited conspicuous displays of extravagance. Inrō became a canvas for wealth, decadence, taste and fashion that could easily be hidden behind a kimono sleeve if necessary. The fashion was competitive, giving rise to an explosion of production of high quality inrō ensembles. Men enjoyed exhibiting wit, poetry and style through clever combinations of imagery through the inrō, the netsuke and their kimono, adding to the theatre of their social gatherings, often taking place in bordellos and theatres.

This set in the V&A by Shibata Zeshin, dated to 1865, might be an example of a Japanese man’s collection of a fashionable accessory for adorning himself with, while keeping in mind the famous maker as added value to the status of the object. Each inrō in the set represents a particular month of the year, with imagery that often references a special celebration or seasonal event. The different shapes, colours and styles of each inrō highlights the need for contrast; difference from the previous design would attract more attention than the last. The collection points towards the everyday anxieties and frivolities in a wealthy Japanese man’s life, conscious of the continuity of his display on a day to day basis.

Shibata Zeishin, Inrō, 1865 (made), V&A East Asia Collection, W.311-1922 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The eighth inrō in the Zeshin set is made of black lacquer but in the form of a circular ink cake. The object has even been made to look used, purposefully designed with chipped and worn areas. This inrō in the set is the least colourful, but is nonetheless one of the most characterful, and particularly descriptive of the personality of the owner. Although several of the inrō in the set are designed to imitate other objects, this eighth inrō is more cryptic in narrative. The decorative carving is difficult to see from afar, in contrast to the other inrō in the set, which indicates that the overall form is the most important factor in the design. It is the distinct, matt blackness, probably against a bright or lightly coloured kimono, that would draw attention to the inrō in a different way to its flashy companions. This points to its tactic as a clever pun and an expression of taste.

The eighth month was well known for its beautiful moon, and was a time for indulgence and poetry in the light of the full moon. This inrō is thought to be depicting Getto, the ‘Capital of the Moon’, whilst also being a circular shape for a full moon. The mythological reference evokes a poetic and traditional storytelling, whilst the skeuomorphic imitation of an ink cake adds humour to the object, presenting the owner of the object as a man of taste and culture, but also of wit. The object is also a pun of itself, where the original use of an inrō was as a holder for identity seals and ink paste. These elements allude to the performativity of the object; it can be easily imagined that this object would become a talking point for the owner’s knowledge of Japanese stories, but also open up his interest in witty poetry and calligraphy.

I am from the West.
Collecting for their beauty.
My own Old Japan.

by Sophie Châtellier
There is a strong interest in things Japanese in 18th and 19th century Europe. Indeed, collectibles such as swords and armour, for example, were fashionable items that fed into feudal fantasies popular at the time. Objects were prized for their appearance and through the craftsmanship required to make them. Lacquerware, such as Inro, were seen as showcases of the exquisite skills of Japanese craftsmanship. In the collector’s eye, the Inro and the Netsuke become disembodied from their original purpose, and serve as objects of art in their own right. Indeed, Netsuke, through their intriguing appearance and – for non-Kimono wearers – puzzling use, were collected avidly, often without their matching Inro. In our research, books about Netsuke were predominant, and the interest in Inro comparatively somewhat less strong. In the V&A display we looked at, the Inro were separated from their Netsuke, and there was no male Kimono in the room, which could have referred to the ensemble of this -originally – fashion object.

Shibata Zeishin, Inrō, 1865 (made), V&A East Asia Collection, W.310-1922 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This Inro, in the shape of a silk-winder with a kaji, a mulberry leaf, represents the 7th month. The compartments of the Inro are visually delimited by different colours. Fine lines are drawn onto the red, gold, blue and green lacquer to reproduce the texture of fine silk thread. A couple of golden mulberry leaves are shown on the front, and their smooth surface contrasts with the subdued shine of the Inro’s texture.

The depiction refers to the festival of Tanabata, which takes place on the seventh day of the seventh month. The festival celebrates the yearly reunion of the Cowherd Star Hikoboshi (Altair) and the Weaver Star Orihime (Vega), lovers separated by the milky way. The custom of the festival is for girls to wish for better weaving and for boys to wish for better handwriting. It is also customary to write poems and wishes on kaji leaves, using ink and fresh dew collected from taro leaves in the morning. Of the leaves, one would be put under the pillow, and an other be cast into the river, ensuring future success in love and marriage.

A similar tradition persists, where prayers and wishes are written onto small pieces of paper and hung on specially erected bamboo trees, in the hope that they will be fulfilled.

Separated by glass,
My netsuke ripped from me,
I am displayed as art.

by Melissa Tyler
Inrō have not always been actively collected by the Victoria and Albert Museum–a result of changing fashions in collecting and the negative perception of Japan in the wake of the second World War.  However, despite these fluxes, the museum has one of the largest collections of inrō in the world with over 800 individual pieces. Most of the inrō in the museum’s collection have been acquired either through gifts or bequests–particularly the 1920s and 1930s when the museum received several substantial collections of lacquerware.  This set of twelve calendar inrō are part of that legacy of early twentieth century collecting and were gifted to the museum in 1922 by Richard A Pfungst, a notable collector of Japanese lacquerware.

Despite the fact that these inrō came to the museum complete with their netsuke and ojime, they are now exhibited in isolation.  This method of display reflects the current view that both inrō and netsuke are art objects to be considered as individual works.  And while each inrō can now be admired as a unique piece (or in this case as part of a carefully co-ordinated set), the original use and even appearance of the inrō has changed in the museum setting. The role of the inrō as an object of everyday display and adornment for fashionable Japanese men is obscured by the current method of display, which prioritises the role of the inrō as a set rather than individual pieces that would have been worn during a particular month or for a festival.

There is some effort to address this in a short video that demonstrates how the inrō would have been worn. Nevertheless, divorcing the inrō from their ‘original’ context provokes questions about museum practice and methods of exhibition making. As a group we discussed various ways that the museum could address these issues but came to no satisfactory conclusions because of the complex nature of objects like inrō which were both fashion accessories but also works of excellent craftsmanship that were meant to be displayed (albeit on the body) and remarked upon.  In the end, this set of inrō  have sparked many questions about male dress, different methods of collecting, and museum practice around display.

Shibata Zeishin, Inrō, 1865 (made), V&A East Asia Collection, W.308-1922 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This inrō depicts a toy sword and arrows in gold, silver, red and black lacquer on a dark green lacquer ground imitating a stone surface. As we will see, each inrō  will represent either an explicit festival or theme of a month from the lunar calendar. In this instance Shibata Zeshin chooses to represent Tango No Sekku, a festival celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month and one of the five annual ceremonies celebrated at the imperial court.

The toy weapons depicted are a nod to the fact that Tango No Sekku was a festival to celebrate male children–today it celebrates all children. But this inrō is a very subtle reference to Tango No Sekku since the traditional images for the festival were koinobori (carp streamers) or a kabuto (military helmet) which were meant to signify a strong and healthy child. Therefore this playful inrō subverts our expectations about the possible symbols used to depict Tango No Sekku.

But Zeshin is very clever in his decorative motifs.  The inrō would have hung from the obi in much the same way a samurai’s katana (sword) would; additionally by the nineteenth century, kyūjutsu, the traditional form of militaristic archery, was part of ceremonial court life.  In the context of the inrō as a piece of male fashion and ornamentation, these overtly masculine and militaristic symbols could be seen as a subtle statement that the wearer is a man of fashion who also symbolically ‘wears’ the ultimate symbols of samurai strength and power–both physical and political.

Another possible interpretation is that this man of fashion consciously wears this decorative representation of the katana and kyūjutsu only during a festival (or month) that celebrates male children–a tongue in cheek mimicry of the samurai’s largely ceremonial weapons. This second interpretation is potentially filled with rueful nostalgia in light of the fact that after Japan opened up to the West there was a series of modernisations to the military that saw the reduction of the samurai’s role in the Japanese army. However, I’m inclined to believe that the commissioner, along with Zeshin, were aware of all the possible interpretations of this beautiful and symbolic inrō.

1.‘The Genius of Japanese Lacquer: Masterworks by Shibata Zeshin’, Joe Earle, Japan Society, https://www.japansociety.org/multimedia/articles/
the_genius_of_japanese_lacquer_masterworks_by_shibata_zeshin [accessed 20 May 2016]
2. Jeremy Roberts, Japanese Mythology A-Z, 2nd ed., (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2010), p.104
William D. Crump, Encyclopedia of New Year’s Holidays Worldwide, (London: McFarland, 2008), p.127
4. Andrew J. Pekarik, Japanese Lacquer, 1600-1900: Selections from the Charles A. Greenfield Collection, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980, Appendix 2, pp 124-126.

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