Inro with design of Lord Enma

Reishousai Koji
Japanese, 19th century

This small lacquer case, or inro, is decorated with a dramatic design of one of the ten judges of hell, Lord Enma. He is depicted in high-relief red lacquer with a fierce expression, and he is wearing the elaborate robes of a Chinese scholar. The character on his hat, 王, means ‘king’ or ‘rule’. He has sun and moon symbols on a plaque on his chest and is holding a shaku, a ritual baton held by aristocrats and royalty on which commands can be written. A dragon, the symbol of imperial power, decorates his robe. The high-relief lacquer, made using clay or charcoal dust, creates a three-dimensional effect as if Lord Enma is about to step out of the inro. The design stands out against the plain black lacquer ground. The design on the inro continues around the sides and onto the back.

Front and reverse views of the Lord Enma inro, Chiddingstone Castle collection, object number 01.1985

The set is completed with a silk cord, with a carved red lacquer bead, or ojime, and a netsuke (toggle) to secure the inro onto a belt. The netsuke is in the kagamibuta or ‘mirror-lid’ shape, with a design of gold and red cherry blossoms in lacquer around the rim and a depiction of a temple guardian in the centre.

Close up view of the ojime (bead) and netsuke (toggle) for the Lord Enma inro, Chiddingstone Castle collection, object number 01.1985

An inro is a case worn hanging from the belt as part of traditional Japanese dress for men. It was common practice in Japan, China, and Korea for men to wear useful and precious items hanging from their belt. These could include money pouches, tobacco pipes, boxes for medicine, and utensils for writing. The characters for inro translates as ‘seal basket’ – one of the original uses for an inro was as a case for a seal and ink which would be used in a similar way to a signature. Inro were also used for carrying around different medicines. Inro are usually divided into compartments – our object of the month has five. These fit tightly together, with a channel running down each side for the cord. The cord holds the inro together, and the bead can be moved up and down to either loosen or tighten the compartments. The skill in making an inro lies in the ability to make it airtight, to keep any medicines or ink inside it fresh. In order to create a single design over all of the compartments, they were temporarily sealed by applying a small amount of raw lacquer and powdered burnt clay. The design would then be added over the sealed joins, which were later broken and touched up if needed.

Woodblock print titled ‘parting lovers’, depicting a man wearing an inro hanging from his belt, Suzuki Harunobu, 1768, Scholten Japanese Art

Lord Enma was considered the most important of the ten judges of hell, who were Taoist deities introduced into Japan from China and adopted into Japanese Buddhism. It was believed that Lord Enma would pass judgement on which ‘realm of existence’ someone should enter after their death (hell, the realm of hungry ghosts, the animal realm, the realm of divine beings, the human realm, or the realm of heavenly kings). According to Japanese Buddhism, there are many different hells to which you can be sent to receive appropriate punishment for the bad things you did in life. Lord Enma plays an important part in Japanese culture. There is even a Japanese word inspired by him, ’enmagao’ or ‘enma face’, used to describe a fierce, frightening facial expression.

Enma presiding over demons, ink and colour on paper, Kawanabe Kyosai, 19th century, British Museum, museum number 1881,1210,0.1829

Unlike many of the objects in Chiddingstone Castle’s collection, this inro is signed. The signature reads ‘Koji Reishousai’, with the artist’s seal. Koji (the surname) was a lacquer artist of the 19th century who, according to the Index of Inro Artists by Joe Earle and Edward A. Wrangham (2006, page 137), was ‘responsible for some dramatic inro’. The index mentions an inro by Koji with a ‘fierce’ Lord Enma. Either this was a motif that Koji repeated, or it is possible that our object of the month is the Lord Enma inro that the index mentions. As Denys Eyre Bower unfortunately did not keep careful records of where he bought many of the objects in his collections, further research is needed to uncover the history of this inro.

Interior and signature of the Lord Enma inro, Chiddingstone Castle collection, object number 01.1985

This object is just one of the many objects that form part of Denys Eyre Bower’s five impressive collections which include Ancient Egyptian, Japanese, Buddhist, Stuart and Jacobite, and Books. For more information on these objects, review our Object of the Month series, visit the Historic House and Collections or contact our Curator, Naomi Collick by email or by calling 01892 870347.

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