print
Box in the shape of a kite

Japanese, late 19th century
urushi lacquer 

unsigned

During the 17th – 19th centuries in Japan, urushi lacquer boxes were produced in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Alongside rectangular writing boxes and circular mirror boxes, more elaborate and interesting shapes were also popular. Our Object of the Month for July is an urushi lacquer box in the form of a popular type of kite, known as a yakko kite. Yakko was the term used for the attendants of samurai warriors. The common people would have had a chance to see the samurai with their yakko during processions between their home province and the capital of Japan, Edo. Samurai lords, or daimyo, were required to spend alternating years at home and in their Edo residence. This requirement meant that the central government of the shogun (military ruler) was able to keep a tight control over the daimyo. Maintaining a residence in Edo and travelling to and from it required considerable money and time that the daimyo could have otherwise spent building their own power and wealth as a rival to the shogun.  

Samurai horse procession, Record of the Customs and Manners of Feudal Lords at Chiyoda Castle, Toyohara Chikanobu, 1897, woodblock print, ukiyo-e.org

Chiddingstone Castle is home to an important collection of urushi lacquerwares. Urushi is a type of lacquer made from the sap of an East Asian tree. It is painted onto a base in thin layers, which are allowed to dry before each layer is added. Our July Object of the Month is decorated using a technique called maki-e, or ‘sprinkled pictures’. The designs were painted in lacquer, onto which gold powder was sprinkled using a thin, hollow bamboo tube. The excess powder is brushed away, leaving behind intricate designs in gold. Pieces of gold leaf and other precious materials are often added to the design. The design is then sealed with a final layer of clear lacquer.

Our Object of the Month has an inner tray which is decorated with a group of children’s toys. These include a mask, a daruma doll, and a fish toy that can be pulled along on wheels. As is common with urushi lacquerwares, the interior is decorated using the nashiji (pear-skin) technique. Small pieces of cut gold were sprinkled into the lacquer, creating a sparkling effect.

The choice of a samurai attendant for the shape of a kite is an interesting reflection of Japanese society in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Since the 12th century, Japan was ruled by samurai warriors. The samurai were considered the upper class of society – they were technically below the Emperor and Imperial court in the social hierarchy, but in reality they held the most power. The Edo period, however, was a time of great peace. A market economy developed in the cities and the merchant class gradually overtook the samurai in wealth and prosperity. Yakko kites, kabuki theatre plays, satirical woodblock prints, and other forms of popular art and media were an opportunity for the townspeople to mock the samurai. Despite repeated attempts at censorship, this subject matter thrived.

The new dynamic between the merchants and the samurai is reflected in a 19th-century woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige. A samurai procession can be seen crossing the Nihonbashi bridge, which was considered the centre of Edo. Below them in the street is a crowd of townspeople, representing the bustling life and variety of the city. None of them, however, are interested in watching the samurai procession. By this time, samurai processions had become so commonplace that the townspeople did not always bother to watch or pay their respects. 

Processional standard-bearers at Nihonbashi, 1833 – 1834, Utagawa Hiroshige, woodblock print, Honolulu Museum of Art, ukiyo-e.org

The woodblock print below depicts people flying kites in the street in Edo. A yakko kite can be seen at the top of the print.

Soto Kanda, Sakuma-cho, Hirokage, 1860, woodblock print, from series ‘Comedy Scenes in Famous Places in Edo’, ukiyo-e.org
Woodblock print depicting different kites, including a yakko kite towards the lower right, Utagawa Yasumine, 1820s, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, accession number

Interestingly, our Object of the Month depicts the back of a yakko kite. The samurai attendant’s hairstyle and belt with a tobacco pouch hanging down can be seen. This reverse view adds an extra comedic and playful element to the design of this box. The outfit of the samurai attendant on the box represents the height of men’s fashion at the time. It is decorated with elaborate textile patterns, with two samurai crests in the form of diamonds on the long sleeves. Men carried leather or silk tobacco pouches with a variety of designs attached to their belt.

Tobacco pouch in leather and silk embroidery with a design of a dragon and Mt. Fuji, Chiddingstone Castle collection, object number 01.1237

Our Object of the Month reflects the prosperity of the Edo period in Japan. Townspeople had the free time and spare money needed to enjoy pastimes such as kite flying. The toys depicted on the inner tray also reflect a theme of leisure and fun. Small urushi lacquer boxes with inner lids were often made for the incense game. This game was a popular pastime for the upper classes, which involved guessing different types of expensive incense wood from their scent. Lacquerwares in general were made for the wealthy in Japanese society. A considerable amount of time went into making each item, and precious materials were used to decorate them. Urushi lacquer is waterproof and retains heat well, making it a perfect choice for expensive homewares and food containers.

You can view our yakko kite box in the Castle’s Japanese Room, along with other highlights from the collection.

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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