Japanese lacquer box with itomari

Signed ‘Josetsu saku’ (made by Josetsu)
Late 19th century or early 20th century

This small round lacquer box is decorated with two items used for New Year celebrations – itomari or ‘thread ball’ and mizuhiki, decorative knots. The box is decorated with Japanese lacquer (made from the sap of a tree cultivated in East Asia) using the maki-e technique, which involves sprinkling metallic powders onto the wet lacquer. The itomari have a raised, 3D-effect created with a technique called takamaki-e by mixing the lacquer with charcoal or clay powder. The balls are decorated in silver powder (which has now oxidised into a dark grey colour), as well as black, red, and gold for the strings. The mizuhiki knots are in silver which has oxidised. The design is on a ground of densely sprinkled gold powder, with a similar technique called nashiji or ‘pear skin’ used for the interior. A small round box such as this one may have been used for incense as part of a larger set.

Interior and lid of box with itomari, Chiddingstone Castle collection, object number 01.3136

In Japan, New Year is one of the most important celebrations when families come together and enjoy traditions which are believed to bring fortune for the year ahead. Itomari are a type of decorative toy gifted to children to wish for their happiness, in a tradition that started with the games played by children in the Imperial family. Itomari (thread balls), which are also known as temari (hand balls) are traditionally made with scraps of fabric, often old silk kimono fabric, and colourful threads. The threads are wound and embroidered around the ball in a geometric pattern. It is traditional for a mother to put a wish for her children on a paper strip inside the itomari. Today the creation of itomari is considered an artform and they are still given as gifts.

Temari – Children’s Customs and Manners, Miyagawa Shuntei, 1896, woodblock print,

Mizuhiki decorative knots are also part of the gifting tradition at New Year and other important celebrations such as weddings and birthdays. At New Year they are tied onto gifts and envelopes which traditionally contain money. The different knotting styles have different meanings, for example there is a type of knot which tightens if you pull it, symbolising an unbreakable bond. There is another lacquer box in the Chiddingstone Castle collection which is in the shape of a paper envelope tied with a mizuhiki.

Japanese lacquer box in the form of folded paper tied with a knot, 19th century, Chiddingstone Castle collection, object number 01.1314

The itomari and mizuhiki designs on our object of the month indicate that it was made to be used as part of New Year celebrations. The box is signed ‘Josetsu saku’, or ‘made by Josetsu’. It is believed that Josetsu was a pupil of the famous lacquer artist Shibata Zeshin (1807 – 1891), although not much is known about him. Itomari were a favourite subject of Zeshin, and he is also known for lacquerwares with seasonal themes, such as his set of ‘calendar’ inro which are in the collections of the V&A Museum. The twelve inro (small tiered lacquer cases which men wore attached to their belts) are decorated with a theme related to each month, such as the inro for the first month of the year which is in the shape of another popular toy which is played with at the New Year - a spinning top.

Inro in the form of a spinning top by Shibata Zeshin, 1865, lacquer with inlaid shell, V&A Museum collections online, accession number W.304-1922

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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