Japanese Inrō

Inrō (literally 'seal basket') were originally used to carry the personal seals which the Japanese used to stamp documents. Some examples survive from the sixteenth century. However, during the Edo period they were more commonly used to carry medicines.

Inrō consist of one or more compartments surmounted by a lid. The compartments are held together by a silk cord threaded down one side and up the other. Both ends are then passed through a sliding bead and then through the netsuke toggle, which held the inrō in place hanging from the obi sash.

Like netsuke, inrō were regarded as status symbols. The making of an inrō was a highly skilled process, as each compartment had to fit smoothly into the next. For the makie artist or lacquer carver who decorated it, it also offered a considerable artistic challenge as the design had to fit smoothly into the three-dimensional space. Various combinations of lacquer techniques could be used including all kinds of makie and carving. In contrast to the highly decorative designs using much gold, inrō were also produced which imitated subdued monochromatic ink paintings.

From the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912), inrō fell out of practical use, but, like netsuke, they are still produced as collectors' items.

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