Shell game box decorated with scenes from Genji monogatari ('The Tale of Genji')

Edo period, 17th-18th century AD

From a bride's trousseau

This hexagonal wooden box was made to contain a game involving the matching of painted shells, (kai-awase). It is decorated with paintings on paper showing scenes from the early eleventh-century novel Genji monogatari ('The Tale of Genji'). The box itself dates from the seventeenth or eighteenth century, and indicates how the medieval tale remained popular, especially with painters of the Tosa school. Tosa painters continued the tradition of Yamato-e ('Japanese pictures'), as opposed to styles influenced by China. They worked chiefly for the Imperial Painting Office (Edokoro). One feature of this school was the use of decorative clouds, often painted in gold, which divide up different scenes of a story, or lead the eye on from one incident to the next. Here the gold clouds are further embellished with embossed patterns (mori-age).

In one of the paintings on the box Prince Genji is shown bottom left in a red kimono watching a group of five court women. More scenes from Genji monogatari were painted on the shells themselves. The game consisted of matching up separated pairs of clam-shells painted with related scenes. The pairing symbolized faithfulness in marriage, and a shell-game set often formed part of a bride's trousseau.

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More information


L. Smith, V. Harris and T. Clark, Japanese art: masterpieces in (London, The British Museum Press, 1990)

L. Smith and V. Harris, Japanese decorative arts from (London, The British Museum Press, 1982)


Height: 35.600 cm

Museum number

Asia JA 1933.12-11.1


Gift of G. Fenwick Owen


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