Male accessories symbolizing Edo chic and samurai dandyism

Edo chic
Inrō, or decorative stacked "seal cases," could be called the symbol of the chic samurai dandy of Edo (the former name for Tokyo). From the Edo period (1615–1868) through the Meiji period (1868–1912), changing decorative trends informed the fashioning of inrō. The samurai in Edo, who valued the importance of seasonal aesthetics and changing trends, enjoyed the stylishness of inrō, which were made by highly skilled artisans. There are still many examples of makie (lacquer decorated with designs in sprinkled gold and metallic powders) inrō made by artists who worked for the Imperial Household (teishitsu iin), such as Shibata Zeshin (1807–1891) and Shirayama Shōsai (1853–1923).        
Foreigners were also taken with size of these inrō—which fit nicely in the palm of the hand—and with the beauty of their intricate gold lacquer makie decoration or exquisite carving. Many modern and classical art museums in major Western cities house major inrō collections that were taken there over the ocean from Japan. Avid collectors of inrō are still active today. These small boxes have a charm that makes one want to amass more and more and set them close at hand. 
History of inrō
 Inrō were introduced to Japan from China during the Muromachi period (1392–1573). In the beginning they were used, as their name implies, as portable seal boxes. Only in the Edo period did they come into wide use. By that time, their function had expanded so in addition to holding seals, they were also used as cases for carrying medicine.     Inrō are typically constructed of four or five stacked tiers bound together with a cord. Each tier could function like a small container containing a separate supply of medicine. The inrō cases could be carried in the breast flap or sleeve pocket, but they were more commonly hung from the sash (obi) at the waist, held in place by a carved toggle called a netsuke. As men’s fashion accessories, the samurai’s inrō followed shifting trends, much like the tobacco pouches did for the commoners.
Making inrō 
How were makie-decorated inrō made? There are many types of inrō, but most of them have a nested dual construction as shown in the following photos. The inside and outside of each part were made separately, each was given multiple layers of lacquer, and after being decorated with gold makie designs, the parts were assembled and threaded with a cord. 
Netsuke (Toggles) and Ojime (Beads)
An essential complement to an inrō case is the netsuke (toggle) at the top end of its cord and the sliding cord bead (ojime) below. These, too, were given decorative treatments and served as important fashion elements. Netsuke were often sculpted from wood or ivory and are considered art objects in their own right. Ojime could be made of precious materials such as coral or jade, as well as delicately fashioned metal or carved wood. In this piece, the inrō and the ojime are carved wood, while the netsuke is sculpted ivory, representing an auspicious plump sparrow.
Varieties of inrō
Trendy inrō were for the most part decorated with makie, but examples also survive in a variety of other materials and techniques. The very rare piece shown here is a metal inrō fashioned by the well known Kyoto smith Kanō Natsuo (1828–1898) and made up of various inlaid metals. The netsuke and ojime are also made with metal.
Carved red lacquer inrō
This inrō has been coated with many layers of red lacquer to build up a thick surface, which was then carved with designs—a highly time-consuming and technically challenging technique. Carved lacquer, after being introduced from China during the Muromachi period (1392–1573), was taken up seriously by Japanese artisans. This piece, with its matching carved red lacquer netsuke and ojime, is very precious.
This inrō by Shibata Zeshin (1807–1891) has a somewhat different form. Rather than vertically stacked containers, it has a side drawer. The designs of small dolls (tachibina ningyō) and a shell-matching game (kai awase) are both used in displays during the Doll Festival on Girl’s Day (March 3, momo no sekkū). It must have been carried as a seasonally appropriate accessory.
Inrō today
The custom of carrying medicine and other small articles in inrō containers hung from the waist has died out with the decline of kimono. Still, even today inrō are beloved by connoisseurs, and collectors continue to seek out new and intriguing examples. In Kyoto, the inrō artist Uemura Enshū produces inrō from designs of works by the painter Morita Rieko. While carrying on tradition, he creates new works with an element of exoticism.
By: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University in collaboration with Kyoto Women's University
Credits: Story

Information provided by Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum

Text written by Matsubara Fumi

Exhibition created by Yamamoto Masako(Research Fellow of Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS))
and Suzuyama Masako Kyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory

English translation by Miyo Kurosaki Bethe

Edited by Melissa M. Rinne, Kyoto National Museum

Directed by Maezaki Shinya, Kyoto Women's University

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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