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Introduction to Inro, Tabako-ire, Tonkotsu and various Sagemono

A place to discuss and share other forms of sagemono such as Inro, Pipe Cases etc
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Introduction to Inro, Tabako-ire, Tonkotsu and various Sagemono

Postby AFNetsuke » Mon Apr 04, 2016 6:41 pm

This Introduction is meant to familiarize the beginning collector with the various types of "hanging objects" called Sagemono which were suspended from the waist for daily use in Old Japan. The lack of pockets in kimono necessitated the carrying of objects in alternate ways beyond just tucking them into folds or sleeves of the kimono. The Netsuke was developed as a logical answer as to how to suspend needed items by way of a cord (himo) that passed behind the obi , a sash around the waist worn with the traditional clothing of kimono and robes. Unlike Chinese toggles which serve more as a counterweight at the upper end of the cord, the netsuke sits atop the obi acting as a stop to prevent the cord from slipping down. Placing a bead (Ojime) on the cord allowed it to be cinched down tight to the sagemono thus keeping it closed if need be. The combination of netsuke/ojime/sagemono is known commonly as an "ensemble". A variety of items have been suspended including Inro (tiered lacquer boxes of flattened ovoid form), Tabako-iire (tobacco pouches), Tonkotsu (tobacco boxes), Kiseru-zutsu (pipe cases), pouches (hiuchi bukuro) holding fire making implements, Yatate (writing kits), and Kinchaku (money pouches).
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How Sagemono were worn

The Inro is undoubtedly the most familiar and collected sagemono. These compartmented carved or lacquered boxes have predecessors in China and many Central and East Asian areas, possibly being initially developed by wandering nomads. The term "inro" is first mentioned in literature in Japan in 1363 in an inventory of a Buddhist temple in Kamakura which consisted of a four tiered container of carved red (tsuishu) lacquer. The term inro means "seal basket" and early examples may have employed plaited or woven bamboo. It seems likely that early inro had two primary functions- to hold either seal and accompanying red or black stamp paste pad or medicinals. With the introduction of Western medicines by the Dutch around 1600 the inro appears to have been widely employed to carry them on the person along with the traditional salves and herbal preparations of Chinese and Japanese invention. Worn primarily by men on the right hip, inro decorated in exquisite lacquer techniques became a needed fashion accessory, particularly for the well-dressed Samurai. From the mid-seventeenth century onwards, sumptuary regulations were passed with increasing frequency to curb the display of opulence and extravagance above one's social position. The small size of the inro and other sagemono was the perfect answer to how the growing wealth of townsmen (chonin) and merchants could be subtly shown off. Indeed, in time the inro became less used for its function and more of an item of adornment. The residual red or black paste found in earlier inro tend to be encountered less frequently in the compartments as time went by. Today we sometimes also find the names of medicines or the condition the drug treated lacquered or pasted on slips of paper inside the compartments.
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17th/18th/19th Century Inro

Tonkotsu were boxes, most commonly wood but of many different materials of varying shape, used for holding the finely shredded tobacco that was smoked in the very small bowls of Japanese pipes. They are single compartment lidded vessels with cord runners incorporated so that the ojime could slide down to seal the container. They tend to be of less flattened form than inro. Various inlays and embellishments of shell, horn, hardstone, pottery, ivory, antler, or lacquer designs were popular. Although like netsuke many are unsigned, we find some of the names of known netsuke carvers such as the Minko workshop artisans also on tonkotsu. According to Alain Ducros the word tonkotsu appeared around 1695 and is a word of foreign origin first used by Kyushu fishermen to name a box in which they put both their fishing gear and tobacco.
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Carved wood Tonkotsu ensemble

Tabako-ire are pouches of leather or other materials used to hold tobacco which are envelope shaped and flatter than the tonkotsu boxes. They could be very plain with no decoration or very fancy, employing embossed and colored leathers or embroidery. There is almost always a clasp to secure the flap, generally of metals, some of which bear the names of famous metal workers. Creation of some of these clasps (kanemono) was the result of master craftsmen previously involved with production of sword furniture such as menuki who were out of work after the banning of sword carrying in Japan.
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Embossed leather Tabako-ire with umimatsu obi-hasami Netsuke

Kinchaku are pouches used for carrying money. Fabrics such as silk or leather construction are the most common. Eighteenth century kinchaku are rarely found due to the lack of resistance of the materials used.
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Kinchaku assortment of leather or silk

Kiseruzutsu, or pipecases, in addition to yatate and fudezutsu, could function the same as a netsuke in supporting some other item by being thrust into the obi. Several type of pipe case were made. The open ended tube type is called an otoshi-zutsu, those with a lid that fits inside the lower section housing the pipe are muso-zutsu. Senryu-zutsu are more open-work affairs with an area near the bottom where the pipe bowl could seat and an upper part that acts as a ring to surround and contain the pipe stem. The hollowed area for insertion of the pipe bowl was keyhole shaped so the wider bowl would fit into the opening and then drop down to the slotted area to be secured. There are also other types that we see less commonly.
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Otoshi-zutsu of stag antler

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Muso-zutsu with Tabako-ire

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Senryu-zutsu of umimatsu with Pipe, natural coral Ojime and Tabako-ire

Miscellaneous Sagemono sometimes seen, particularly by those collectors who visit or live in Japan, are shown below.
Yatate, or portable containers for writing implements consisted of a tube with a club or dipper-shaped end which allowed for the insertion of a brush with the dipper end functioning as a receptacle for ink. Separate brush holders, or fudezutsu, attached to ink containers may also be found. In this case the fudezutsu could be used like a sashi netsuke by being inserted behind or into the folds of the obi sash. The fudezutsu of antler shown below has an attached ink container which is caved on its front with monkeys. The container lays face down as shown with its attached lid removed allowing it to also be used as a stable brush rest.
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Fude-zutsu with Ink Container

The need for materials to start a fire was an everyday occurrence before the use of matches. In the lower right corner of this photo can be seen two fancier examples of steel strikers incorporated into purses that hold flint and tinder. They are from the Asian Continent. The Japanese strikers that are incorporated into the pouch tend to be much more plain in design. Sometimes the striker was carried as an individual object as can be seen in the flattened heart-shaped object at the left in the photo. At the upper right is a copper prick for clearing burnt gun powder from the vent hole of a matchlock firearm. Its attached accordion pouch still contained tinder and flint at the time of acquisition.
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Flint striker pouches

These are obviously Sake (or water) Cups, another needed object, but they are conveniently carried by way of an attachment ring that cleverly does not pierce all the way through the wall of the cup.
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Sake cup sagemono

Made of wood with a vegetable ivory stopper, this Buddhist Priest's Flask contains incense for rubbing the hands and face for purification rites. The central lid is opened for filling. The small brass Netsuke functions as a candle snuffer. The flask still contains some incense powder. (Some early black powder primer powder flasks were evolutions of these incense flasks.)
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Buddhist Priest's incense Flask

Looking very much like an inro, this Priming Powder Flask was likely the property of an important individual such as a Daimyo. Finer black powder would be put in a small pan incorporated into the firearm design which when ignited would flash through a vent hole that would then start the burning of the main powder charge within the gun barrel.
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Priming powder Flask Inro

Although many collectors pursue only Netsuke, eventually most will have at least a few examples of the objects for which the netsuke evolved to suspend. These everyday objects make an interesting addition to any collection and many can still be had for little money. And it is a lot easier to explain to your friends what a netsuke is when you have the rest of the ensemble to display.

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