Decorative Japanese boxes include everything from lacquer containers to ones embellished in cloisonné. Although lacquering techniques are thought to have originated in China, while cloisonné is considered a product of what is now Turkey, both were elevated to a fine art in Japan.

Lacquerware was a natural for Japan since the lacquer tree, whose sap is used to produce the resinous coating, is found in many parts of the island nation. Japanese lacquerware began to differentiate itself from its Chinese forebear, though, in the eighth and ninth centuries, when techniques such as maki-e (the practice of mixing powdered gold or silver into the lacquer) and inlay using shell or mother-of-pearl became popular with the royals. Objects made of lacquerware included writing boxes, incense containers, and boxes for stationery, documents, or toiletries. Smaller, portable lacquered boxes called inro were secured to the sashes that bound a wearer’s kimono, often by a tiny carving called netsuke.

Cloisonné actually arrived rather late in Japan, probably no earlier than the 17th century, and cloisonné boxes were not common until the middle of the 19th, when Westerners were obsessed with “the Orient,” spawning in Europe a decorative style called Japonisme. In Japanese, cloisonné artisans frequently used flowers such as peonies and chrysanthemums as their design motifs, as well as birds such as doves and cranes.


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