This cabinet is an example of one of the earliest types of Japanese export lacquer. It is based on the European varqueno, a decorated writing cabinet with a hinged front panel. Such cabinets were made for the Spanish and Portuguese trade in the last quarter of the sixteenth century. This example has eleven recessed drawers in four rows. The central drawer is embellished with a projecting arch, while the others are framed with protruding rims. A 1615 Dutch East India Company record shows exchanges with Japanese maki-e (“sprinkled design”) producers regarding whether or not to include arches and rims.
The decoration of the cabinet reflects the mélange of sources that gave birth to the exuberant expression of the Momoyama age. Made by Kyoto craftsmen, this cabinet is marked by a horror vacui alien to traditional Japanese design. It combines maki-e with mother-of-pearl inlay and bands of geometric decoration. On its top, a vibrant scene of pheasants and swallows amid wisteria-laden pines looks like a design for a bold, golden folding screen, while still more birds fly about maples and flowering trees on its sides. A scene of Heian-period courtiers traveling in a palanquin, visible on the front when the cabinet is closed, is rare for export cabinets of this type. The taste for the exotic that marked this period of international influence in Japan, from about 1570 to 1630—when trade extended from Spain to India, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, the Far Eastern regions of Korea, the Ryūkyū Islands, and South China—is exemplified in this cabinet.