Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Japanese Writing Boxes

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  • The high esteem accorded calligraphy in premodern Japanese culture is demonstrated not only by the admiration for scrolls of religious texts and poetry as works of art, but also by the way the accoutrements of brush writing were often created using the finest materials and craftsmanship.


    Wooden writing boxes were prepared in Japan at least as early as the ninth or tenth century.

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    While writing boxes (suzuri-bako, "inkstone box") are designed for the practical function of housing writing implements such as the inkstone (suzuri), they are also often consummate examples of lacquer art. Inkstones were made of earthenware, porcelain, or stone that has a slightly abrasive surface to facilitate the grinding of solid ink sticks (sumi) with water while preparing liquid ink. These solid ink sticks are fashioned from soot (usually that of pine trees) and animal glue, and often scented with cloves or sandalwood. The dissolved ink accumulates in the well of the inkstone, and the calligrapher can control the density of the ink by adjusting the amount of water used and how long the ink stick is ground.


    The inkstone is the most precious and permanent object of the writing set, since brushes (fude) wear out and ink sticks eventually are ground down. The writing box also typically contains a water-dropper (suiteki), a small knife (kogatana or tōsu), and an ink stick holder (sumi-basami). Partially ground ink sticks are placed into the holder, so even the smallest piece can be easily gripped. Many writing boxes are constructed of lacquered wood and often lavishly decorated with maki-e ("sprinkled picture") and mother-of-pearl inlay. In many instances, the handles of the implements are also embellished with maki-e, and the decoration of the whole set is carefully coordinated. Writing boxes were developed and perfected in Japan, whereas in China the "Four Treasures of the Study" (brush, ink stick, inkstone, and paper) were usually kept on the writing desk, without a box. Writing boxes in Japan had a decorative function as well, and examples of special beauty or distinguished provenance could be displayed as prized possessions.


    For both calligraphers and painters, the inkstone's quality is as important as that of the ink stick, as it affects the texture of the ink prepared with it. In China, earthenware inkstones were produced from the Tang dynasty (618–906) on. Natural stones such as volcanic tuff and a variety of slate were also used and these can be categorized by the locales of the quarries from which the raw stone was excavated. Rare and precious stones, crystal, or jade were also sometimes used to prepare exquisite inkstones. During the Song period, numerous famous, "named" inkstones were prepared and a refined connoisseurship developed. In Japan, the use of earthenware inkstones started during the seventh century and stone ones from around the tenth or eleventh century. The inkstones can be divided into two groups: imported from China and domestic Japanese-style stones that can be further grouped according to material or production technique. Inkstones were made in various shapes, most commonly rectangular, but round, oval, figurative, or richly decorated carved variations were also favored. Sometimes the shape of the writing box was adjusted to that of the inkstone. In Japan, during the Festival of the Weaver Maiden, on the seventh day of the seventh month a ritual is performed: "washing the inkstone" (suzuri arai), as the cleaning of the inkstone is said to encourage scholarly diligence.


    Wooden writing boxes were prepared in Japan at least as early as the ninth or tenth century and some of them were lacquered red, perhaps as an indication of an official position or rank. Paintings of the Heian period (794–1185) occasionally feature images of lacquer writing boxes. One of the earliest surviving examples is a Heian-period portrait of the Buddhist monk Jion Daishi (Guiji; ca. 632–682) in the Yakushiji Temple in Nara, where we can see various writing implements on a small lacquer stand next to his chair. Various types of writing boxes were used in palace settings, including two-tiered boxes, shallow writing boxes, and small-size writing boxes that were part of cosmetic boxes (tebako). Some of these early writing boxes were quite large and also contained paper, but later the paper or documents were kept in separate boxes (ryōshibako) (1981.243.1a–f; 1981.243.2a–m).


    A surviving Kamakura-period (1185–1333) maki-e and mother-of-pearl writing box has two little trays placed on the two sides of the inkstone (a larger one on the right and a smaller one on the left) for the brushes, handle, and other contents. This arrangement or the combination of one tray with the inkstone compartment became the most common writing box configurations (25.224a–e; 1980.221). In the Muromachi period (1392–1573), several famous maki-e writing boxes were made, but interestingly enough, the written and visual sources of the period mostly record writing utensils imported from China. The prominent feature of the decoration of the Muromachi writing boxes is the literary reference to Japanese classics, mainly to anthologies, such as the Anthology of Poems Past and Present (Kokin wakashū ; ca. 920) (29.100.695a–e). The poems were represented visually, but the composition often contained hidden cursive characters that should be read together with the pictorial elements (81.1.173). The decoration is composed to continue on the inside of the lid, inside of the box as well as on the sides. We can see a variety of inner configurations: some of the boxes contain two asymmetrical trays, a few have only one large tray next to the inkstone, and others have supporting panels on both sides of the inkstone compartment to support the implements. During the Higashiyama period (1436–90), the shoin-style interior decoration designated two areas for writing utensils: formal locations featured Chinese implements, informal spaces Japanese domestic utensils, including writing boxes. Many of the Muromachi-period writing boxes became famous collectibles, and now most of them are highly regarded Important Cultural Properties. From the mid-sixteenth century, writing boxes and writing tables (bundai) were prepared in sets. Momoyama-period (1573–1615) writing boxes are recognized for their bold designs. A new style, characterized by asymmetrical compositions, often depicting autumn grasses executed in flat maki-e (hiramaki-e) is associated with the Kōdaiji Temple in Kyoto (Kōdaiji maki-e).


    During the Edo period (1615–1868), several new box shapes and structures were created with a wide variety of decorative designs, including references to classical literature (29.100.688; 29.100.695a–e) and motifs inspired by everyday life or patterns shared with other decorative art genres (81.1.136a–z) and kimono. Elaborate, luxurious maki-e decorated writing boxes were prepared by the two well-known maki-e master families: the Kōami in Edo (formerly in Kyoto) (81.1.133a–h) and the Igarashi in Kaga Province (present-day Ishikawa Prefecture). New, distinctive styles were developed by Hon'ami Kōetsu (1558–1637) and Ogata Kōrin (1658–1716) characterized by bold, graphic decoration and pewter inlays in addition to the maki-e and mother-of-pearl embellishment. These Rinpa-style lacquer writing boxes remained popular through the nineteenth century. Ogawa Haritsu (1663–1747), the eccentric lacquer master, created writing boxes with unconventional decorations and techniques such as the inclusion and imitation of ceramic, metal, or carved red lacquer inlays.


    Various complex structures developed from the Heian-period "writing box prototypes," including tiered writing boxes for poetry contests or incense games (81.1.136a–z) and combinations of cosmetic sets with writing boxes such as the portable "comb-box" (tabikushi-bako) that includes a special drawer for the writing implements. From the early Edo period, writing boxes, document boxes, writing tables, and letter boxes (fubako) became part of wedding sets (dowry) and were prepared in standard sizes, often decorated with auspicious motifs such as cranes or pine, bamboo, and plum patterns (10.7.22). The appreciation of calligraphy and painting was also reflected in the preparation of specialized maki-e stationery, such as boxes for elongated poem slips (tanzaku) or square-shaped poem cards (shikishi) (81.1.152a,b).


    During the Meiji period (1868–1912), along with the emergence of innovative writing box shapes and decorations reflecting modernist sensibilities, works drawing on historical styles and decorative schemes were revived and copies of famous boxes were prepared. Elaborately crafted sets of writing boxes, document boxes, and writing tables were often featured in world expositions, as they represented indigenous Japanese calligraphy traditions (1981.243.1a–f; 1981.243.2a–m). Westerners began collecting Japanese writing boxes in earnest from the early Meiji period onward.

    Monika Bincsik
    Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow, Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art