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Palanquin, 1800–1868

Palanquin, 1800–1868. Japan. Edo period (1615–1868).

Palanquin, 1800–1868. Japan. Edo period (1615–1868). Lacquer, gold and mother of pearl on wood, and metal. Gift of Norma C. and Jack D. Tomlinson, B85M7.

What is this object used for?
In the Edo period (1615–1868), when upper-ranking samurai and their families traveled even a short distance, they were conveyed in sumptuous palanquins like this one. From four to six men —two or three each in front and back—carried a single passenger, seated inside the compartment. Each servant supported the long pole at the top of the palanquin on one shoulder as he walked, while the occupant sat inside reading, writing, or just watching the countryside pass by.

What is it made of?
The palanquin is constructed of wood, with metal fittings for the separate wood crossbeam attached to the roof of the passenger compartment. An elaborate decorative scheme combines carved and gilded wood elements, silver metal fittings, and decoration in black and colored lacquer with gold and silver maki-e, a technique in which powdered metals are applied to the surface to form a picto­rial design. The entire exterior and interior are decorated with lotus flowers and leaves, the pole with celestial beings flying through clouds.

What does its design and decoration tell us about how it was used?
Widening toward the base, the compartment provides a flat, stable surface for loading and unloading passengers. The hinged doors fold back, and could be left open during the journey—for ventilation and so that the occupant could enjoy the view. Shuttered windows on the front and back are hung with bamboo blinds that could be lowered for further privacy, while still allowing air to circulate inside.

Lotuses and celestial beings, the primary decorative motifs, may indicate that the owner was a devotee of Pure Land Buddhism. According to Pure Land belief, devotees will be transported upon death to Amitabha’s Pure Land paradise on a lotus pedestal, surrounded by a retinue of compassion­ate bodhisattvas and celestial beings. Lotuses also are a Buddhist symbol of purity, as a flower that famously rises from mud with a pristine bloom.

For whom was this object made?
Palanquins were used to transport high-ranking samurai between their home domains and the capital city, Edo, throughout the Edo period (1615–1868). The governmental policy known as “alternate attendance” (sankin kotai) required the daimyo to mount lavish processions to transport goods and personnel during these annual migrations to and from Edo.

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