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Traveling Chest

Traveling chest, 1800–1868.

Traveling chest, 1800–1868. Japan. Edo period (1615–1868). Lacquer and gold on wood; metal fittings, locks, and handles. Gift of Norma C. and Jack D. Tomlinson, 1991.127.

Traveling chest (detail; 1991.127).

Traveling chest, 1800–1868. Japan. Edo period (1615–1868). Lacquer and gold on wood; metal fittings, locks, and handles. Gift of Norma C. and Jack D. Tomlinson, 1991.127.

Traveling chest, 1800–1868.
Traveling chest (detail; 1991.127).

What is this object used for?
This large chest was used for storing garments while traveling. Affixed to the front and back are U-shaped metal handles used to carry the box; a porter would insert a wooden pole through the handle, and balance the box’s weight on his bent upper back. Such boxes were part of the personal equipment of high-ranking samurai, who used them to transport their possessions during the annual migrations to and from Edo required by the system of “alternate attendance.”

What is it made of?
Solidly constructed of wood, the chest is strengthened by metal fittings at all corners. There are also two metal lock plates and locks, in addition to the U-shaped handles. The exterior is covered with black lacquer and decorated in the maki-e technique, in which powdered metals such as gold and silver are applied to the lacquered surface to form pictorial designs.

What do the motifs on this object represent?
Surrounded by bamboo leaves and plum blossoms on a latticework pattern are large round crests (mon) composed of three hollyhock leaves within a gold ring. Members of the Tokugawa family, which ruled Japan from 1615 to 1868, had exclusive rights to the hollyhock crest. Bamboo and plum blossoms are traditional seasonal motifs; along with other auspicious emblems like pine trees, they symbolize wealth, happiness, and prosperity.

Why would this object be valued by the samurai?
The bold hollyhock mon emblazoned on this chest mark it as the property of a Tokugawa family member. Easily visible by passersby along the route, along with other samurai regalia such as banners, the chest was a symbol of the wealth and sophistication of the ruling clan. It had an important practical function as well: protecting the costly garments necessary for official business during what must have been long, dusty, or wet journeys. The increasingly bureaucratic role of the samurai during the Edo period necessitated the use of such expensive “luggage” during travel.

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