What is this object?
This traditional Japanese writing box was made to hold a set of implements for calligraphy. Within the box is a rectangular black ink stone. Above the stone is a silver water dropper, fashioned as a chrysanthemum head. The dropper could be removed and filled with water; a tiny opening at the edge allowed the calligrapher to wet the stone’s surface in a controlled manner. To the right of the stone is an ink stick, made of fine soot bound with glue (the stick shown here is unusually elegant, covered with gilt and paper designs). Liquid ink is created by rubbing the stick’s tip lightly on the moistened stone, using a circular motion and adding water to dilute the ink as necessary. At the far right side of the box is a lacquered ink stick holder, and on the left side is a set of three writing brushes with covers.
How was it made? What does its decoration signify?
The box is constructed of wood coated with black lacquer. Lacquer is a natural resin obtained from the sap of the East Asian lacquer tree. Refined and applied to wood and other materials, it was used to waterproof or decorate furniture and utensils such as tables, garment and stationery boxes, trays, plates, bowls, chopsticks, and sake servers.
The main technique for decorating lacquered objects involves sprinkling finely ground gold powder over a design drawn in black lacquer, while the lacquer is still wet. This is called maki-e, literally “sprinkling gold.” Decorating the box lid are three mythical birds separated by floral sprays. As birds that live forever, the mythical birds are auspicious symbols representing longevity or immortality.
How might samurai use these objects?
Samurai used luxuriously decorated writing boxes like this one for personal correspondence, writing poems, or calligraphy practice. Their use demonstrates the importance of bun, or cultural knowledge, in balancing the warrior’s martial activities.