Suzuri-Bako (Writing Box)
Iizuka Toyo and Chobei Tatsuke, Japan
1700s (Edo Period 1600–1868)
H: 8 in. L: 7.5 in.
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. George A. Argabrite, 1975.102
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2008. All Rights Reserved.
Various craftsmen contributed to the process of making this writing box. Skilled workers began by building the core of the box out of seasoned wood, aged for perhaps 50 years. While some craftsmen specialized in cornering and joining the base and sides, others specialized in bent work, creating the thin, rounded sides of the tray. Once the core was complete, the head craftsman began the lacquer process. The final, decorative layers of the box were applied by two very skilled artists—Chobei Tatsuke and Iizuka Toyo—whose names are the only two that we know. They had to build the picture from the bottom up and plan the design for each layer of lacquer ahead of time.
In the Edo class system, artisans were ranked third among the four different classes: below samurai and farmers and above merchants. However, their social status was not reflected in their economic standing. Many artisans commanded a high price for their work, and some were wealthier than even the samurai who commissioned them. Japanese artisans were also well respected, which is made evident by the fact that they signed their work. Chobei Tatsuke, who painted the interior of the box, signed his name beneath the ink stone. Iizuka Toyo designed the warriors; we can find his artist-name, Kanshosai, on the lower left reverse of the lid.
Writing boxes were made to hold materials used for writing or painting pictures. Artists were often commissioned by educated men of the warrior class or their female companions. The materials within the box were used for various purposes, such as writing letters and poems, or painting pictures for friends on special occasions.
The Japanese were interested in the relationship between man and nature. They found that harmony could be achieved between contrasting ideas in the world around them. Japanese art often illustrates this philosophy of harmony through contrasts. The scene on this particular box is thought to come from the Tale of Heike, a famous story of a war set in the 12th century. Two well-known warriors competed to see who could be the first across a river to enter into battle. One warrior tricked the other to win the race. On the other side of the lid, in contrast to this dynamic battle scene, we find a peaceful nature scene.
The scene on the exterior of the box is one of war. Samurai warriors wear full armor and carry swords and bows. They are riding horses through turbulent waters. In the corner is the skeleton of a bridge that has been taken apart to prevent warriors from crossing the river.
The interior of the box shows a quiet nature scene. One heron sits on a branch while another flies through the air above. Fall grasses and plants are sparsely placed inside the base of the box.
On both the exterior and interior designs of the box objects such as samurai warriors and birds are balanced against large areas of blank space.
The box is covered in lacquer, a kind of tree sap, creating a shiny black surface. To collect the sap, deep gashes are made into lacquer trees, which are native to Japan. The lacquer is then scooped out after 24 hours. When exposed to light and air, the lacquer changes from a thin, grayish liquid to a thick, dark goo. It is applied to the surface of the box in very thin layers, and each layer is given time to dry before applying the next. This process can take three to four months, with 10 layers of lacquer adding up to only 1/8 inch.
You can find metal flakes in the clouds on the front of the box. These were either blown on through a tube or sprinkled onto the surface of the box.
Silver was applied underneath the lacquer to create the birds. The lacquer was then rubbed with charcoal to expose the metal designs beneath.
Raised designs, like you see in the armor worn by the warriors, were made by mixing a clay powder with the lacquer.
Decorations that were painted on, such as the red on the warrior's armor, were applied with brushes made from either women's hair (men's hair was too stiff) or the hair from a rat's tail. Some brushes contained only a single hair.
Bone, Flesh, Skin: The Making of Japanese Lacquer
This video illuminates the Japanese lacquer process.
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This video pairs excerpts and images (with explanations) from the Tale of Heike, of which the scene on the Suzuri-Bako is thought to come from.
This video (and the one below) discusses samurai and the two clashing warriors at the heart of the Tale of Heike.
This video discusses samurai and the two clashing warriors at the heart of the Tale of Heike.
This interactive family website has fun activities, resources and other information.The Lacquer Writing Box is one of the objects featured, and there are also other DAM objects to explore!
This multi-media website offers lesson plans, maps, images and other resources for teachers interested in Asia.
This website features online exhibitions, teacher guides, lesson plans and resources on Japanese Art from the collections of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries.
This website provides a detailed guide for the teaching of haiku to primary and secondary students, plus a self-teaching guide.
Monogatari, Heike. “The Horse Ikezuki” and “Race at the Uji River.” The Tale of the Heike, vol.2. Translated by Hiroshi Kitagawa and Bruce T. Tsuchida. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1975.
The famous story that inspired the scene on the lacquer box. Please note that the Denver Art Museum offers a simplified version here. (This is also included as a hand-out in the Elementary and Secondary lesson plans.)
Ozaki, Yei Theodora. Japanese Fairy Tales. Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 2007.
A collection of twenty-two fairy tales illustrated with black-and-white drawings.
Sakade, Florence and Yoshisuke Kurosaki. Japanese Children's Favorite Stories. Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 2003.
A compilation of popular Japanese folktales, complete with color illustrations.
Hoobler, Dorothy and Thomas. The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn. New York: Puffin Books, 2001.
An engaging mystery set in Edo period Japan—full of cultural and historical information.
Kajikawa, Kimiko. Yoshi’s Feast. New York: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc., 2000.
A lively and funny adaptation of the Japanese folktale “Smells and Jingles,” about two neighbors who learn to cooperate after coming into conflict.
McAlpine, Helen and William and Rosamund Fowler. Tales from Japan (Oxford Myths and Legends). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
A collection of stories lively retellings of Japanese legends and fairy tales.
The Ongaku Masters: An Anthology of Japanese Classical Music. 2004. Celestial Harmonies.
4 CD boxed set. (Available through http://www.harmonies.com)
Materials from Writing and Painting in Japan Teacher Workshop on March 12, 2011
Japanese Poetry Session Handouts:
Sumi-e Ink Painting Session:
Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.
The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.