Hakogaki 箱書 (or Kakitsuke 書付) – Box Inscription

Some words are to be made about hakogaki, a box inscription, since it is also distinguishable from an artist’s personal inscription on the tomobako.

Hakogaki is a term usually used to signify the inscription on the surface or on the backside of the lid of the storing boxes (not to be mistaken with a box bearing an artist inscription, what is then a so called →tomobako). It provides informations about the content, style of the object, name of the item and the artists name. The as hakogaki described inscriptions are executed by officials, such as Daimyō (liege lords), or by people involved in the tea ceremony world (chajin 茶人) or other masters (crafts etc.). The first group high in rank writes on the surface of the lid. Members associated with the latter write on the back side. In the case of a surface inscription there will not be any signature or an abbreviation (kaō 花押) on the same side. Inscriptions are generally made in black ink, but also writings done in lacquer or even gold lacquer (maki-e 蒔絵) are possible. Sometimes there is a paper with additional informations fixed on the box surface (harigami 張紙).

Example of a harigami saying: Shigaraki Tea Cup (Yûnomi) by Takahashi Rakusai

Originally the hakogaki was an inscription on an items box of the person owning or even commissioning it. Quite often those persons who regarded themselves just as layman, asked a master or a person from the tea ceremony for a suitable inscription. For this reason the hakogaki differs from a so called kiwamesho 極書, an appraisal and/or evaluation through a connoisseur. The hakogaki is more an expression of personal appreciation.

A good example can be given with the story of naming a famous red raku teabowl from Chōjirō’s 長次郎 (?-1589) hand through the well-known tea master Sen no Rikyū 千利休 (1522-1591). As it is told, once on the gathering of a tea ceremony Rikyū humorously wanted to make his guests believe, that the tea bowl he used was just shipped from Ōsaka with the earliest boat only for this occasion. Since then the bowl was named hayabune 早船 (“Early boat”) and this very day the Hakogaki written by Rikyū himself inside the storing box gives prove of the tea bowl’s name.


Tomobako 共箱 – Accompanying Boxes

Tomobako for a Tea Caddy by Masamune Moriyasu

Rarely is light shed on one of the most important topic when handling Japanese arts and crafts – even if it is one of the first things you will get hold of for sure! Thus I’d like to explain at the beginning the new logo of Gallery Kommoss which refers to the crosswise knotted ribbon of the tomobako 共箱. Tomobako is the name for the wooden boxes in which Japanese artworks, ranging from paintings, over small sculptures till ceramics, porcelains and lacquer works – just to say some – are stored. They consist of a wooden body and a lid holded together by a woven or braided ribbon. 

The boxes are usually made of either two basic materials: one is cedar wood (lat. Cryptomeria japonica, jap. sugi ) and another is paulownia wood (lat. Paulownia tomentosa, jap. kiri ). Far more seldom but also coming across sometimes are boxes made of materials like chestnut (tochinoki ), mulberry (kuwa ), rosewood (shitan 紫檀), ebony (kokutan 黒檀) or ironwood (tagayasan 鉄刀木).

Cedar (l.) and Paulownia Wood (r.)

Especially kiri wood is recognized for its several advantageous characteristics. It is lightweight and for that also relatively break-proof, it has plain wood almost free from knotholes and transports no humidity. The lid should close tightly to protect the content from atmospherical influences. Sensitive items like works of paper benefit from this protections against too extreme deviations of air humidity in the moist Japanese climate.


Example of a kabusebuta

The lid can be separated in two main construction types: the slid lid or “covering” lid (kabusebuta 覆蓋) and the “inserting lid (okibuta 置蓋). Okibuta can be further devided into lids which are flat (hirabuta 平蓋) and lids with a frame construction beneath fitting neatly inside the box’s mouth (sanbuta 桟蓋). This frame of sanbuta consists of either four wooden strips (shihōsan-buta 四方桟) or only two strips (nihōsan-buta 二方桟蓋). 


To hold the box and the lid closely together a string is used, which is knotted above the lid in a slip knot (himokake 紐掛け). It was once round, but since the beginning Edo Period (1603-1868) a flat cotton string (sanada-himo 真田) is most common.


Collecting Japanese art works it is very important to have them within the original according to size and requirements of the objects individually manufactured wooden boxes (tomo = together). Not only to know them safely stored when they are not in exhibit but for reference reasons as well. These boxes recognize some importance since they bear informations about the item stored inside from the artists hand itself. Like questions of style, type, name, date and his signature. For that reason the tomobako is also as an object of evidence of great importance. Every student for Japanese art history knows the often told story of a western museum registrar who had thrown all the boxes he just thought to be packing material away and losses this way a lot of value.

But note that this kind of artist’s proof on the tomobako is common at least since the Meiji period (1868-1912) and is not to be mistaken with a hakogaki – an inscription on the box of the owner or an admiring person.