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.

Shihōsan-buta

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). 

Sanada-himo

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.

Himokake

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.

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