Could This Be the Poor Man’s Inrō?

A friend of mine who always comes with a present handed me this flask gourd saying “I think you can appreciate this.” “I sure can,” I said and thanked him. It obviously belongs to the larger category of objects known as sagemono (提物), items one wants to have at hand but preferably with one’s hands free, and thus suspended from the sash, the obi. As it is pretty small, measuring not even eleven centimetres from top to bottom, it can hardly have served as a water bottle of some kind. Maybe something stronger? Like sake or shochu? That too would seem quite unlikely. 

What we cannot fail to notice is that the bottom part of the gourd is somewhat discoloured, possibly as a result of what it used to contain. It was obviously carried hanging from one’s obi using a wooden netsuke carved in the shape of a peanut. A search on the internet learns that peanut cultivation started in Japan from 1875, notably in Kanagawa and Chiba Prefectures, but this set of a flask gourd and a peanut netsuke would date from much earlier. Indeed, a search for the Japanese word for peanuts, rakkasei (落花生), tells us that these were first introduced into Japan in 1706, often going by the name of Nankinmame (南京豆) or ‘Nanking nuts.’ The Dutch East India Company? 

The peanut-shaped netsuke is fastened to the gourd by a silken cord that is led through a hole in the wooden plug of the flask gourd, and then wound around the narrow middle of the gourd. From the netsuke to the wooden plug, the cord measures almost eleven centimetres, absolutely no problem for the standard width of the 82 millimetres wide obi – if I may believe the one obihisami netsuke I have at hand. Still, all of this didn’t really help me getting a better understanding of the original function of the gourd. 

Until just two weeks ago, with some guests joining us for dinner who suggested that this could well be a container for some kind of medicine, something like a kusuri-ire if that could be what such a thing was called. As for its size, this would certainly be possible, and one can also well imagine that someone who is aware of his possible problems of health would like to always have some cure at hand. Trying to get some of the remaining contents out just yielded a very small bit of dust, probably not enough to find out more, or … maybe?

Anyway, it is very well imaginable that not anybody who had to be prepared to have to take his medicine regularly would also be able to afford some nice medicine cases of the inrō type, often lacquered, and generally offering space for three or four different kinds of medicine. But during much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, these were also a most direct luxury item well-suited to show off. It is not for nothing that some writer in the early nineteenth century remarks that ‘nowadays, almost anybody carries an inrō, often not containing any medicine at all.’ 

The internet also tells – but never believe the internet is what I repeatedly told my students – that the ‘amino acid L-arginine in peanuts is helpful for improving sexual function in men.’ Is that maybe some allusion that the flask gourd is suggesting when you turn it 90 degrees to the right?

My Edo Period Bone Folder

Out of interest in the materials used in netsuke carving, I bought a piece of stag antler many years ago at one of these antique/curio markets that regularly take place in Japanese cities. It is actually probably the smaller of the two beams (unlike European deer, Japanese deer have two) that starts from the pedicle, the larger beam cut off, until its fork where it splits into two, and it measures 29 cm.

It has served me most as something good to have at hand on my desk to keep a book open at some page when I work on my computer. Moreover, it always feels very good in my hand with its very smooth surface. And so, years passed using the piece of antler regularly, without ever wondering why exactly it felt so nice.

When I finally sat down and pondered why, and held the piece of antler in my hands, my thumb quite naturally falling in place with one of those smooth areas, I realised that my grip corresponded with all smooth areas, except one. That was the end tip of the antler that was actually smoothest of all. And only then did it come to my mind: this is simply a very useful tool that is part of the book producing process of the Edo Period, a bone folder, probably what is called a hera in Japanese.

My Japanese bone folder (top) and its European counterpart (bottom) on some folded sheets from a book written by Kyokutei Bakin and illustrated by Utamaro
My Japanese bone folder clearly showing the well-used tip

As the printed sheets of books – printed on one side only – came from the printer’s, they would be handed to a folders’ studio where a number of (mostly) women would make a living folding the printed sheets in half, text side out. These folded sheets would then be handed to the binders’ studio where they would be bound up to books in the then prevailing pouch binding or fukurotoji style.

From the Nihon shosetsu nenpyō, we know that some forty to sixty new titles of fiction alone came out each year in the 1790s. And from Kyokutei Bakin’s memories, Kinsei mono no hon, we know that these would often be issued in editions of 8,000 to 12,000 copies, sometimes even more when they were expected to be best-selling novels. No doubt, my bone folder has leaved through many more Edo period books than I myself. Maybe I should consider bequeathing it to the Edo-Tokyo Museum when I cannot use it myself to hold my books open anymore?