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An inro is a traditional Japanese case for holding small objects, suspended from the obi (sash) worn around the waist when wearing a kimono. They are often highly decorated with various materials such as lacquer and various techniques such as maki-e, and are more decorative than other Japanese lacquerware.

Because traditional Japanese dress lacked pockets, objects were often carried by hanging them from the obi in containers known as sagemono (a hanging object attached to a sash). Most sagemono were created for specialized contents, such as tobacco, pipes, writing brush and ink, but the type known as inro is suitable for carrying small things, and was created in the Sengoku period (1467–1615) as a portable identity seal and medicine container for travel.

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What is an Inro?

An inrō is a traditional Japanese case used to carry small personal items. Typically, inrō consist of several interlocking compartments stacked together, held in place by a cord that passes through them. They are often highly decorative and serve both functional and aesthetic purposes. Here are some key details about inrō:

Structure and Function

  • Compartments: An inrō usually has three to five compartments that fit snugly on top of one another. These compartments are designed to hold small items such as seals, medicine, or other personal effects.
  • Cord and Toggle: The compartments are held together by a silk cord that runs through them. The cord is tied at the top and bottom, and it typically includes a toggle (netsuke) and a sliding bead (ojime). The netsuke is attached at one end of the cord and acts as a counterweight, while the ojime helps to keep the compartments tightly closed.

Materials and Decoration

  • Materials: Inrō can be made from a variety of materials, including wood, lacquer, ivory, and metals. The choice of material often reflects the status and wealth of the owner.
  • Decoration: The exterior of an inrō is often lavishly decorated using techniques such as maki-e (sprinkled picture), in which gold or silver powder is sprinkled onto lacquer to create intricate designs. Other decorative techniques include carving, inlay work, and painting.

Historical and Cultural Context

  • Edo Period: Inrō became particularly popular during the Edo period (1603- 1868), when they were used by the samurai class and wealthy merchants. As kimonos lack pockets, inrō provided a practical solution for carrying small items.
  • Art and Collectibility: Over time, inrō evolved from purely functional items to objects of art, reflecting the creativity and craftsmanship of their makers. They are now highly collectible and are valued for their historical significance and beauty.


1. Inrō: The main body with compartments.
2. Netsuke: A small carved toggle that secures the cord at one end and prevents the inrō from slipping through the obi (sash) of a kimono.
3. Ojime: A sliding bead on the cord that keeps the compartments tightly closed.


  • Carrying Personal Items: Inrō were used to carry items such as medicines, seals, ink, tobacco, and other small necessities.
  • Fashion Accessory: Besides their practical use, inrō also served as fashion accessories and status symbols, often reflecting the owner’s taste and social standing.

Inrō are admired today not only for their historical function but also for the exquisite artistry involved in their creation. They provide insight into Japanese culture, craftsmanship, and the aesthetic values of the time.

What pypes of inro are?

Inrō come in various types, distinguished by their shape, design, materials, and decorative techniques. Here are some of the most notable types:

1. Standard Inrō:

  • The most common type, featuring several interlocking compartments (usually three to five), held together by a silk cord. They are typically rectangular or oval in shape.

2. Ryōshibako Inrō:

  • A type of inrō designed to hold small brushes and ink for writing, often used by travelers and scholars. These inrō often have special compartments or attachments for writing implements.

3. Gōshirae Inrō:

  • Custom-made inrō, often commissioned by wealthy individuals or samurai. These inrō are highly personalized and can include family crests (mon) and other unique symbols.

4. Yatsuhashi Inrō:

  • Named after the traditional Japanese bridge design, yatsuhashi inrō feature compartments that open on alternating sides. This design provides a unique and artistic way to access the compartments.

5. Hiramine Inrō:

  • Characterized by their flat, slim design, hiramine inrō are often decorated with intricate lacquer work. They are less bulky and more comfortable to wear, making them a popular choice for everyday use.

Decorative Techniques

6. Maki-e Inrō:

  • Decorated with maki-e (sprinkled picture) techniques, using gold, silver, or other metallic powders sprinkled onto wet lacquer to create intricate designs. This is one of the most common and highly regarded decorative styles.

7. Togidashi Inrō:

  • A variation of maki-e, where the design is applied, then covered with additional layers of lacquer and polished to reveal a smooth surface with a flush design.

8. Takamaki-e Inrō:

  • Similar to maki-e, but with a raised design created by applying multiple layers of lacquer mixed with metal powders, giving a three-dimensional effect.

9. Shibayama Inrō:

  • Featuring intricate inlay work using materials such as mother-of-pearl, ivory, coral, and other semi-precious stones. Shibayama inrō are known for their detailed and colorful depictions of nature and scenes from daily life.

10. Zōgan Inrō:

  • Decorated with metal inlays, often using gold or silver. The inlay work can create elaborate patterns and imagery, adding a luxurious touch to the inrō.

11. Raden Inrō:

  • Using mother-of-pearl inlays to create iridescent designs. Raden inrō are prized for their shimmering, colorful effects.

Shape Variations

12. Rectangular Inrō:

  • The most traditional shape, typically with rounded corners and flat surfaces for detailed decoration.

13. Oval Inrō:

  • Featuring a more rounded, smooth shape that fits comfortably against the body.

14. Spherical Inrō:

  • Less common, these inrō are spherical or egg-shaped, offering a unique canvas for decoration.

15. Asymmetrical Inrō:

  • Featuring irregular shapes and often customized designs, these inrō can be tailored to fit specific needs or artistic visions.

Each type of inrō showcases the rich tradition of Japanese craftsmanship, combining practicality with artistic expression. Collectors and historians value inrō for their beauty, craftsmanship, and the cultural stories they embody.

What is shibayama?

Shibayama refers to a highly decorative and intricate form of Japanese inlay work that is often found on various art objects, including netsuke, inrō (traditional Japanese cases for holding small objects), and other personal ornaments. This technique involves the meticulous inlaying of materials such as mother-of-pearl, coral, tortoiseshell, ivory, and various semi-precious stones into a base material, which is typically wood, ivory, or lacquer.

Key Characteristics of Shibayama Work:

1. Intricate Inlay:

  • Shibayama is renowned for its detailed and elaborate inlay designs. Artisans cut tiny pieces of various materials and inlay them into the surface of the object to create complex images and patterns.

2. Nature Themes:

  • The designs often depict scenes from nature, such as flowers, birds, insects, and landscapes. These natural motifs are rendered with great attention to detail and color.

3. Dimensionality:

  • Shibayama work often has a three-dimensional quality. The inlaid pieces are sometimes carved to stand out from the surface, adding depth and texture to the design.

4. Base Materials:

  • Common base materials include lacquered wood, ivory, and sometimes metal. The smooth surfaces of these materials are ideal for the fine and precise inlay work.

5. Cultural Significance:

  • Shibayama work became popular during the late Edo period and into the Meiji period (1868-1912). It was highly valued both domestically in Japan and by foreign collectors, particularly during the time when Japan opened up to international trade.

6. Artistic Collaboration:

  • The creation of Shibayama pieces often involved collaboration between different artisans. For example, one artisan might create the base object, while another specialized in the inlay work.

Shibayama-netsuke are particularly prized by collectors due to the combination of their functional purpose and the exquisite artistry involved. The term “Shibayama” itself comes from the name of the family that popularized this technique, with Shibayama Senzo being one of the most prominent artisans associated with its development.

Overall, Shibayama represents a pinnacle of Japanese decorative art, showcasing the intricate craftsmanship and aesthetic sensibilities of the artisans who created these beautiful and intricate works.