The decoration of this deluxe writing set illustrates an episode in Chapter 23 ("The Warblers First Song") of The Tale of Genji. Both show the veranda and lavish garden of Murasaki and the Akashi Princess, the eight-year-old daughter of Genji and one of his consorts, the Akashi Lady, on New Year's Day. Plum trees are in bloom and Genji has come to visit the young girl. Because it is the first day of the year and the Day of the Rat, her serving women have been out in the garden pulling up seedling pines, a seasonal gesture thought to encourage longevity. The girl's mother sent over New Year's delicacies in "fringed" baskets, baskets with the ends of the woven strands left untrimmed. (Two fringed baskets are pictured on the veranda.) The warbler (uguisu) is always associated with plum blossoms. (A pair of gilt-metal warblers is shown on each of the boxes here.) The association of warbler with pine is explained by the poem written by the girl's mother to accompany the baskets:
Toshitsuki o matsu ni hikarete furubito ni
kyo uguisu no hatsune kikaseyo
Here, the characters hatsune have been inserted into the picture as decorative elements in the classic technique known as ashide-e. The images of the warbler and pine are read as themselves in the design.
The poem is translated by Royall Tyler as "One who through the years has clung to a single hope, O let her today pine no more and hear at least the little warbler's first song!" (Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji [New York: Viking, 2002], p. 432). The mother is waiting to hear from her daughter. According to Tyler, the poem plays on the word matsu (meaning both "pine" and "wait"), furu ("pass" referring to time and "old"), hatsune ("first song [of the year]" and "first [day of the] Rat"), and hikarete, an allusion to the New Year's custom of pulling up seedling pines. Each of the women living in Genji's Rokujo mansion has a garden associated with a particular season, alluded to in the different trees on the undersides of the lids of both boxes. The little Akashi Princess lives with Murasaki, Genji's first love, who has a spring garden. Akikonomu, the empress, has an autumn garden.
These two boxes were likely commissioned for the dowry of a daimyo's daughter. The most famous Hatsune lacquer is the 17th-century trousseau in the collection of the Tokugawa Museum of Art, registered as an Important Cultural Property.