In 1888 this box was shown in the Nihon bijutsu kyokai (Japanese art association) exhibition in Tokyo. It won the silver medal and was acquired by the Imperial Household.1 In 1912, after Emperor Meiji's death, it was presented to a high-ranking official.
Word and image are combined here to create a poem-picture in the classical style. Two phrases (kurete yuku and shiranu domo) allude to a waka included in the Shin Kokinshu:
haru no minato wa
kasumi ni otsuru
Uji no shibabune
As spring comes to an end
I don't know where it is going
But now I feel it is like
the faggot-laden boats tumbling into the mist
on the Uji River
The imagery on the box complements the poem. On the lid, for example, low hills are shrouded in bands of mist. Cherry trees have begun to lose their petals and bundles of faggots lie on the ground, waiting to be shipped downstream. The Uji River, signalled by the familiar bridge on the front of the box, runs around all four sides. The image of faggot-laden boats is realized in three-dimensional form as soft-metal attachments drifting on the river on both of the long sides.
The poem is by Jakuren (ca. 1139-1202), a Buddhist priest and classical poet who helped compile the Shin Kokinshu, the eighth imperial poetry anthology, completed in 1205. His lay name was Sadanaga, and he was adopted as a child by his uncle, the famous court poet Fujiwara no Toshinari (Shunzei). Eventually he took holy orders, but throughout his life he remained active in court poetry gatherings and also traveled extensively. His best poems evoke an atmosphere of loneliness (sabi) and he is thought to have written some of the most memorable verses of his day.
The lacquer artist Ogawa Shomin was born in Tokyo, the son of a maker of metal fittings. In 1862, however, at age fifteen, he began to study lacquer with Nakayama Komin. (See lots ---and ---). He also studied briefly with the Rimpa painter Ikeda Koson (1801-1866). Shomin traveled to Philadelphia in 1876 for the Centennial Exposition. Subsequently, after viewing eighth-century lacquers in the Shosoin collection, he became interested in reviving classical lacquer styles and played an active role in the mid-Meiji revival of traditional lacquers. In 1890, when the Tokyo School of Fine Arts was founded, it included a lacquer department whose existence legitimized this craft as an art form. Shomin became the first head of this influential department. At about the same time he was also one of thirty leading lacquer artists who helped found the Japan Lacquer Industry Society with the idea of improving the standards of their craft.
1. Arakawa Hirokazu, Kindai Nihon no shikkogei (Japanese lacquer art of recent times) (Kyoto: Kyoto Shoin, 1985), p. 271.