SHELL GAME LACQUER BOXES-KAI-OKE
kai-oke are handsome lacquered containers, in hexagonal, octagonal, or round shapes and were used to store the shells of kai-awase, the 'shell matching game'. This was a popular parlor game in Japan from ancient times. Written records of this amusement date from the Heian era (794-1185) and it continued to be played until the end of the Edo period (1868).
The shells of a species of clam called Hamaguri were used, since they have the unique characteristic that none other than the original pair will fit together. Initially, 360 half-shells were divided between two groups of players. Each side put forth one shell and when the opposing player found a shell to match his, he won that shell.
The shells came to be beautifully painted or lacquered, and many innovations were introduced into this pastime. One delightful variation was the uta-kai, or 'shell poem' game. One half of a poem was written in one shell and the other half in its mate. The successful player was required to be well read and witty, and it was not unusual for the poetry to allude to the manners and morals of court life, which were usually quite lively
The Meiji Restoration brought modern industrialization, and the old leisure pursuits were soon traded for more expedient forms of entertainment. Western playing cards, introduced by Portugese in the sixteenth century, became popular, and elements of the old shell game were combined with the cards to form a new game. Its is called Hama Awase or flower card game, and is still popular today.
The delicately painted shells of the discarded shell game are lovely as decorative pieces. The handsome lacquer boxes, the kai-oke, have ample room for storage. Many are decorated in gold lacquer designs, some retain their original heavy silk cords, and most have finely etched or engraved metalwork. Their proportions echo an era when there was both time to create such objects of beauty and leisure to pursue the pleasure of their use.