The design of this box, probably intended for sale to a Western buyer at a time of demand for extremely high quality lacquer, is parallelled by a Shibayama ware box and cover in the form of Fugen on an elephant in the Khalili collection [see 1 below].
Although occasionally seen in inro and supposedly first introduced by Nishimura Sochu (1720-73), the subject of Fugen Bosatsu (in Sanskrit, Samantabhadra) on an elephant was not much used in Japanese lacquer prior to the Meiji period [see 2. below]. Both Fugen and Monju (Manjusri) are bodhisatvas, saintly Buddhist beings who renounce enlightenment and remain on earth to relieve the sufferings of mankind. Monju is normally shown riding a shishi while Fugen rides a white elephant; both bodhisatvas symbolise wisdom amd are said to have been born during the lifetime of the historical Buddha. Fugen and Monju also occasionally appear in the guise of the two Tang-dynasty monks Jittoku and Kanzan [see 3 below]
1 T. Goke, J. Hutt, and E.A. Wrangham, The Khalili Collection: Treasures of Imperial Japan, vol. 4, Lacquer (London, 1995), no. 177.
2 E.A. Wrangham, The Index of Inro Artists (Harehope, 1995), s.v. 'Shuraku', 'Sochu' and 'Yoshihisa'. T. Goke, J. Hutt and E.A. Wrangham, The Khalili Collection: Treasures of Imperial Japan, vol. 4, Lacquer (London, 1995), no. 177
3 Timothy Clark, Demon of Painting: The Art of Kawanabe Kyosai London, British Museum, 1993), no. 42