This small box was part of a large dowry set for the granddaughter of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the shogunate. In 1633 Kamehime, the seven-year-old daughter of Iemitsu, the third shogun, was married to Maeda Mitsutaka, head of the Kanazawa branch of the Tokugawa family. A complete dowry set was an impressive sight as it included not only cosmetic utensils but also items such as an incense ceremony set, a tea ceremony set, boxes for shell games, stationery and writing boxes, clothing boxes, and food utensils.
The Koami family of lacquerers were employed by the Tokugawa shogunate. The head of the family in 1633 was Choju (1599-1651), who spent most of his career on this and similar dowry commissions. The Kamehime set was dispersed in the late nineteenth century: seven pieces are in the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya, one large box for clothing is in the Idemitsu Museum, one box for personal accessories (tebako) is in the Florence and Herbert Irving Collection in New York and there are a few boxes in private collections. The Irving piece is described and fully illustrated in James C. Y. Watt and Barbara Brennan Ford, East Asian Lacquer: The Florence and Herbert Irving Collection (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1991), No. 124, pp. 250-54. It is of interest to note that the Irving box was first sold by Christie's London in 1894 and then again in 1990 [see Fine Japanese Works of Art, Christie's London (20 November, 1990), lot 969]. A study of the Kamehime set was published by Koike Tomio of the Tokugawa Art Museum in Kinko soshi 15 (1988), pp. 407-25. For a study of the Koami family see William Harry Samonides, "The Koami family of maki-e lacquerers", PhD dissertation, Harvard University, 1991, especially pages 105-111 and 231-33.
The pieces in the Kamehime set are all decorated with a landscape of dew-laden chrysanthemums bent over a flowing stream and the set is usually referred to by the name "White dew on chrysanthemums". The theme is derived from a poem by the late Heian poet Fujiwara Shunzei (1114-1204) offering a wish for long life:
oru sode niou
kiku no tsuyu
uchiharau ni mo
chiyo wa henu beshi
In the instant that an immortal's sleeve brushes white dew from the fragrant chrysanthemums, a thousand years pass.
The three characters for "yamabito no" (an immortal) from the first line of the poem are actually written around the rocks and shoreline on the incense box. The phrase "kiku no tsuyu", or white dew from the chrysanthemums, is, of course, rendered in pictorial form by the lacquer artist. This combination of writing and picture to recreate a poem is called ashide-uta-e (reed poem-picture), a classical technique first used to great effect in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.