Turtle-shaped and strung with carved toggles and cord, this object instantly piques the curiosity of the viewer. The diminutive lacquered wood sculpture is, in fact, a Japanese container, referred to as an inrō, which is composed of separate compartments and held together with a cord. These small containers were often used as medicine boxes, containing pills or powders, but could also hold confections, tobacco or other sundries, since the kimono, the traditional Japanese costume worn by all classes, does not have any pockets. The larger ornament at the end of the cords, called the netsuke, is used to attach the inrō to the obi (sash), worn around the waist of the kimono-wearer, and the smaller toggle, called the ojime, is used to tighten or loosen the cords to allow for access to the items held inside the inrō. By the 18th century, inrō became fashionable accessories, and those affluent enough could afford to collect a number of them to match any occasion.[1]

This particular inrō has been charmingly carved into the shape of a turtle, as are the accompanying ojime and netsuke. The use of the turtle as subject matter for inrōs and netsukes is not uncommon, and the imagery of the turtle has long existed in the cultural heritage of Japan – drawing from Chinese influence, the Black Tortoise is one of four supernatural animals who represent the Four Quarters of the Universe. However, the symbolism of the turtle has continued to develop in a uniquely Japanese sense: according to ancient lore, the sacred mountain, Hōraizan (known to be the Abode of the Immortals), is believed to stand on the back of a tortoise, in a supportive act. However, when seen with a crane, the turtle conveys the idea of long life, as the two creatures, known as Tsuru to Kame, often feature in myths and artwork together as the attributes of the god of longevity, Fukurokujiu. The tortoise is also an attribute of Kompira, a special deity of fishermen – if the devout happen to catch a turtle, they must return it to the sea after writing on its shell “attendant of Kompira,” and giving it a sip of sake.[2]

In any way the turtle is interpreted – as an emblem of support, a symbol of longevity, or even a sign from a protective sea god, this inrō, ojime, and netsuke embody the union of practicality and a symbolic beauty that Japanese art and design so often employ.


Jenny Shin is a Curatorial intern in the Product Design and Decorative Arts Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, and is a 2017-2018 Hunter Mellon Arts Fellow.


[1] Albert Brockhous, Netsukes (New York: Duffield & Company, 1924), 10.

[2] Katherine M. Ball, Animal Motifs in Asian Art: An Illustrated Guide to Their Meanings and Aesthetics (Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 1927), 41-51.

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