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Cataloguing this small suzuribako (inkstone box) led me to ponder the source of the design. Plovers flying over waves (nami chidori)) are a familiar motif, not only of works of art, but also in fabric design. The combination represents the courage and indomitable spirit of the migrating birds as they battle the windswept waves, a symbol of perseverance and courage.

The Japanese name of the plover – chidori – comes from the ‘chi’ sound of its call, but is also a homophone for 千鳥 a thousand birds. The design of this work shows plovers soaring over sandbars and boulders.  pine trees with trunks that grow bent as a result of their constant exposure to the wind. The water ripples towards the shore, not forming waves, small rocky boulders in the foreground. The triple hollyhock leaf crest makes reference to the three houses of the Tokugawa clan.

The cover design echoes that of a celebrated 15th century writing box in the collection of Tokyo National Museum.  This earlier box has two kanji characters nestled among the boulders that refer to a poem from the Kokin Wakashū an anthology of poems compiled on the order of the Emperor Uda (867-931). The waka verse was written by Ki no Tsurayuki, ranked as one of the 36 Immortal Poets, and augurs a long life for the Emperor:

Wa ga kimi wa

Chiyo ni yachiyo

Sazareishi no

Iwao to narite

Koke no musu made

May our lord live on

A thousand years, eight thousand years

Until small pebbles

Become mighty boulders

And are overgrown with moss

The plovers 千鳥 that swoop across both the internal and external design, reinforce the idea of ‘thousands’ of generations 千代,an association that in turn gives the little bird its auspicious link to families. Here the family crest implies this same wish for to the Tokugawa, as that  made for the Emperor Uda.

The repetition of a decoration from classical design over the centuries was quite common and was the mark of a refined taste. The setting is identified on Tokyo National Museum’s colbase (from where the images are sourced) as “a famous scenic spot in present day Yamanishi Province” https://colbase.nich.go.jp/collection_items/tnm/H-448?locale=en

In both examples the plovers are painted in s an archaic manner, the wing feathers reduced to straight parallel lines. The interior of the small box and the round waterdropper in lobed surround echo that of the TNM box, but in simplified form.

Read more articles by Rosemary Bandini
Articles by Rosemary Bandini
Rosemary Bandini Japanese Netsuke Catalogue 2019

The latest fully illustrated catalogue – Japanese netsuke and Sagemono (Summer 2020) – is available

Specialising in antique Japanese netsuke and inro, Rosemary Bandini started her career in the Japanese department of Sotheby’s in 1977, before marrying Luigi Bandini of Eskenazi Ltd. With him, Rosemary worked on the preparation of exhibition catalogues until 1996, subsequently organizing two further exhibitions for Eskenazi. Read more.

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