Arte-Factual: Metal Inrō

It’s been a while since I last wrote about an artefact from Tomb Raider 2013. So without further ado, it’s time to examine one of the many collectable items hidden throughout the Shanty Town: the Metal Inrō.

A closer look at the metal inrō case Lara finds in the Shanty Town (Photo credit: Brandon Klassen, Tomb Raider HQ Archives)
A closer look at the metal inrō case Lara finds in the Shanty Town.
Photo credit: Brandon Klassen, Tomb Raider HQ Archives.

Inrō are small cases that were once used by Japanese men and women to carry identity seals (hanko), herbal medicine, tobacco, acupuncture needles, and other small personal effects around with them, not unlike a modern-day wallet or pouch.

These cases consisted of anything between 2 and 7 interlocking compartments and were held together by silk cords threaded through each of the compartments. These were secured with a knot and suspended from the owner’s obi, or sash, with the help of a netsuke. These decorative toggles would be pulled between the obi and hakama (traditional wide pleated trousers) or the obi and kimono to keep the inrō case in place, as shown in the image below.

An ojime bead  was normally used as a sliding cord fastener, though this is missing from the inrō seen in the game. If the owner wanted to retrieve something from their inrō case, they would simply slide the bead up towards the netsuke, which allowed the owner access to each of the individual compartments. The inrō case could then be closed by sliding the bead back down towards the lid.

How to wear an inrō case (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
How to wear an inrō case. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Inrō were usually made from woods such as boxwood or hardwood, lacquer, ivory (now banned in most countries), bone, or brass and other metals. Most of them were decorated with shell inlay, gold foil, maki-e paintings made from lacquer and metal powder, or intricate carvings. Common motifs included flowers, animals, birds, mythical creatures, abstract designs, natural landscapes, and scenes from Japanese folklore.

The metal inrō found in the game is decorated with floral designs, possibly stylized chrysanthemums. The chrysanthemum (kiku) is associated with purity, elegance, and autumn, and it was so revered that the flower was adopted as the Imperial Seal of Japan in the 14th century.

Unlike most netsuke, the one attached to the metal inrō is a fairly simple design: a flat disc featuring a floral motif. Early netsuke were carved from wood or stone and were plain and functional but they became increasingly elaborate as time went on. There are hundreds of varieties of netsuke, ranging from 3D carvings of animals and human figures to miniature Noh masks, deities, and even erotic images. Popularized during a time when Japan had isolated itself from the outside world, netsuke came to reflect traditional Japanese culture, folklore, and religious beliefs.

And if you think ojime beads were any less intricate, guess again. Skilled carvers could take up to 6 hours, perhaps even longer, to carve, decorate, and polish a single bead!

An inrō case with guri (cloud scroll) designs (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
An inrō case with guri (cloud scroll) designs.
Photo credit:
Wikimedia Commons.

The vast majority of the inrō found in museums and antiques shops date back to the Edo Period (1603-1868). Early inrō were quite basic and simply decorated but they soon evolved into miniature works of art. The high level of artistic skill and craftsmanship involved in creating them led them to be seen as status symbols. Some of the most beautiful examples were commissioned by samurai, provincial rulers, and wealthy merchants as a simple, yet effective way of advertising their wealth and social standing.

Nowadays, inrō are rarely used but they are still produced as collectors items and can be seen in museums across the world. A fantastic collection of inrō can be found in the Met Museum’s collection. Looking at these stunning miniature works of art, it’s little wonder that Lara found herself drawn to them, even while she was surrounded by hostile Solarii cultists.


Sources & Further Reading:

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If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more about the art and artefacts seen in the Tomb Raider games, feel free to check out the other articles listed in the “Arte-Factual” archive.

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About Kelly M

Kelly McGuire is a writer, part-time translator, and gamer who is passionate about archaeology, language learning, travel, and wildlife conservation. She tweets under the username @TRHorizons and is the admin and chief content creator for Tomb Raider Horizons.

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8 Comments on “Arte-Factual: Metal Inrō”

    1. Thanks. I think they’ve been making a lot of effort to use real artefacts in the last few games but they’ve really done a great job with the latest game. I wonder if they have an archaeologist working for them as a consultant…

      The older games are less historically accurate but they’re probably the best in terms of gameplay. TR2 still remains my favourite TR game and I don’t think anything is ever going to beat that.. ^_^