A Look at Japanese Folk Tobacciana

When Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy sailed into Uraga harbor, near present-day Tokyo, in 1853, he was ald japan tobaccodetermined to force Japan to open its ports and begin trading with the U.S., whether it wanted to or not. Fearful of foreign influences but more fearful of American firepower, the Tokugawa Shogunate reluctantly signed a treaty in 1854, and Japan resumed its love-hate affair with the West. But there was one gift from the West that Japan had already happily embraced. Japan adored tobacco. Japan loved to smoke. And when Japan takes to something, whether it is cars, cameras, or tobacco, it makes it wholly its own.

Tobacciana Japanese style is varied, interesting, and collectible. Some of the most captivating objects are tonkotsu, the portable smoking sets that were indispensable to the Japanese for several hundred years.

The country had not always been closed to the West. From 1543, the Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch had all established trading relations. It was a time of political upheaval and civil war, with various samurai clans seeking to centralize power. Yet during this period, foreigners were allowed to travel in the country, and as early as 1549, the Jesuit Francis Xavier was even allowed to proselytize.

A sizable number of Japanese adopted Christianity. In 1582 Japan sent a delegation of young men to the Vatican. All this came to a halt by 1639. The fiercely nationalistic Tokugawa clan had achieved domination. They slammed the door to the West, citing its corrupting influence on Japanese society. Only the decidedly secular Dutch were permitted to remain, under strictly controlled conditions. Their ships were allowed to land and trade on Dejima Island in Nagasaki harbor.

The West bought luxury goods such as porcelain and textiles. In return, sometime during the mid-16th century, Iberian traders brought to Japan a new product from their American colonies—tobacco. This herb, as it was referred to in the literature of the time, enchanted all strata of Japanese society. Because it was an entirely new thing, brought to Japan by the Namban-sen (southern barbarians), it had no assigned place in Japan’s hierarchical society. It was one of the few pleasures that all classes and both sexes could enjoy.

With tobacco seeds brought by the traders, Japan began growing its own tobacco, possibly as early as 1600. Initially the government worried ald japan tobaccothat valuable farm land needed to grow food would be given over to this new herb and futilely sought to prohibit and then to control its cultivation. By the 17th century tobacco was firmly established as a popular consumer luxury.

In an essay written in 1609, Imperial Prince Toshihito commented that “whether gentle or simple, cleric or lay, man or woman, there is no one who does not like this herb…Persons who know nothing of one another, who come from different worlds and walks of life, can nonetheless find mutual ground and links of friendship in their common liking for the herb, and those with a taste for poetry can find in it matters to inspire them. Wherever one may walk, there is no quarter of the city unscented by its fragrant smoke…”

And smoke they did. At first, Japanese pipes and tobacco pouches imitated the Western model. Pipes were made of clay and were long and thin with small bowls. Meanwhile Western pipes were evolving to have somewhat shorter stems and larger bowls. Westerners carried shredded tobacco in pouches that could be conveniently stowed in their pockets. The Japanese, however, retained slender pipes with small bowls. And they developed their own way of preparing tobacco for smoking. It was cured, dried, and shredded so fine that it was almost a powder. This was a luxury product, albeit a modest one, so a little had to go a long way.

A new pastime required new accessories. For the home, a set of utensils called a tobako-bon was developed. Basically, it consisted of a serving tray, a pot containing charcoal from which to light one’s pipe, and an ashtray. Other items could be added. These could be simple or elaborate, made from plain wood or exquisite lacquer, depending on what one could afford.

Traditional Japanese clothing has no pockets, but people always need to carry things. This was done by using sagemono (“things that hang down”), containers hung from the waist. The upper classes carried lacquer inro, small rectangular boxes divided into compartments for medicines. When the need arose to carry tobacco, the inro model was simplified to a single compartment. And since everyone was allowed to smoke, these new containers, called tonkotsu, were made in a variety of materials to suit all budgets.

The fabrication of tonkotsu was not without controversy. Japan had strict sumptuary laws—people were supposed to know their place and not get above themselves. In 1704 government edicts prohibited the use of gold and silver in any wares except those used for official gifts. The edict specifically mentioned tobacco pouches and containers. For the ordinary working stiff, this didn’t mean much. But there was also a striving merchant class. Although often viewed contemptuously by the ruling samurai, the merchants often had more money than the samurai had. The merchants had to tread very carefully—samurai were entitled to carry two swords and kill at will, so one wouldn’t want to give offense.

Still, folks liked to show off-they just had to find a discreet way to do it. The basic tobacco set had four parts: the tonkotsu, or tobacco container; ald tobaccothe kiseru, or pipe; the kiseru-zu-tsu, the pipe sheath; and the ojime, a pierced bead that served as a toggle to anchor the sheath to the container. Using these basic forms, artisans fashioned sets from every sort of material. The wealthy could buy sets made of silk, ivory, glazed leather, or lacquer. They were products of elegant design and were small enough to be inconspicuous.

The tonkotsu of the middle class were more fun. They embody what the West calls folk art and what the early 20th-century aesthetician Yanagi Soetsu defined in a word he coined as mingei, literally “people art.” Yanagi wrote that mingei should be “unself-consciously handmade and unsigned for the people by the people, cheaply and in quantity…[with] no obtruding personality in them.” Tonkotsu fairly meets the description, except possibly for the personality part, because the maker’s sense of humor does shine through.

Like folk artists everywhere, the tonkotsu artisans used ordinary materials—straw, paulownia wood, tree roots, bamboo, white metal, small bits of mother-of-pearl, and glass. The containers are only 4″ high, but the small scope did not hinder creativity. Japan has always had a genius for miniaturization. Often the figures the artisans carved were drawn from folk religion.

A good example is the popularity of Daruma as a tobacco container. Daruma (also known as Bodhidharma) is the legendary monk who is said to have brought Zen Buddhism from India to China from where it made its way to Japan. Daruma dolls have come to be seen as good luck symbols. Daruma is often shown satirically or humorously—his story does lend itself to comic interpretation.

It is said that to achieve enlightenment, Daruma meditated while seated in a cave for nine years. His legs atrophied. Once during this rather strict regimen, he fell asleep. When he woke up, he was so disgusted with himself that he tore off his eyelids. A tea plant—the world’s first—sprang up from his eyelids. He ultimately decided that tea was OK; sipping it aided meditation.

It’s not clear how Daruma became associated with smoking, although in woodblock prints he is often shown with a pipe. This might seem to show that he was attached to worldly pleasures. Not so—Daruma’s smoking is a good example of Zen antilogic. If you are truly detached, you can smoke because you don’t have to smoke.

Daruma’s typical oval shape lends itself very nicely to a small container. His face serves as the lid. The face is usually carved from a hard fine-grained wood for better detail. To achieve a glaring wide-eyed stare, the artist inserts bits of mother-of-pearl. There are other good-luck and religious symbols incorporated into his robe: a spider for industry and a butterfly representing the soul.

Daruma serves a dual purpose—it carries your tobacco, and it is an engi, a luck-bringer. A Westerner might have a rabbit’s foot dangling from a key chain, but when you’re carrying Daruma, you have some serious juice. Daruma is not always portrayed with a fierce expression. He is also depicted as the yawning Daruma, his mouth open in what looks like a grin, and his arms raised in a stretch. The artist may even give him crossed legs. The upraised arms work nicely with the design. From the back of the face, cords run through the top of the tonkotsu and then through Daruma’s hands and are attached to the pipe sheath.

In making a tonkotsu, the artisan’s imagination wasn’t limited to Daruma. One artist used bone-chip inlay in a rectangular wooden box and attached to it, as a pipe sheath, a hollowed piece of antler covered in script. Another artist took a tree root and shaped it into what appears to be a mound of rocks with a small flower blooming on top. A modest but artful box is made from straw woven in three patterns and painted.

While tonkotsu are the main attraction, the other pieces of a tobacco set are also worthy of attention. Pipe sheaths are often nicely carved, also with good-luck figures. Spiders were very popular with the striving merchant class. To accompany a yawning Daruma, a pipe sheath echoes the tonkotsu’s design with Daruma having a good long stretch. The pipes themselves, and the beads on mingei tobacco sets, tend to be simple. Inscribed silver pipe fittings and elaborate netsuke are usually reserved for the more expensive varieties.

As popular as pipe smoking was, exposure to Western ways would change pipe-smoking culture, though the love of tobacco would continue unabated. Travelers from the West would witness this sea change as it was happening. While Japan was developing rapidly around them, visitors wanted to absorb as much of quaint old Japan as they could. One famous visitor who arrived in 1871 and stayed for two years was Charles Longfellow, son of America’s leading poet. Along with getting tattooed, which was a favorite souvenir, Longfellow had himself photographed in traditional carpenter’s dress. Prominently displayed with him is a tobako-bon.

The formidable Victorian traveler Isabella Bird frequently described Japanese smoking habits in her epistolary travel journal. She visited Japan in 1878 and journeyed through regions that had never seen a foreigner, let alone a foreign woman. She wrote that her kuruma (another name for rickshaw) runners, clad in blue cotton drawers, shirts open at the front, and tattoos, had a waist girdle with a tiny pipe and pouch attached. When they took a break, out came the pipe, to be filled with a minute amount of tobacco. Three puffs per pipeful, and they were good to go.

Women, Bird observed, were just as devoted to their pipes. At temple fairs, girls working in the popular archery galleries served tea and sweetmeats and smoked their tiny pipes. When Bird stopped at a tea house, “one smiling girl brought me the tabako-bon, a square wood or lacquer tray, with a china or bamboo charcoal-holder and an ash-pot upon it.” So ingrained was smoking as an act of hospitality that when Bird declined, “they were much surprised at my not smoking and supposed me to be under a vow!”

A profound change Bird frequently commented on was the popularity of Western dress. When one had pockets and purses, tonkotsu were no longer needed. Cigarettes, introduced in the 1870’s, were also rapidly gaining popularity. Cigarettes meant a whole new group of accessories—cigarette and match cases and, for the home, cigarette boxes rather than the tobako-bon.

Tonkotsu became a thing of the past. The only place where they are now seen in active use is the kabuki theater. They are included as part of the actors’ costumes and are invaluable for “stage business”—there are often scenes of conferring and smoking.

For tobacciana buffs, tonkotsu of the folk and the fine variety survive. At a recent Pier show in New York City, the tonkotsu on offer ranged in price from $400 for a nicely carved tree root to $5500 for one made of ivory. They were not necessarily being sold by dealers specializing in Japanese antiques.

The tonkotsu pictured in this article were found in antiques/flea markets in locations as diverse as New York City, Brimfield, and Tokyo. Their prices ranged from a modest $60 (the straw tonkotsu) to $350 (the double Daruma). A recent visit to the Trocadero Web site turned up eight tonkotsu on offer, with prices from $110 to $3975.

Many tonkotsu doubtless came to the United States with American GIs. The U.S. occupied Japan for seven years, and tobacco items are typical “mantiques.” These little objects made great souvenirs: small, portable, and durable. They may have lost their utility but not their charm and humor. And for fans of Daruma, there’s that luck thing—who couldn’t use a bit of that?

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