Nihon Zatsuroku
An Online Japanese Miscellany

= Inrô =

by Anthony J. Bryant

About the inrô

     As Japanese clothing has no pockets, the Japanese needed a place to stash small objects. Sleeves could — and sometimes did — serve, but small things were a problem. Papers were usually carried inserted into the front folds of the kimono, but where would they keep smaller things?

     The answer was a class of objects called “sagemono” (literally, “dangled things”) which could include anything from pouches to pipe-and-tobacco sets to inrô (= seal cases). Inrô are actually a very sophisticated development in terms of sagemono, and appeared on the scene very late, toward the end of the SCA's period. The first true sagemono, dangling from the waist sashes of the upper-class, appear on Kamakura period scrolls, but they are not like the inrô commonly known today. Most of the inrô that appear in books about them and in museum exhibits are usually the Edo period models, which were greatly and creatively decorated (often with elaborate carving and applied gold or mother-of-pearl inlay) when compared to their earlier cousins.

     As the name implies, the inrô was originally intended to store the small seals used by Japanese in lieu of signatures. Despite their original intended purpose, inrô were ended up being used to store medicines, which came in small folded paper packets, and pills. They still so serve — that's where I keep my Advil and Sweet’n’Low. They are also useful for such things as car keys, folding money, an ID, or even a watch. Some people carry a few emergency cigarettes and a lighter in one.

     Inrô were made of wood or built up stiff paper and were typically lacquered or decorated in some fashion. Often they were decorated with elaborate makie work (a gold-and-lacquer technique), but that tends to put the design smack into the middle of the Edo period. The inrô pictured above left would not be atypical of the late-period models. Some were left in a natural wood tone, but not many.

     Some inrô had a lid and a single large compartment, while others had three or even more sections, all connected by the cord running through the sides of the inrô. Obviously, these are more difficult to make, and more difficult to use if you store objects smaller than the odd pill.

     A small bead helps to secure the lid in place when it is drawn down along the cords. A netsuke, a slightly larger ornamental “toggle,” holds the inrô secured in the sash, through which it is passed. Netsuke are often ivory, though metal, wood, and other materials have been used. Collectors love them for their intricate artistry, many having been the product of genius sculptors, masters of the miniature. The most elaborate netsuke are Edo products.


Making a cheap inrô

     The best inrô were made of layers of paper, lacquered solidly, and polished. There were wooden ones, however, and in the interests of simplicity, that is what I am presenting here. The first thing to remember about inrô is that there is no set size; there are some truly odd shapes on record. Therefore, should you choose to make an inrô 6" wide, 4" tall, and 1.5" thick, feel free. It will be odd, but not impossible. The measurements I give are based on the average inrô, but don't feel bound by them. As with all things, let your own needs be your guide — think of what you will be using the inrô for.


5 or more sheets of c. 4 x 3 x 3/16 inch veneer
Wood card stock
3 feet of narrow braided cord
Wooden bead
Netsuke (or a larger wooden bead)
Scroll saw
Wood glue
Lacquer/paint or varnish (optional)


     You can use wood veneer of anything from 1/8" to 3/16" thick for the panels, but thinner is better. Remember that you will need an odd number of panels, at least three for the “core” and one each for the front and back. I generally suggest using a slightly thicker wood for the front and back, as the planing, filing, and sanding could bring the outside dangerously close to the core.

     The square channels that result from this method through which the cords pass tend to cause some curiosity: people will ask you how you drilled square holes. The proper response, as I learned from Mitsuhashi Masaie-dono, is to say that you used a square drill bit.


     1. Rough-cut the slats to shape, then clamp them all together tightly. (If you want to leave natural wood finish, be careful to clamp the inrô between scrap bits of wood so as to not mar the surface.) Cut the inrô out.

     2. Remove the pieces you will use for front and back facing and set them aside. Re-clamp the remaining pieces together (this is the core). Drill four small holes marking the corners where you will turn the blade of your scroll saw. Cut out the cavity of the inrô, and either toss the scrap pieces or save them for a baby inrô you can make later. (If you're patient and careful, you can do this two or three times.) What this will leave you with is several veneer layers looking like vaguely square doughnuts.

     3. Take the center panel, and remove a strip from both long ends equal to two times the thickness of the wood. This is to form the channels for the braid. Take one of those removed strips and cut it in half length-wise, producing two square strips. These will be used to provide the sides of the channels.

     4. Glue the strips to the edges of a core piece, and then glue in the center block, and then another core piece above that. This will produce a section of the core (perhaps the whole thing, depending on the number of panels you are using) that is thick and has a square channel running down the right and left sides. Glue the rest of the core together (if you have more layers), clamp tightly, and leave to dry.

     5. Take the thinnest card stock you can find and cut two pieces the size and shape of the core opening. Follow this by cutting two narrower strips the width of the core (less the width of the two pieces of card stock, of course). The idea is to make a topless and bottomless “box” which fits snugly in the core. Put these pieces aside until ready for them.

     6. Glue the surface pieces to the empty core. This makes the inrô an airtight, solid wood box (albeit one with two open channels running down the sides). Clamp it down and let the thing dry out.

     7. Complete the external forming of the inrô. Plane and sand to your heart's content; you can even carve on it. But remember where the hollow section is! You don't want to open it up by accident while sanding. After finishing the form, cut across the inrô where the lid will open. Remember that you want about 3/16" or 1/2" of the hollow part to be inside the lid.

     8. Insert the cut thin stock to form the inner box, gluing it in place as you insert it into the bottom of the inrô. The protrusion above forms the lip which will hold the lid in place. Let it dry. For all intents and purposes, your inrô is done.

     9. Lacquer, decorate, paint, or shellac all you want. (Remember to do the inside also.) You may need to shave down the card lip to allow for the thickness of the paint on the inside lid and the lip. Whatever you do, let the thing dry before you close the inrô (and then give it a couple of extra days just to be safe) or you'll only be able to open it with is a hammer.

     10. Feed the cord through the netsuke and bead, then the long channels on the inrô. At the bottom, tie a small ornamental bow-knot and fringe the ends of the cord.

     Congratulations. You now have an inrô.


Online resources

     Netsuke & Inro at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London.



  This page was last modified on: 12/17/2014

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