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Arte-Factual: Metal Inro (Tomb Raider 2013)

Japanese inrō, a wallet and carry-case for a different age

It’s been a while since I last wrote about an artefact from Tomb Raider 2013. Over a month, in fact. So without further ado, it’s time to examine one of the many collectible 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, or other small personal effects around with them, not unlike a modern-day wallet or pouch. These cases, which consisted of anything between 2 and 7 interlocking compartments, were held together by silk cords threaded through each of the compartments, secured with a knot, and suspended from the owner’s obi (帯), or sash, with the help of a netsuke (根付), or decorative toggle, which would be pulled between the obi and hakama (袴, traditional wide pleated trousers) or kimono to keep the inrō in place (see the image below).

An ojime bead (緒締め) was normally used as a sliding cord fastener, though this is missing from the inrō seen in the game. If the owner wished to retrieve something from his inrō case, he or she would 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 simply 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 wood (such as boxwood or hardwood), lacquer, ivory (now banned in most countries), bone, or metal (such as brass) and were often decorated with shell inlay, gold foil, maki-e paintings (蒔絵) made from lacquer and metal powder, or intricate carvings. Common motifs included flowers, animals, birds, mythical creatures, abstract designs (e.g. whorls), landscapes, and scenes from Japanese folklore. The metal inrō found in the game is decorated with a floral design, possibly stylized chrysanthemums. The chrysanthemum, or kiku (菊), is associated with purity, elegance and the autumn and was so revered that it 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, like inrō, 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. Due to the high level of artistic skill and craftsmanship involved in creating them, they came to be regarded 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 here. Looking at these stunning works of art, it’s no wonder Lara found herself drawn to them…even whilst surrounded by hostile Solarii cultists. 😉

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About Kelly M (394 Articles)
A Gibraltarian-born blogger, gamer, and archaeology enthusiast with a passion for languages and wildlife conservation. Tweets under the username @TombRaiderArch and runs the official fansite, The Archaeology of Tomb Raider.

6 Comments on Arte-Factual: Metal Inro (Tomb Raider 2013)

  1. Great article! I too always wondered if the artefacts in the new Tomb Raider were real, I’m glad that they are, I like it when Tomb Raider takes itself seriously and isn’t all magical swords and ghosts y’no.

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    • 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.. ^_^

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  2. I’d love to read about the Hannya mask if you do more of these.

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  3. Very intriguing article. Whilst I was playing Tomb Raider 2013, I often wondered as to whether or not artifacts ,like the inrō and fans, existed in real life.

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    • Thanks! They did a pretty good job of researching real-life artefacts for Tomb Raider 2013 and hope they keep this up for the upcoming sequel. 🙂

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