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A rare Japanese export lacquer medical instrument box

Edo-period, 1650-1700

L. 19 x W. 6 x H. 8.5 cm

This unconventionally shaped lacquer box, decorated in the pictorial-style, reveals a highly specialist functionality. The cylinder-shaped container with a variety of compartments, drawers, all the original brass ware and a nashiji interior, once contained a set of medical instruments for bleeding and cupping. The originally Chinese procedure of attaching heated glass cups to the body to cure patients of ‘imbalanced humours’ gathered great interest from European physicians stationed in Japan and other Asian trade posts. Bleeding, or bloodletting, on the other hand was an ancient European approach to healing, that was introduced in Asia by Christian missionaries.

We know only a few boxes of these kind, which serve as a symbol of medical knowledge exchange, exist. One of them, a transitional style one the whereabouts of which are unknown. A second one, in the pictorial-style, lacking the brass ware interior was auctioned at Christie’s in 1996 (both llustrated in ,Oliver Impey & Christiaan Jörg, Japanese Export Lacquer 1580-1850, Hotei Publishing, Leiden, 2005, p. 115). The present one is similar in decoration to the one sold at Christie’s but has the rare interior with all the original brass fittings.

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