Ivory carving (okimono) of a boy holding a tsuzura (bamboo clothes box) above his head, with a monkey eating fruit atop the box, manufactured in Japan in the early Meiji Period (1868-1880).

An okimono is an small, carved Japanese decorative object created specifically for display, and typically depicts domestic scenes of farmers, fishermen, and children and occasionally, studies of birds, animals and flowers.

Similar to, but larger than netsuke - which served a practical function as a fastener or toggle - okimono were often presented in the tokonoma, an interior alcove or recesss in Japanese homes for the display of pictures or decorative art objects. During the Meiji period (1868-1912), many okimono were made for export to the west.

The three central elements of this okimono - the boy, the tsuzura, and the monkey - may individually have their origins in Japanese folk tales, though there in no folk tale that incorporates all three figures into the one story. One such story that may have provided the influence for this okimono is the story of the monkey and the crab. The story recounts how a mischievous monkey persuaded a crab to trade its rice cake for a persimmon seed. Taking the seed, the crab planted it and it soon grew into a bountiful fruit tree. Seeing this, the monkey climbed the tree and began eating the ripe persimmons. When the crab begged the monkey to stop, the monkey pelted the crab with hard green persimmons, almost killing it. The crab's family sought revenge, and after torturing the monkey by burning its paws with hot food and having it stung with wasps, crushed it to death with a mortar and pestle.

Depictions of the monkey and the crab tale are common to nesuke and okimono carvings, though often quite clearly depict these two central characters. However, the monkey atop the tsuzura - in place of a tree - eating a fruit, possibly a ripe persimmon, may allude to aspects of this popular tale.

Physical Description

Seated boy, lifting a Japanese portable clothing box (tsuzura) above his head. Sitting atop the box is a monkey eating a piece of fruit. No markings. The arms have been broken and reglued.

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