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Himitsu Bako - The Japanese Puzzle Box

The island of Japan was a closed society for many centuries and, despite only knowing of its existence in the last one hundred years, it is suspected that the art of Himitsu-Bako is much, much older. Nonetheless, it was not until the mid 1980's that Japan's Industry Minister declared the art form a National Traditional Handicraft. To be designated as such, a craft must be manufactured by hand by traditional artisans using traditional techniques and materials. The item created must have a place for practical use in every day life and production must be contained to a specific area or region. 

First manufactured for export in the 1870's, the Japanese Puzzle Box has come in a number of designs and colors, gaining the most popularity around World War II. Though boxes are fairly common and valuable, the art form can also be found in a number of various shapes, such as houses or boats. Commonly, these types of secret boxes were used as piggy banks or coin holders. While some boxes contained only one secret compartment, others contained both an upper and lower hiding space. The smallest of personal secret boxes were frequently used to hold sewing needles, jewelry or other precious keepsakes.  

Were it not for the wide variety of trees in the Hakone-Odawara region of Japan it is difficult to tell if Himitsu-Bako would have ever existed; or if it did, whether or not it would have been as vivid as the use of the various natural woods allow. The marquetry technique created in Japan's Edo period became the trademark of not only the Japanese Puzzle Box but the entire region of Hakone in the Kanagawa Prefecture. Though entirely south of Japan's capital of Tokyo, or Edo at the time, Hakone had its own appeal in its natural hot springs. As was custom for the tourists who visited the spot regularly, a Japanese Puzzle Box was purchased upon leaving as a memento of the trip or souvenir for loved ones. 

As interest in the Japanese Puzzle Box spread and they started to become fashionable, the designs also became more decorative and complex. Finally, when they were slated for export, they became even more ornate and greater in size. Even though the secret boxes were simply meant to hold valuables and had little decoration in the beginning, the intrigue of this simple creation has led to a much cherished and respected art form.

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