The writing on the box is called hakogaki. If a tea utensil is new (or discovered without a box), the owner, dealer, or artist may ask a tea master to certify its quality by writing on the box. This guarantee is called a kiwame. A tea utensil without a box is one of questionable origin. At tea gatherings, the guests may ask to see the box of a particularly interesting item, such as a tea scoop or scroll. The idea is not that they wish to confirm the piece’s authenticity (although this happens, of course). The reason to view a box is that the calligraphy is interesting and may provide some additional information about the object in question.
Just as they have been for centuries, boxes are of great significance. Most are never displayed in the tea room. Their first function is protective. Because there are many natural disasters such as earthquakes in Japan, tea utensils are removed from their boxes only for use. They are not routinely displayed on a shelf. The boxes are mainly made of unlacquered paulownia, known for its resistance to bugs and for having the capability to breathe, expand, and contract. Durable cotton or silk strings on the boxes are tied in a standard manner. Their color may signify the tea lineage affiliation of the owner or the person who signed the box. Such boxes are meant to last for centuries. As mentioned earlier, really fine articles may have a series of nesting receptacles.
The writing on the boxes, hakogaki, is a cataloging method as well as a guarantee of the object’s value and provenience. Practitioners of one tea lineage tend not to buy utensils signed by masters from other lineages—the organizational tie is too remote. The utensil is not part of their past. Consequently, in the case of something like a tea bowl made by one of the masters of the Raku lineage,4 a dealer may have multiple boxes constructed, each destined to go to a different grand master for inscription. The practice is expensive since a monetary gift accompanies each request for hakogaki. But, in this way, the potential pool of purchasers is broadened, and the value of the utensil increased.
Some tea masters will only sign boxes which have been constructed to certain quality standards. For example, the corners of the part of the inner lid which frames the writing must be mitered, not butted. Making a fine quality box is also an art form. Unfortunately, unscrupulous dealers have learned that putting an inferior bowl in a good box is one way to make a sale. Conscientious tea masters will not sign a box for such an item, because it calls their judgment and integrity into question. And, it is commonly believed that well-known tea masters sign fewer utensils because they are more discriminating. Sadly, famous tea masters tend to sign a smaller number of articles as they get older, knowing that dealers become more aggressive in requesting box inscriptions in anticipation of the utensil’s value increasing with the death of the signer.