Tobacco carries are tabako-ire, but collectors today generally limit that term to soft sided carries, with hard sided tobacco carries referred to as tonkotsu.
Soft sided tobacco carries made of coated paper, tabako-ire, first appeared in Kyoto in the mid 17th century. By the end of that century coated paper tobako-ire were in common use throughout Japan and apparently continued to be popular well into the 18th century until the increasingly costly decoration of the coated paper variety led to cloth and leather alternatives. These in turn came to predominate in the following, 19th, century.
In earliest form it appears that tabako-ire included both sack shaped pouches held closed at the top by an ojime, probably a variant of a kinchaku, a money purse, and rectangular pouches closed by a flap held tight by a himo wound around, probably derived from the hiuchi-bukuro, a flint pouch.
The former style may be seen in early drawings hanging from a kiseru by himo attached to one or both kata. It is also reported that in the 17th century samurai would go on flower viewing excursions (sic) carrying very long kiseru with tabako-ire tied to the pipe.
The latter, rectangular, hiuchi-bukuro, style pouch however, soon came to predominate. Early prints and paintings show this style hanging below the obi with a himo tied around for closure but later prints, as well as all surviving examples that I have seen, appear to have a clasp closure. All the examples of this style that I have seen have a half pocket inside the pouch, a pocket that I suppose may have been originally for flint and tinder but which I suspect by the 19th century was often used to hold a natamame style nobe-kiseru or other small kiseru.
By the 18th/19th century the kanseinui, flap, of the rectangular style tabako-ire was held shut by a kanagu or kanamono, a three piece metal closure system as follows. The omote kanagu piece is affixed to the front side of the flap and almost always has a raised or embossed decoration. The companion, uraza, piece is affixed to the inside of the flap and is either undecorated or engraved. The third piece of the system is a utilitarian prong on the pouch itself that clasps to the uraza effecting the closure of the tabako-ire. Because omote kanagu and uraza decoration involved two different metal working skills, if the uraza as well as the omote were to be decorated it generally it took two artisans to make a kanagu. On occasion however, the omote kanagu was not original but rather a refitting of a menuki, metal sword furniture, or an obi ____ , an obi pin. Like kiseru, kanagu were the beneficiary of the 1870s sword making ban. While seemingly the kanagu was permanently affixed to the tabako-ire, in fact kanagu were often replaced to fit the season or occasion and an ensemble including a tabako-ire might be made up with alternative kanagu for that purpose. Lastly, it should be remembered that while the kanagu is an important element of the tabako-ire, it is only one element. The Japanese pipe smoker devoted considerable funds to the fine leathers or fabrics of the pouch and indeed it was the fukuro-monoya, the pouch and purse maker, not the metal artisan that was in overall charge of putting together an ensemble.
Collectors today refer to hard sided tobacco carries as tonkotsu, it appears however, that that term was not generally used in Japan prior to the 20th century with tobacco carries of all sorts being referred to as tabako-ire. Yet even if the terminology is historically suspect, it is now universal, at least among collectors and equally important, useful, so it will be followed here. That said tonkotsu whatever the proper name are found in a variety of shapes and materials, most commonly wood or sometimes metal dating back to as early as the mid 17th century.
An early form of tonkotsu was a rectangular shape, roughly 4”-5” tall, 3” wide and 2”-3” deep, consisting of two stacked compartments, the bottom one shallow, probably used to hold flint, steel and tinder, and the top one deep, probably used to hold the tobacco. Other then that seldom seen style, tonkotsu are invariably single compartment containers. They can be found made out of diverse materials and in diverse shapes but predominately they were made of wood in one of four styles, a thick round shape with the opening cover in the center of the oval; a container retaining the shape of a natural object such as a wood burl or an animal horn and opening at the top; a shape caved as a three dimensional figure such as ho-tei, daruma or a skull with a top or side opening; or a rectangular shape with rounded sides and usually opening at the top. This latter style is most collected as it sometimes found with exceptional carvings, inlay work, lacquer or metal appliqué, a combination of the same or fully lacquered and can be quite valuable for their artistic merits.
It should be noted that tonkotsu are often, wrongly, referred to as inro, multi-compartment sagemono medicine and seal containers that are quite collectable in and of themselves, but readily distinguishable from tonkotsu because inro have more then one compartment, are generally smaller in overall size and most often are done in lacquer.
In general it appears that at any given time, at least among the ‘better classes’, the tabako-ire was substantially preferred to the tonkotsu. The former are found far more often in paintings and prints then the latter. And while this ratio does not seem to necessarily hold true in terms of surviving examples, it has to be remembered that tabako-ire are far more fragile and most probably comparatively few have survived. Lastly, given the popularity of smoking and personal smoking ensembles at all levels one would suppose that if tonkotsu were the preferred tobacco carry, we would see far more tonkotsu then inro, but in fact we see far more inro then tonkotsu.
A final historical note, it appears that towards the end of the 19th century there was a trend to smaller tobacco carries of both types, in some cases to less then half the typical size. In terms of tabako-ire this might be attributed to the then emerging custom of carrying an ensemble in the pocket of western style clothing, but in terms of tonkotsu, it can only be considered a turn of the century stylistic preference.
Back to Loring's page here