Conjuring Credits

The Origins of Wonder

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Japanese Box

This is a wooden box without top or bottom, that sits upon a tray. One or two secret flaps in the hollow walls open and close, allowing the production or vanish of silks or other compressible items.

Until about 1920, “Jap Box” was a name used most often to refer to versions of the Tip-Over Box. That production device can be found in mid-nineteenth-century magic texts, and is probably of European origin. This apparatus was often called “The Inexhaustible Box,” but in the latter part of that century it was frequently called “The Japanese Inexhaustible Box” as well.

The confusion over the name is perhaps due to Professor Hoffmann, who described a variant, involving a tip-over box nested inside a larger box, as “The Japanese Inexhaustible Boxes” (Modern Magic, 1876, p. 393). There is no evidence for a Japanese origin of this apparatus.

Circa 1920, magic writers began referring to “The Japanese Handkerchief Box,” which within a few years was abbreviated to the “Jap Box.” This prop does seem to have actual Japanese origins. However, it does not, as is sometimes believed, have anything to do with the lacquering process known as Japanning. In fact, most such boxes are made of plain wood, sometimes painted, but not decoratively lacquered.

The handkerchief box first appeared in print in Sange Bukuro (loosely: Bag of Confessions), a book by Kanchu Sen published circa 1724. Therein, the box is called Soko-nashi Bako (Bottomless Box).

It shows up in some other books, under different names, but by the nineteenth century it is most often called Seiro or Nihon Seiro. The word seiro describes a kind of wooden box used for steaming rice. Nihon means Japan, hence “Nihon Seiro” means “Japanese Steaming Box.” Clearly, Soko-nashi Bako is a better name.

In the 1980s, Bill Larsen, Jr. decided that the term “Jap Box” was no longer acceptable in the pages of Genii magazine; hence ever after, without fanfare, the prop was always called a “Japanese Box.” (Article by Max Maven.)