The creation of puzzle boxes originated in the Hakone region of Japan in the 1800’s. These boxes were originally created for workers who needed to safeguard their tools. Each box required a set of twists and turns to open. The trick was to determine the correct set of movements to open a specific box.
In the 1800’s Hakone was known for its hot springs. Many people visited the region for vacations and the tourism industry flourished. Puzzle boxes began to become popular as souvenirs. This continued through the World Wars, when soldiers on leave would purchase boxes to bring home.
The first puzzle boxes did not have the elaborate decorative designs that are commonplace today. The patterns that are used to decorate the box are representative of another Japanese handicraft, parquetry. Parquetry is the craft of using wood and varnish to create a thin decorative sheet. These sheets are then fixed to the outside of the puzzle box after it is created.
The original boxes were created by three artisans; Mr. Takajiro Ohkawa, Mr. Tatsunosuke Okiyama, and Mr. Kikukawa. Each of these men eventually took on apprentices to carry on their work, and the craft flourished. At the height of the apprentice system there were approximately 150 artisans and apprentices in the area. However, Japan’s involvement in World War II was a blow to the industry. Young apprentices were conscripted into the army, and did not return. Additionally, tourism made way for the newly needed munitions industry. In current day Japan there are nine puzzle box masters. This includes Mr. Yoshio Okiyama, grandson of Tatsunosuke Okiyama, who is considered one of the most skilled puzzle box crafters in the world. At age 75, he was a witness to the end of the apprentice system and the decline in the number of crafters. He has no apprentice.
It is not unusual for a single crafter to make a box from start to finish. The wood must be obtained and dried before the box is assembled. The planes of the wood must be exactly even, as the mechanism of the box depends on the pieces sliding easily. The construction consists of a box in a box. The outer box hides the inner mechanisms and displays the parquetry embellishment. The inner box contains the movements that create the puzzle. In this way the solution to the puzzle is kept secret from any who do not know it.