The clamshell paintings of kai-awase, an ancient Japanese matching game

This game sounds hard

Japanese aristocrats during the Heian Period (794-1185) developed a game of matching using beautifully-painted clamshells. Called kai-awase, or “shell matching,” it was popular chiefly among women and children.


The artist polished the outside of the clam halves and painted intricate, identical scenes on the insides.


A game of kai-awase was played by displaying half the shells on the floor, painted-side down, then choosing shells one-by-one from the remaining pile to search for its mate. In the traditional version of the game, players sought to match shell halves by the ridges and markings on their natural sides. There were a total of 360 pairs of shells, making this task seem, to me, rather difficult.
A reenactment of the game


To check whether a player had correctly chosen a match, she would try to put the two parts of the shell together. If they fit, and the paintings on the inner portions were identical, then she won the shell.

19th century Gold maki-e on lacquered wood, courtesy of the MET
Painted shell, courtesy of the Australian Museum.
Painted shells, courtesy of the Museo d’Art Orientale di Cà Pesaro.

Japanese nobility stored their games in elaborate containers. During the Edo or Tokugawa period (1603-1868), the sets were often given as part of a woman’s dowry. Receiving a kai-awase as a marriage gift was considered good luck, as the joining of clams symbolized the joining of a wife and husband in marriage.

A Kimono fragment from the late 18th-early 19th century, housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art
19th century Shell-Game Boxes (Kaioke) decorated with pine, plum, and bamboo.

Today, the tradition is not forgotten. The miniature paintings of Ogoshi Kimiko are a testament to its continued cultural and artistic influence




And if you’re interested in buying some kai-awase shells, I found this beautiful set for sale on Ebay:

Check it out here.

Via Liza Dalby

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