Japanese Puzzle Box (Secret Box) Master Craftsman

Mr. Yoshio Okiyama

The career of Yoshio Okiyama

1925 Born in Hakone, JAPAN
1937 Become an apprentice of Yoshitarou Okiyama
1943 Entered the army
1945 Came back home
1960 Successfully restarted the Okiyama Woodworking factory
Later, his speciality was continuing to produce Secret Boxes
1978 Won a prize at Crafts Competition (Secret Box)
1980 Won a prize at Crafts Competition (Trick Broach)
1991 Won a prize at Crafts Competition (Unusual Secret Box)
1992 Completed the 7 Sun 122 Step Secret Box
1993 Recognized as a man of merit in Traditional craft industry
1997 Won a prize at Crafts Competition (Unusual Secret Box 2)
1998 Won a prize at Crafts Competition (Secret Box with new trick inside)
2000 Acted as the Karakuri Creation Group's Chairman


" The Secret of Secret Boxes" by Yoshio Okiyama

Now, I'll talk about "The Secret of Secret Boxes"

It is said that the origin of the Secret Box idea is the chest of drawers which lock by some mechanism like special old chests. But we don't know when and by whom the first Secret Box was made.

Now we know the "Post Secret Box" which is the oldest and has the shape of the Secret Box. It was probably made before 1907, due to the Yosegi on the side plate of this box being a thin plate. After this box, the Yosegi became like paper. In the information, we can find that the tool for making the paper Yosegi was invented around year 1907. In the decoration, Yosegi is not designed at first. A plate of precious wood was made and pasted on the Secret Box. Then it was planed, rubbed by special glass "Tokusa" like sand-paper and finished with wax. Finally this was the Yosegi that was made in Hakone. The Yosegi design on the top of the box was a picture of Mt.Fuji and on the bottom was a picture of a flower and bird. By the way, the top plate is called "KOURA" and the bottom plate is called "SHIKI". Anyway, through this process the Secret Boxes are still made.

Now I have to talk about "The Secret of Secret Boxes". I thought about the meaning of the Secret of the Secret Box for a few days. I noticed that "Secret" means, "Lock" inside.
The Secret Box is made of the outer box and the inner box. In the outer box there are ARUKI which can move up and down and HASHIBAMI which can move to the right and the left. Both of them have a mechanism inside. On the outside of the inner box, there is a mechanism. There are BOTTI in ARUKI which move little by little by OTOSHI, in other words the ditch like stairs. By the movement of this BOTTI, ARUKI can move up and down and HASHIBAMI can move to the right and left. You can open the Secret Box by repeating this movement. If the mechanisms in OTOSHI, ARUKI and HASHIBAMI increase, the movement becomes more complicated and it also becomes more difficult to make the mechanisms. The smallest number of the movement is two. Generally, the 10 or 27 one sells well. Other craftsmen also make these Secret Boxes. But, for example, in a 54 movements Secret Box, only master craftsmen can make it well. My biggest Secret Box for retail shops has 66 and 78 movements.

The other day, someone asked why I have to make so many step move Secret Boxes. I answered, " I'm a craftsman. If I don't make something which other craftsmen can't make, I can't make money". It's a fact. I can do nothing without this work. If I can make something big, something which people jump at or something which no one else can make, maybe I can become more skillful and successful.

The 102 step move Secret Box was not made for sale. I tried to increase the steps in the size to 6 sun, by using current techniques. This Secret Box won a prize.
After the 102 step move Secret Box, I tried 122 step move Secret Box. At first Yottyan( the nickname of Yoshiyuki Ninomiya)told me about one customer who wanted me to make an enormous number step move Secret Box. So I decided to make it. But when I thought about the shape and the size, I believed that I couldn't make the box bigger. I decided to make it within some restrictions. So the size became 8 sun. I intended making it for sale from the start. Before starting, I calculated everything. For example, in the 54 step move Secret Box, one step of OTOSHI is 8 rin. If this size is used, it will become more expensive. So I adopted 7 rin which means that 4 rin and 3 rin make a crevice of 1 rin. As a result, even a small warp made many troubles. At first I drew a plan, then I started making it. Finally, it was completed. Additionally, most of the wood material was from the Hokkaido region, but now it's from Tohoku region. The quality is completely different. In the progress of wood material there are three progresses of " using material", "compressing material" and "drying material". So I'm always nervous about making the Secret Box.

Secondly, in the tools, especially the plane, when I planed a rough board in old times I used three kinds of planes, "Arashiko(rough)","Tyuushiko(middle)" and "Shiage(finish)". If the planing board and the fitting size are not good, even if such boxes look four-sided, you can't stack the boxes high. You can open the box by 8 moves though it's usually 10 moves. The basic technique is very important. After all, it's important that any craftsman can fix the plane or can sharpen the edge.
How do they learn the technique? In this trade there was an apprentice system from about the year Meiji 27(1894). A master had a few younger members who came after graduation of primary school or junior high school. They were training themselves as a live-in worker until they were 20 years old or as an enlistment. There was no opportunity for them to learn from a senior pupil. For example, if they wanted to fix their plane, they secretly checked a senior pupil's plane when the senior pupil wasn't there. In short, they stole the senior pupil's technique.

I was in the last generation of the apprentice system. At that time the number of pupils were more than 150 and there were many craftsmen in Yumoto Town. So, Yumoto prospered. During the war, some pupils joined the army, others were drafted. The tourist industry changed to the munitions industry. In this war many craftsmen and pupils were killed. I'm sure that it caused damage to this industry.

After the war the reconstruction went forward little by little. I started to make the Secret Box. My father learned to make it somewhere. Old craftsmen could make many kinds of wooden products. So we started to make the Secret Box. For sometime, wholesale dealers came by bicycle and brought many products. At the time of the Korean War, many US soldiers bought the Secret Box as a souvenir when they came back from Yokosuka. Many peddlers came and bought the Secret Box. The price went up rapidly. I learned the technique at that time. In this way, I have continually made the Secret Box for my living.

1 sun = 3.03cm
1 bu =3.03mm
1 rin = 0.3mm

The Second Forum / Dec, 11th 1993 / at Yumoto Syougen-Ji
by Okiyama woodworking factory