Antique Japanese Kiseru

Japanese kanji symbols for kiseru Kiseru is the term used to describe a Japanese tobacco pipe. The symbols in red to the left are the kanji for the word "kiseru".

Tobacco was introduced to Japan by the Iberians around the close of the sixteenth century and it did not take long for it to flourish. Unlike most countries however, the Japanese shredded their tobacco into a very fine, almost hair like consistency. Both the kiseru and the shredded form of tobacco were popular up until the introduction of the cigarette in the late nineteenth century.

Many kiseru are simple, plain devices but some were highly decorated and used as status symbols by the merchant class who, by law, were expressly forbidden many other common luxury items. Particularly long kiseru were typically used by women (more specifically geisha and courtesans).

Standard Shape Kiseru

20.9 centimeter Japanese kiseru

Kiseru zutsu is the generic term for kiseru carrying case. These cases came in a few varieties but most revolved around some type of tube concept (the word "zutsu" means "tube") with the tube completely enclosing the kiseru. Some of my favorite kiseru cases, are the senryu zutsu variety. Senryu zutsu did not enclose the kiseru fully, but rather held the kiseru to the "case" via some form of ring and gravity. The bowl would be slid into a notch where gravity would hold it in place and the stem would be passed through either a hole at the upper end of the "case" or a ring of some variety. If this is a bit difficult to visualize, take a look at the photo below to get a better idea of how senryu zutsu worked. This particular senryu zutsu is made from a single piece of wood (basically a stick) and still retains it's natural shape. The bowl is placed into a groove cut into the bottom of the stick and the mouthpiece is passed through a hole in the upper part of the stick. In this way, the whole assembly could be hung from the obi (kimono belt) without the kiseru falling from the "case".

A Senryu Zutsu Style Kiseru Case

Senryu zutsu style Japanese kiseru case

A decorative pouch used to hold the shredded tobacco was often attached directly to the kiseru zutsu. These pouches were usually made from leather, but were occasionally constructed in more of a box shape using wood or some other hard material. On average, the pouch and case combo was used only by members of the merchant class. The samurai class saw such things as gaudy and ostentatious, preferring instead to keep their tobacco in small paper envelopes hidden away within the kimono.

The bowl of a kiseru was only big enough to hold enough tobacco for a puff or two and then the ashes were dumped out. This constant emptying of the pipe has left several characteristic tap marks near the bowl end of most kiseru.

Common kiseru materials were bamboo for the stems and metal such as silver or various alloys for the mouth piece and bowl. One piece, all metal (typically a variety of copper alloy) kiseru were also common, although these kiseru were generally shorter than the multi-material versions.

Two Examples of All Metal Kiseru

Flat kozuka shaped Japanese kiseru A small all metal antique Japanese kiseru

Japanese Antique Glossary