the shell game

Heian-era aristocrats loved to hold contests in which exemplars of categories of "things" (mono) were compared and judged. Generically, these matches were known as mono no awase, a "matching of things." Both manmade and natural objects were used. Flowering branches, songbirds, incense, paintings, tray arrangements, poems, roots-any of these things could be declared the subject of a matching game. When clamshells were the item, the contest was kai awase, "shell matching."

   In the eleventh and early twelfth century (the later part of the Heian era) another version of matching shells developed as a kind of parlor game, mostly for women and children. In this version, a set of 360 pairs of clamshells was used. The outsides of the shells were polished smooth, and matching miniature scenes were painted on the interiors of each pair. (Later, a simplified set of 54 pairs, painted with scenes from the 54 chapters of The Tale of Genji became popular.)

   Often one can find miscellaneous painted shells in antique shops in Japan. These are from sets that were popular as wedding presents for upper class brides during the Tokugawa era. (Finding an entire set, preserved in its decorated wooden cases, is extremely rare.) People think that the purpose of the game was to match the paintings, but in fact the challenge was to match the naturally occurring subtle patterns on the outside of the shells, not the painted interiors.

The way the game works is like this: The shells are separated into two piles, the ji-gai ("set shells") and dashi-gai ("played shells.") The ji-gai are arranged, face down, in a pattern of concentric circles; the dashi-gai, also face down, are put in rows, piled three or four shells deep. A player chooses one dashi-gai and moves it, face down, to the center of the circle of ji-gai. She then peruses all the ji-gai, looking for a match. Deciding on one shell, she picks up her original dashi-gai in her left hand and places it face up in her right hand with the shell hinge closest to her body.

   She then picks up the ji-gai she has chosen and, without looking, slips it (face down) over the top of the shell she is holding. If it is in fact a match, it will click into place in the natural grooves of the shell, and the player will know by feel if it fits. If it does not fit, she returns the ji-gai to its place on the floor. If it does fit, she triumphantly shows the match to all the other players and claims the shells for her pile. In this case, everyone can immediately see by the matching paintings that she has in fact found a pair.
   In the chapter of my novel called "Out of Darkness" there is a scene where Murasaki plays this shell game with her young daughter Katako. At first glance, the natural variations of stripes and colors on clamshells look pretty much alike, but when you look closely, there are minute and subtle variations. This is what the eye must attune itself to. Of all the shells, there is one, and only one, which will fit the grooves of its mate. It is easy to see how symbolism from the matching of shells became incorporated into felicitous wedding gifts.

I had a chance to attend a party where the game of matching shells was played. The group sponsoring this event was the Kyoto branch of the Murasaki Shikibu Appreciation Society. Here I am holding what looks like a failed match.