Vintage Japanese Music Box: History & Collecting Tips

Updated March 3, 2022
Rectangular Japanese music box decorated with landscapes and mountains

If you catch yourself humming the soft tunes from your childhood music box, then you'll definitely want to add a vintage Japanese music box to your home collection. These beautiful, delicate, and intricately decorated music boxes aren't too difficult to find online, and the cheap prices that you can get them for make them great presents for people of all ages.

Music Box Technology Throughout History

Music boxes are a type of automatic musical instrument that're able to produce sound by using a set of pins placed on a revolving cylinder or disk. The pins strike the metal teeth of a steel comb and produce musical notes, and when struck in succession, these notes turn into melodies and songs. Although music boxes have been around for over 200 years, you can still find remnants of these early musical machines in the modern versions of these historic products.

Beautiful japanese traditional box

Early music boxes came in a variety of sizes; however, most were able to fit on a tabletop. Interestingly, most of these music boxes were built by artisan watchmakers, with a large number being produced in Switzerland. This was due to the fact that these watch making manufacturers had the technology to create custom movements that would spur the rotation and striking motions which created the boxes' sounds. In fact, music boxes are so deeply entrenched in Swiss horology that the first music box factory was opened there and by the end of the 19th century, European music box makers had begun opening factories in the United States. Yet, it wasn't be until the 20th century that music box making would expand beyond the western markets and into the east.

Japanese Music Boxes Take the 20th Century by Storm

Sankyo Seiki is the best known vintage Japanese music box company, and they started producing music boxes in the post-war period. Sankyo used the latest automation technology to mass produce affordable music boxes, and thanks to this abundance of accessible product, the manufacturer grew to become the biggest manufacturer of music boxes of the century. Additionally, Sankyo supplied music box hardware, such as movements, to other manufacturers and distributors.

Japanese Yosegi Jewelry Box

While the company still exists, it's helmed under a new name (Nidec Corporation) and has shifted its manufacturing priorities to contemporary products like the spindle motors that power the hard drives that everyone relies on. When it comes to their music boxes, the company still produces a number of them every year--such as the recent multi-track release of the 'Orpheus' music box--but these modern machines can't compare to their music boxes from decades past.

Common Sankyo Music Box Styles

Thanks to just how many of these music boxes Sankyo created during the mid to late 20th century, there's a 90% chance that you can find one of these music boxes sitting on a shelf in at least one of your relative's homes. From ceramic to gilt, romantic to austere, you can find a huge variety of vintage Sankyo music boxes both online and in the antique stores in your area. The most common style of vintage music box that Sankyo produced was a lacquered, wooden rectangular box; but, even within this particular style of music box, you can find little hints of color and other decorative elements that make each one feel unique. Along with these lacquered boxes, the most common vintage Sankyo music box styles include:

  • Rectangular wooden music boxes - Often lacquered, and painted with simple designs, these rectangular wooden music boxes were the most popular of Sankyo's 20th century line.
  • Porcelain music figurines - Sankyo's unique approach to molding ceramics with music boxes resulted in these unusual porcelain music figurines that have the appearance of a regular ceramic decoration but can be wound to release a melody.
  • Piano-shaped music boxes - Crafted out of both metal and wood, these music boxes are a bit harder to find than other styles and quite literally take on the shape of a (very small) baby grand piano. (Also see antique piano prices)
  • Pentangular music boxes - These six-sided music boxes were often made out of painted brass or silver plate and featured soft colors and romantic motifs in their relief-carved designs.
  • Miniature key chain music boxes - Sankyo also created miniature key chain music boxes, and these included all sorts of designs on their faces.

Vintage Japanese Music Boxes' Values

Vintage Japanese music boxes are incredibly affordable, usually averaging between $15-$30. You can thank the sheer abundance of these sing-song machines for the consistently low costs. Granted, most of the vintage music boxes that're put to sale have working mechanisms, but those that have some component that's not working can sell for even less than what fully functioning boxes can sell for. For instance, these are a few of the different types of music boxes that've recently sold at auction:

Where to Find Old Japanese Music Boxes

Vintage Japanese music boxes aren't a particularly difficult collectible to find, and you've got a good chance of being able to find one at any of your local antique stores and consignment shops. However, if you're looking for a specific style of music box--say a powder blue hexagonal one--then you should head on over to one of these online auction markets to take advantage of their expansive inventories:

Japanese box
  • Etsy - Etsy is a stellar place to find old Japanese music boxes for sale, particularly ones ranging in price and style. Their inventory is constantly updating, so it's important that you frequently check back in to make sure that you're not missing out on any good items.
  • Ebay - Ebay is also one of the best online sources you can go to when you're looking for easy-to-find and easy-to-buy collectibles. Just like with Etsy, you'll want to keep abreast of the website's inventory as new listings can be added on the fly and current listings can be taken down just as quickly.
  • Ruby Lane - Ruby Lane is an interesting retailer that combines the individual seller format of Etsy and eBay with the scope and sources of more conventional auction websites. Thus, Ruby Lane can make for a great place to head to if you want to procure your music boxes from a professional avenue.

Music for Both Your Eyes and Ears

Music boxes provide a uniquely dual-sensory experience; they're both beautiful to look at and delightful to hear, and the very best of these vintage mechanical decorations were Japanese made. With just a quick browse around town or on your favorite website, you can give yourself the gift of a heartwarming musical collectible that you can turn into a family heirloom for your heirs to cherish too.

Vintage Japanese Music Box: History & Collecting Tips