Japanese Netsuke

Origins of Netsuke

Netsuke date back to the 17th Century, and became extremely popular in Europe towards the end of the 19th Century. This coincided with the Japanese adopting the suit and its Netsuke man pockets and with oriental artefacts being very much in vogue with buyers in western Europe. A huge supply of redundant netsuke came into Europe and were sold in many places as novelty items very cheaply.

Netsuke served both functional and aesthetic purposes. The traditional Japanese dress, the kimono had no pockets. The robes were hung together by a broad sash (obi), so items that were needed to be carried were held on a cord tucked under the sash.

The hanging objects (sagemono) were secured with carved toggles (netsuke). A sliding bead (ojime) was strung on the cord between the netsuke and the sagemono to tighten or loosen the opening of the sagemono.

The best known accessory was the inro, a small box used by the wealthy for carrying medicines and seals. Netsuke were also used to secure purses, and were widely used to hold the tobacco pouches that became almost universal with the introduction of smoking in Japan.

The quality of Netsuke was variable. As everyday objects many were carved quickly with left over materials. Netsuke could be made using a variety of materials mainly wood, and ivory (also shell, bone, horn, even metal and precious stones).

Wealthier people would have finer netsuke, and it could be possible to tell the status of an individual by the quality of their netsuke. The workmanship is some is outstanding and despite their small size 1 to 2 inches, there can be considerable detail.

There are several types of netsuke including: manju, round or square button like boxes; and kagamibuta, comprising a metal lid and a bowl; and katabori. The range of subjects included all manner of animals, birds, the heores and villains from folklore, the immortals and mythical animals of Japanese legend, the grotesque and the amusing.

The variety and variability of Netsuke is a reason for their continued popularity today. Knowledgeable collectors look for compactness, a design that appears good from any angle, and the cord holes must not interfere with the piece and may often form part of it.

With the decline of the kimono there was less demand in Japan for netsuke, but they continued to be produced for export. Some skilled designers continued to produce excellent pieces which are much sort after. Production continued into the 20th Century with a revival in the art as interest increases.

In recent years a number of poor netsuke have been produced and a number of fakes of original pieces have also been manufactured. These pieces are often produced using ivory obtained from illegally poached elephants and other animals. Resin replicas are also being produced. Many are sold as such but collectors should be careful.

Netsuke is a uniquely Japanese art form. These superb little objects of wood, ivory and ceramics, as well as dozens of other materials, tell the story of Japan from earliest times. Here we find the peasant, the fisherman, the beggar rubbing shoulders with the scholar, the samurai, the warrior, as well as an enchanting collection of animals, fish, insects and benign and ferocious gods.

Also represented are objects of daily living, eggplants, tea bowls, flowers. The mythology as well as the various religions of Japan from Buddhism to Shintoism are represented in netsuke form.

Considering the great interest of Netsuke in the United States and Europe, very little is actually known of the beginning of these miniature carvings. It is certain that netsuke (literal translation: to attach the root) came into existence as early as the 15th – 16th century.

As the Japanese had no pockets in their kimonos, they had to find a method to carry small belongings, and a convenient way was a leather pouch attached to long double strings and pulled through the obi (a long sash or belt which was worn around the kimono). The netsuke, which always has openings through which the string passes, acted as a toggle, holding the pouch in place.

Early netsuke were purely utilitarian, being fashioned of small stones, pieces of bamboo and other woods, shells and gourds. The pouch was mainly used for tobacco, whereas another implement, a small box of either three or five compartments, called an inro, was used for medicines. Sometimes
these two items were carried together and suspended from the same netsuke. About 100 years later the Japanese used the ojime bead which acted much like our watch chain slide and kept the inro from opening or turning.

Japanese Netsuke picture A typical katabori netsuke depicting a cockerel in wood. Unsigned, 19th century. 4.2 cm.

There are several types of netsuke of which the katabori, a completely carved three dimensional work of art, is the most sought after by collectors. A kagamibuta is a bowl shaped netsuke with a metal lid, sometimes decorated, sometimes plain. This was most often used with the tobacco pouch as an ash container. Manju Netsuke are round and flat and resemble a button. In Japan a manju is a flat, round rice cake. They can be solid ivory or wood, or beautifully carved and reticulated. This latter type is called a ryusa netsuke. Sashi netsuke are elongated Katabori pieces.

Netsuke can be carved of different materials; ivory and wood being the most popular. They can also be fashioned from horn, tortoise shell, metal or ceramics. They are classified by collectors according to age, subject matter, origin, style, carver or school. Unfortunately, we don’t have the space to go into the many different subjects and designs. Suffice to say that these dear little figures tell us a story. Study the faces of the people, animals, gods and devils and you will see a full range of human emotion; joy, sadness, distress, frustration, anger and love.

Inspiration for early netsuke came from the Chinese. Compare the Chinese foo dog to the Japanese shishi and you will at once see the similarity. As netsuke art became more sophisticated the carvers reached back into their rich history, religion and fables as well as every day life, for inspiration.

We now find the kabuki entertainer, the noh mask, the sumo wrestler, the kappa (water imp) and Raijin, the god of thunder. Although women are in the minority when it comes to netsuke art, we still find them represented. The pearl diver comes to mind, as well as the mermaid, a mother and her baby, a beggar woman and of course, Okame (goddess of mirth) who is always represented with her serene, happy face.

There were thousands of Netsuke carvers and to identify them takes special skill and patience since some of them have identical names. The history of netsuke is usually divided into three periods: the early, middle and late periods.

The early period (17th through early 19th century)

During this time the subject matter came mainly from the Chinese, and netsuke portraying Chinese legend, history and customs were greatly admired by the Japanese. The earliest of the carvers never signed their pieces. Some of the outstanding carvers of the latter part of this period were Masanao, Tomatada and Okatomo (all from the Kyoto area).

Japanese Netsuke picture An ivory netsuke of a rain dragon. 19th century – unsigned.

The middle period

(most of the 19th century)

Netsuke carving came into its own during this time. Many of the artists now had influential patrons. They trained and schooled other carvers. During the middle period, the Netsuke carver perfected his art, concentrating on Japanese themes, striving for excellence of design and execution and using materials of tremendous variety. Some carvers of this period were Mitsuhiro, Masakazu, Kokusai and Kaigyokusai.

Japanese Netsuke picture A ceramic netsuke of a badger holding a saki container. Signed Ogata Kazuhei, late 19th – early 20th century.

The late period (late 19th and early 20th century)

Japanese Netsuke pictureDuring the latter part of the 19th century Western influence and style were introduced
to Japan after two centuries of isolation. European merchants clamored for
Japanese wares, good, bad and indifferent. The excellence of netsuke carving
diminished, but the little carved objects found great favor with the foreigners
who took them back to the West. With the advent of Western style clothes in
Japan, the netsuke lost its practical purpose as a toggle and became strictly
an art form. Among outstanding carvers of this period were Tokoku and Sosui.

Japanese Netsuke pictureNetsuke are popular collector’s items today, treasured both by the Japanese and Westerners.
A really good netsuke seldom shows up at a flea market or general antiques
shop. People interested in learning about Netsuke would do well to seek the
advice of a knowledgeable dealer or collector. Most of the netsuke being sold
are of poor quality, flat and lifeless. Although some are carved in Japan,
most originate in Hong Kong and some are not even ivory.

Japanese Netsuke picture A seated rat in wood by Masanao of Kyoto. 18th century.

There are some fine books written on netsuke collecting, both in Japan and in the
West. Here are a few titles of books you might want to locate: “Netsuke,
Familiar and Unfamiliar”, by Raymond Bushell, “The Netsuke Handbook
by Ueda Reikichi”, by Raymond Bushell and “An Introduction of Netsuke”,
by Joe Earle. It is often worth trying the public library or a good book
dealer for more information.

Japanese Netsuke pictureLast, but not least, we should mention the contemporary netsuke. Although new, some
of these are extremely well carved and beautiful. These netsuke are strictly
works of art and, as such, command high prices, sometimes costing more than
a fine antique.

Japanese Netsuke picture Mermaid with coral ball. Ivory – Sumi, circa 1985.

Japanese Netsuke picture A seated Daruma emerging from a nine year meditation, carved in wood with inlays. Koju (school of Tokoku), late 19th century.

Prices of fine Netsuke range from several hundred to thousands of dollars. Before investing, study, read, look, feel. Learn about damage and repairs. Buy one good netsuke rather than five average ones. Signatures are not as important as good carving and charming subject matter. Hold a netsuke in your hand and feel the warmth of the wood admire the glow of the ivory. Explore the world of netsuke. You will most certainly fall in love and it is a lifetime love affair.