What are Netsuke?

What are netsuke?

The Japanese traditional garment (kimono) has no pockets, Japanese people used to hang their everyday articles such as small money pouches, tobacco pouches, and medicine cases (inro) from their sash or belt (obi). To prevent the hanging object(s) (collectively called sagemono) from falling to the ground, they were attached to a small toggle with a cord, and the toggle is called netsuke.

In general, the netsuke has the following physical characteristics or requirements:

– To serve as a toggle attached to hanging objects, it has a hole or a channel (himotoshi) to put the cord through.

– To be worn as an accessory or held in hands, it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) have parts that can easily be broken or might catch the garment.

– To be worn at the waist, it is comparatively small. It is generally about as large as you can hold in your hand, but it could be a bit smaller or larger than that.

In early times, netsuke flourished as part of ensemble with a small pouch and/or an inro and cord-tightening bead (ojime). Nowadays, many netsuke are exhibited, traded, collected as independent objects, but they were originally attached to sagemono, some sets of which you might also see in museums, private collections, galleries, and publications.

History of netsuke

It is not clear as to when netsuke came into use, but some netsuke are depicted in paintings from around the beginning of the 17th century, suggesting that the netsuke was already in use by then.

Though first netsuke were probably simple pieces of wood or whatever was useful as a toggle, it developed into a craft art with great artistry and playful ideas through the Edo period (from the early 17th century through the mid 19th century). Netsuke in a considerably wide range of subjects and materials were made by thousands of artists; early craftsmen specializing in other fields such as metalwork or sculpture and made netsuke as a hobby, while many of the later carvers devoted all their career to netsuke production.

However, around the mid 19th century, the popularity of netsuke started to wane due to the changes in fashion and cultural situations. A relatively small number of netsuke artists continued to create netsuke of high standard through the mid 20th century.

From the mid 19th century onwards, westerners became interested in netsuke. A large quantity of those miniature carvings began to be exported to the West. Since then, netsuke have been actively traded, collected, and studied by westerners, while they attracted little attention of the majority of Japanese people.

Netsuke made until about that time are called “antique netsuke,” while those carved later are referred to as “contemporary netsuke.” This latter term means more than just “netsuke made in modern time”: some western collectors and dealers have encouraged Japanese artists to create netsuke with their original ideas and modern sense, not just to imitate antique pieces. Recently, the number of netsuke artists have been growing in Japan, and in other countries as well, and there are approximately one hundred Japanese and non-Japanese artists whose works regularly appear in sales and exhibitions.

Today, the netsuke, both antique and contemporary, is internationally appreciated as a unique and fascinating art form. At present, it might still be better known in the West, but there is a growing interest among the Japanese (some Japanese actually carry netsuke by attaching them to their cell phones).

The netsuke is still evolving, and you can explore this exciting art form by just looking at them, holding them in your hand to enjoy the feel, collecting them, studying them, and even carving them!

Types and materials of netsuke

Katabori netsuke

Figural, three-dimensional sculpture made of a wide variety of materials, such as various kinds of wood and ivory, pottery, metal, lacquer, amber, black or red coral, glass, and so on.

Manju netsuke

Round, flat netsuke named after the bean-paste cake that are popular in Japan. Mostly in ivory or wood, often with relief carving or other types of decorations such as lacquer and inlay of other materials.

Kagamibuta netsuke

The combination of the lid and the bowl: the lid is usually a metal disc bearing relief or engraved carving, and the bowl is made of ivory or wood.

Ryusa netsuke

Manju-shaped netsuke with openwork design.

Hako netsuke

Box-type netsuke often decorated with lacquer or inlay.

Men netsuke

Netsuke in the form of masks.

Sashi netsuke or obihasami

The long, slender netsuke in three-dimensional carving or with relief carving. It was worn thrust through the sash.

Obiguruma or obiguruwa

Netsuke shaped like the bracelet, through which the sash (obi) goes.

Dual-purpose netsuke including hihataki netsuke

Netsuke having another function in addition to being a toggle, such as sundial. Hihataki Netsuke is the bowl-shaped type used as ash trays for pipes (kiseru).

Bibliography

Davey, Neil K. (1974). Netsuke. Sotheby Parke Bernet.
Kinsey, Robert and Miriam. (1997). Contemporary Netsuke: Miniature Sculpture from Japan and Beyond. The Bowers Museum of Cultural Art.
Komada Makiko. (2015). Netsuke. Kadokawa.
Komada Ryushi. (1994). “Contemporary Netsuke.” Manuscript for the Lecture at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Tobacco and Salt Museum. (1995). Netsuke: Te no Hira no Naka no Geijutsu [Netsuke: The Art in the Palm of the Hand]. Exhibition catalog.
Ueda Reikichi. (1943, 1978). Netsuke no Kenkyu [A Study of Netsuke]. Kobunsha.

Komada Ryushi. (1994). “Contemporary Netsuke.” Manuscript for the Lecture at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Tobacco and Salt Museum. (1995). Netsuke: Te no Hira no Naka no Geijutsu [Netsuke: The Art in the Palm of the Hand]. Exhibition catalog.
Ueda Reikichi. (1943, 1978). Netsuke no Kenkyu [A Study of Netsuke]. Kobunsha.

Last updated on September 10, 2020