What are Netsuke?

What are netsuke?

During the Edo period (17th to mid 19th century), when kimono were worn everyday by the Japanese, they hung their personal belongings such as small money pouches, tobacco pouches and containers, as well as medicine cases (inro) from the obi sash. To prevent these hanging items, collectively called sagemono, from falling to the ground, they were attached to a small toggle with a cord. It is this toggle that is known as a netsuke.

In general, the netsuke can be characterized by the following physical requirements:

– The means to attach it to a hanging object(s) which requires a hole or a channel (known as himotoshi or himoana) to take the cord. Having such a hole or channel is a crucial difference that distinguishes it from mere miniature carvings.

– To be worn as an accessory or held in the hand, it shouldn’t have sharp protrusions that can easily be broken or might snag the garment.

– To be worn at the waist, it needs to be comparatively small. In general, it is about the size that can conveniently be held in the hand, but it could be a bit larger or smaller.

The netsuke was originally part of an ensemble with a small pouch and/or inro and cord-tightening bead (ojime), which thrived as a fashionable accessory. Nowadays, many netsuke are exhibited, traded or collected as objects on their own, though they were originally attached to sagemono, some sets of which can be seen in museums, private collections, galleries, and publications. 

History of netsuke

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

Although, at first netsuke were probably simple pieces of wood or whatever useful material was to hand that could be used as a toggle, netsuke developed into an art form during the Edo period displaying great skill and playfulness. They were made by thousands of artisans in a considerably wide range of subjects and materials. Early craftsmen, specializing in other fields such as metalwork or sculpture, made netsuke as a sideline, while many later carvers exclusively devoted themselves to the production of netsuke.

Around the mid 19th century, the popularity of netsuke began to wane due to changes in fashion and cultural circumstances. However, a small number of netsuke carvers continued to make netsuke of high quality through the mid 20th century.

At the same time, Westerners became interested in netsuke, and they began to be exported to the West in large quantities. Since then, netsuke have been actively traded, collected, and studied by Westerners, while being somewhat overlooked by the majority of the Japanese.

Netsuke produced until about that time are called “antique netsuke,” while those made later are referred to as “contemporary netsuke.” The latter term means more than just “netsuke made in modern times,” and refers to netsuke made by contemporary artists with original ideas and a modern sense. This came about through the encouragement of some Western collectors to Japanese artists in the 1970s.

There are approximately one hundred Japanese and non-Japanese artists whose works regularly appear in sales and exhibitions, with their number increasing, particularly during the last few decades.

Today netsuke, both antique and contemporary, are internationally appreciated as a unique and fascinating art form. Although they might still be better known in the West, there has also been a growing interest among the Japanese in recent years.

The netsuke is still evolving, and you can explore this exciting art form by viewing 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 sculptures made in such forms as humans, flora and fauna, and made in a wide range of materials including wood, ivory, stag antler, amber and coral. The majority of netsuke fall into this category, and their subject matter is also wide ranging.

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

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

Ryusa netsuke
Manju-shaped netsuke with openwork.

Hako netsuke
Box-type netsuke often decorated with lacquer or inlays.

Men netsuke
Netsuke in the form of a mask.

Sashi netsuke or obihasami
The long, slender netsuke in the form of a three-dimensional carving or with relief carving. It was worn thrust through the obi sash.

Obiguruma or obiguruwa
Netsuke shaped like a bracelet, through which passes the obi sash.

Dual-purpose netsuke including hihataki netsuke
Netsuke with another function, such as a sundial in addition to being a toggle The bowl-shaped type that was used as an ashtray for tobacco smoked in pipes (kiseru) is known as “hihataki netsuke.”

Bibliography

Davey, Neil K. (1974). Netsuke. Sotheby Parke Bernet.
Hutt, Julia. (2003). Japanese Netsuke. V&A Publications.
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 Kenkyū [A Study of Netsuke]. Kōbunsha.

Last updated on October 30, 2020