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Netsuke: practicality first, then style

 25 November 2022

Today we are talking about an object that was born for purely practical purposes and soon became a source of exquisite artistic expression: the Netsuke.

Ne “root” and tsuke “to hang”, this is the translation of the ideogram that easily hints at their use. These are in fact small sculptures that were used to fasten small containers to the belt. 

Let us therefore discover more about this object.

How the Netsuke was born

As we have already mentioned, the birth of the Netsuke depends on an entirely functional need. In fact, the typical Japanese garment, the kimono, traditionally has no pockets. This is why sagemono were used to carry small everyday objects. We are talking about coin purses, medicine boxes (Inro), portable writing sets (Yatate) and tobacco holders. These container accessories were hung from the obi, i.e. the kimono bands that serve as belts. To prevent the sagemono from falling off, they were attached to the catch, the netsuke in fact, through two holes called ” himotoshi ” and placed firmly above the belt.

Courtesy of Hermitage Museum

Boxwood sagemono complete with netsuke, ojime (small sphere that serves as a clasp) and tonkotsu (tobacco holder) sold by our gallery

Not anonymous ‘buttons’, as we sometimes hear, but small objects placed in a specific place and with a specific function.

The first Netsuke were simple carved pieces of wood with rather basic features.

From objects that fulfilled a practical task, they became small, superb and intricate sculptures appreciated and collected all over the world.

Ivory netsuke of an Oni sheltering from the throwing of Beans during Setsubun by Tomomitsu 友光

Types, materials and representations

There are numerous types of this particular object and they differ mainly in their shape.

The most popular ones have a three-dimensional shape and are called Katabori, while those with a round, flat shape are the Manju. There is a variant of the latter, the Ryusa Netsuke, which have perforated carvings on the surface.

Similar to the Manju are the Kagamibuta. Their peculiarity is a lid, generally made of metal, over a hollowed-out ivory bowl.

Another type of Netsuke are those in the shape of traditional Japanese theatre masks, such as Noh, Bugaku, Kyogen and Gigaku.

There are also Netsuke in the shape of animated tricks, these either have moving parts or have hidden surprises inside them.

Lastly, we find a variant that differs from all the others, the Sashi Netsuke, which were strung between the obi and the kimono with a very short string.

The Materials

Equally numerous are the materials used to create these small works of art. Ivory, boxwood and deer antlers are the most common materials, but there are also more refined and less usual ones. Examples include boar tusks, porcelain, glass, metal, teeth, lacquer, woven cane and bamboo.

The subjects

The subjects available to Netsuke carvers, the so-called netsukeshi, are the most varied. The inspiration for the creation of these delightful little sculptures came from a variety of fields and contexts. The most popular subjects are certainly the twelve animals of the zodiac calendar. Also very popular are mythical animals such as Kirin, Baku, Kappa and Dragons or the more common Shishi.

Ivory netsuke depicting two octopuses signed Shūsai 秀斉

Everyday life certainly offered many insights into the subjects depicted. We find, for example, depictions of farmers, fishermen, masseurs and street vendors. But also Ama (cheating girls), sumo wrestlers, blind men and monkey trainers. And the list goes on with other subjects, such as foreigners, Dutch and Chinese, who are part of the 17th and 18th century production.

Ivory netsuke of a Dutchman with Child signed Washūjin Kōsen 和州人 光仙

Not only human subjects, but also elements of nature often depicted with the intention of sending a double message. This is the case, for example, with flowers or fruits and vegetables, some of which conceal erotic meanings, such as mushrooms and cucumbers. These are the Shunga Netsuke which precisely show erotic subjects often hidden or suggested and only sometimes explicit.

Boxwood and ivory shunga netsuke depicting Okame

Finally, subjects also include scenes from Noh and Kabuki theatre dramas and folk tales. As well as legends borrowed from Chinese mythology.

What you need to know about Netsuke

As we have seen so far, there is an immense amount of subject matter and symbolism. This makes Netsuke collecting virtually endless. Even the most seemingly complete collection will always have a small space for a subject that one does not yet own. Nothing could be more thrilling for a true collector! The search for that small missing piece of the puzzle represents the most exciting part of building a collection.

We continue, for all fans of this small but endless world of Netsuke and for those who want to become one, by giving some useful information.

Our advice

The first piece of advice concerns likeness. In fact, to be considered as such, a true Netsuke does not necessarily have to have the two classic himotshi holes. It is true, in fact, that most of them have both and the oldest ones have one larger than the other. But it is equally true that some may have ‘natural passages’ to allow the thread to be stopped.

Another indication concerns the signature. In the case of these small works of art, the signature is quite relative. In fact, there are many unsigned works of art and among them are also the most important ones. This is due to the fact that, especially in the early period, not all Netsukeshi signed their sculptures.

Last but not least, there is the issue of authenticity. How do we know if we are dealing with a genuine work of art? 

Here the question becomes complicated and the reason is very simple. When a collector’s item becomes fashionable, it is easily subject to numerous reproductions. One example is the reproductions from the second half of the 20th century for the mass market produced in China.

Be careful, however, this does not mean that all contemporary Netsuke are invalid. Even today, extremely skilful carvers still create small miniatures of the finest quality revisited with the taste and influence of the modern world.

Our suggestion is always to rely on art experts specialised in the field who can guide the collector in making the right choice.     

A small gift

There are many publications dedicated to this extraordinary object, which was born for practical needs and has become a fine art.

We would like to point you to texts suitable for both the more experienced collector and the neophyte who wants to discover more. 

Below is our selection for you.

  • Adornment in Clay: Ceramic Netsuke from the Richard R. Silverman Collection by Laura Mueller
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art Netsuke Masterpieces by Barbra Teri Okada
  • Promenade Dans L’Art Japonais by Alain Ducros
  • Netsuke: 100 Miniature Masterpieces from Japan by Noriko Tsuchiya
  • Netsuke: The Tokyo Meiko Kagami , Tokyo Living Masters List by Tokyo Metropolitan Government in December 1879
  • The Raymond and Frances Bushell Collection of Netsuke: A Legacy at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
  • Netsuke: Fantasy and Reality in Japanese Miniature Sculpture by Joe Earle
  • Netsuke: 100 Miniature Masterpieces from Japan by Tsuchiya, Noriko (2014)
  • An introduction to Netsuke by Raymond Bushell
  • Netsuke: The miniature sculpture of Japan
  • Collectors’ Netsuke by Raymond Bushell
  • Netsuke: A comprehensive study based on the M. T. Hindson Collection by Neil K. Davey
  • Netsuke: the Hull Grundy Collection in the British Museum
  • Netsuke, Familiar and Unfamiliar: New Principles for Collecting by Raymond Bushell
  • The World of Netsuke: The Werdelmann Collection at the Museum Kunst Palast
  • The Garrett collection–Japanese art: Lacquer, inrō, netsuke by Neil K. Davey e Susan G. Tripp
  • Netsuke Masks by Raymond Bushell