Netsuke:   Japan in Miniature

Illustration of Mask Netsuke by B.K. Davis

Several years ago, wandering through the collections at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I found a room filled with narrow, chest high display cases. Each case held a row of tiny, intricate carvings. Each piece was no taller than my thumb, but the details were amazing. I particularly remember one sculpture of three fishermen in a boat. The boat was the size of a walnut half, but each tiny man had a different expression on his face. I had just seen my first netsuke, and I was hooked.

The humble beginnings of netsuke ("NETS-kay") were never recorded, probably because historians think it unnecessary to chronicle mundane items used everyday and taken for granted. But the name netsuke gives us insight into its origins: ne — root and tsuke — to fasten.

Illustration of Netsuke Horse

The traditional Japanese garment for men and women, a kimono, has no pockets. Women could carry small, lightweight items in their long sleeves or tucked into a fold within the wide obi (sash or belt). Since menís kimonos had narrower sleeves and obis, they could tie a small sack or basket to a long cord and pull the cord up under the obi where it would be kept from slipping out by a small stone, gourd, or root. These simple toggles evolved into intricate masterpieces of the carversí art and have been prized by collectors for about two hundred years.

The reason for the lasting popularity of netsuke is obvious: the charm of a work of art that fits into your palm and has a personality and story all its own. Someone with no knowledge of Japanese culture or artistic tradition still can recognize their artistry centuries after the sculptor has died. Netsuke can be appreciated on many levels from the beauty of the workmanship, the symbolism of the subject matter, the associations for the individual viewer, to the history of the piece.

Since netsuke were a functional item, any creativity in design must be within the strict limits of its original use as a toggle to support the sagemono (hanging items) attached. The piece must be small enough to fit in the palm of the hand and be lightweight and easy to slide under the obi, yet bulky enough to support the weight of several sagemono. It must have the strength to resist rubbing, cracking, or heavy use, and be smooth enough not to snag or tear clothing or poke the wearer. Also, the holes for the cord must be designed so that the cord is hidden and the netsuke faces outward. The best test for a netsuke is to hold it in your hand and roll it around. It should feel smooth and have a nice "aji" or agreeable feeling that demonstrates the spirit of the piece through touch.

Illustration of Netsuke Rabbit

However, within these limitations, the artisans had unlimited freedom of expression. A utilitarian device was not subject to the restrictions of traditional and religious subject matter that defined Japanese art in the 16th century. Carvers could choose subjects from mythology and legend or from everyday life and nature. The most common themes that developed were flora and fauna, humor, the quaint or grotesque, everyday activities, characters from No and Kabuki theater, and gods or mythological characters. These could be carved from an infinity of materials including ivory, horn, bone, wood, clay, lacquer, stone, precious metals, or even fruit seeds, as long as the material was durable, carveable, and held a crisp edge.

A carverís reputation was established by the style and cleverness of his work. Netsuke pieces usually were unsigned; however, even if they were, it was sometimes the work of a gifted student marked with the masterís seal. The best sculptors would test their skill by carving all elements of a complicated piece from one chunk of ivory, for example, a working miniature abacus or a man holding a tiny bird cage with even tinier birds inside. They would make trick carvings with secret compartments, mysterious fastenings, and clever devices that moved. Examples of these included a cluster of peaches designed so that one small peach unscrews from the side to reveal a compartment inside with a chain attaching the large peach to the small peach, a goblin with a tongue that protrudes, a skull with a snake crawling through the eye, and a hinged jaw that moves.

Artisans first made netsuke as a sideline or hobby from their work as religious sculptors, mask makers, or puppet makers. Eventually some became netsuke specialists. The specialists did not have royal patronage, offices in the imperial household, or sponsorship among the Shogunate (military chiefs). Landless and living in relative poverty, they had freedom from social, traditional, and financial obligations.

The "golden age" for netsuke came in the last quarter of the 16th century (Genroku period 1688-1704). Large commercial centers blossomed in Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka, and there arose a successful, wealthy merchant class. Japan had sumptuary laws that dictated the appropriate display of wealth for each class and merchants were frustrated in finding ways to display their newfound affluence. Artisans were encouraged to develop luxurious items for personal adornment. Netsuke were small, unobtrusive, and as long as they were not made of precious metal or gems, they were not in violation of the laws.

At the same time, Japan was enjoying a period of relative peace. The military class of Samurai became more honorary than active. Their traditional dress became more ceremonial and sword fittings and accessories became more elaborate. Since nearly all men carried some sort of sagemono, usually several suspended from one netsuke, this necessary article became an art form. Intricate sets of netsuke would be created: inro (a type of sagemono consisting of stacked boxes) and ojime (a bead holding the inro shut), with all pieces reflecting one theme. These were always worn on the right side, since the Samuraiís sword was always on the left.

Early in the 17th century, Japanese laws against smoking were repealed in hopes that tobacco crops would help boost the economy. Sagemono were used to carry smoking paraphernalia such as pipes and tinderboxes, and some men even carried netsuke ashtrays.

In 1853, Commodore Perryís Black Ships dropped anchor in Uraga showing the American flag. Eventually a trade treaty was signed between America and Japan, giving America a trade monopoly with Japan for many years. American sailors, mostly from New England ports that were home to whaling fleets, were familiar with the ivory carvings of Scrimshanders. They quickly recognized the artistry of netsuke. Since they were not articles of religious significance, netsuke became some of the first articles of trade to be exported. Undervalued by the Japanese because they were common, netsuke were easily given in trade or sold for trivial amounts. By the 1870s, netsuke collecting had become popular in the West. Today the finest collections of antique netsuke are not found in Japan, but in private Western collections. Even now, there is still a large trade in contemporary netsuke in the West.

Illustration of Netsuke Octopuss

As Japan became more open to the West, rolled cigarettes replaced pipes and western clothing styles with pockets were adopted, replacing traditional dress and eliminating the need for sagemono. As the 19th century waned, the netsuke lost their utilitarian reason for existence.

But netsuke survived because of their popularity as a collectible. It is said that "no one can collect just one," rather like potato chips. At an auction at Christieís in New York in 1984, a large ivory netsuke of a grazing horse (attributed to Osaka master-carver Shigemasalate 18th to early 19th century) sold for $24,200. Quality netsuke are not cheap. Typical estimates of fine wood or ivory netsuke range from $100 to thousands of dollars for a single piece. Copies and cheap netsuke are available as museum reproductions or souvenir items but they are often poorly made out of pseudo-ivory (ivory dust and polyvinyl molded into shape and lightly carved).

New netsuke continue to be made by contemporary craftsmen. However, nearly all members of the International Netsuke Carvers Association under the age of 40 are Westerners. Since netsuke no longer are used in daily life, contemporary pieces sometimes are referred to as okimono (standing in place) since they are only for display purposes. However, the pieces still must conform to all the restrictions for a usable netsuke.

The ban on ivory in 1989 did not inconvenience contemporary carvers as much as might be thought. Besides being able to use wood, stone, clay or a number of other materials, substitutes for ivory are available. Prehistoric ivory has been found in the Alaskan and Siberian tundra from 50,000 year old walrus, mammoth, and mastodon remains. After absorbing the soil for thousands of years, this ivory has taken on color from the mineral salts in the earth. These colored ivories are legal sources and can range from neutral tones of creamy white, beige, mocha, and chocolate brown to rainbow colors of yellow, orange, red, green, and blue. Another source comes from the teeth of hippos. Hippo incisors are about 30 inches long and are harder than true ivory. This is a plentiful, renewable source because hippos lose their teeth naturally when they break, fall out, or are removed for health reasons in zoos. It is difficult for the untrained eye to spot the difference from ivory since the grain is similar. Therefore, hopefully, the tradition of these cunning and intricate little sculptures will continue.

Other sources of information on Netsuke:

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