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A Little Collection: Japanese Netsuke are Small, Inexpensive and Interesting

by David Pike (07/30/12).

Because netsuke are small, light and inexpensive, they became a popular collectable This ball netsuke, comprised of several faces, was used at the end of a cord (circa 1900).

One of the easiest collectables a traveler can take home is something that fits into their luggage, is light, not too expensive and is interesting. The first travelers to Japan after the opening of the country in the late 19th century found that netsuke fit all these requirements and so netsuke became a popular collectable.

Netsuke came into use about 400 years ago during the Edo period. They were used by men to act as counterweights for the cord used to tie pouches that held personal belongings. Kimono have no pockets, so men carried their belongings in bags or containers called sagemono. Sagemono were suspended by cord from the obi, the cord slipping behind the obi and in order for it to stay put, a weight was attached to it. An additional bead, called an ojime, was threaded onto the cord and would be used to keep the sagemono closed.

The transition of netsuke from utilitarian to decorative objects started with the appearance of Admiral Perry’s black ships at Uraga Harbor in 1853. It wasn’t until much later, mid- to late-19th century that the Japanese male fully changed over to western clothing and the netsuke was no longer needed as an everyday accessory.

Netsuke were used only by men. Originally, they were made out of any readily available material such as wood, root, shell and coral—anything that would act as a counterweight to the string that held the pouch. As the art of carving them matured, a wide variety of materials were used, with ivory being very popular.

Almost any material that could be carved was used to make netsuke, including ivory, which was good for fine-line work. It is possible to tell an item is ivory by the grain that is present. Ivory will also oxidize yellow on an exposed surface. The surface that has not been exposed to free flowing air will usually have a significantly different color than the exposed surface. Whale teeth, rhino tusk and deer horn are a few of the types of material that have been used. Many types of wood were also used. The type of wood used by any particular artist often would depend on what grew and was available in the area they lived and worked in. Other materials that have been used are bamboo, various types of bones, metals, ceramic and coral. Sometimes you will run across rare and unusual materials, such as jade.

A netsuke figural of a man made from horn (circa 1870 or later).

A long, flat netsuke made of wood (circa 1888).

Characteristics of a Netsuke
The general idea is that the older netsuke are less detailed, while, as the years progressed, specialist carvers emerged and the craft started to develop and mature, and the carving got more detailed and fine. There is a transition of design elements from the early pieces as time progressed. The earliest pieces favored Chinese motifs, were less detailed and didn’t have inlay work. Later pieces, from about the mid- to late-19th century, became much more detailed in the carving. The middle- to latter-half of the 19th century is generally considered the period when the highest quality netsuke were made.

Manju netsuke have a flattened, round shape. This one, circa 1870, is made of ivory.

Another ivory manju netsuke, also circa 1870.

This ivory netsuke, circa 1860, shows a man holding a fish.

Japanese have a basic definition of what is needed in a netsuke in order for it to be considered a netsuke. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but as basic characteristics the following need to be present:

Rounded: The netsuke has to slip under the obi and “live” in the folds of the kimono. If there are parts of the netsuke that are sticking, out they will catch on the fabric of the obi or kimono, perhaps even ripping it. Some netsuke are flat and long, hooking on the obi.

Small: Although there are netsuke that are larger, the ideal is of a smaller size. If it is too heavy or large, it will only get in the way.

Two Holes: I have put this last, but it is really the defining characteristic. Without two holes to thread the string through, it is difficult to call a piece a netsuke. There do seem to be exceptions to this in the earlier and later netsuke, but for the most part, this holds true.

Types of Netsuke
There are many different types of netsuke. Ring type netsuke are, as the name suggests, round. Manju netsuke have a flattened, round shape. Mask netsuke are netsuke shaped like a mask. Kagamibuta netsuke have a bowl-shaped main part that has a lid. Katabori are made in the round. They are conceived as a piece that looks good from any angle.

An ivory netsuke made to look like acorns (circa 1860-1870).

A mask netsuke made of wood (circa 1870).

There are further sub divisions of these types of round netsuke, depending on where and how extensive the carving is.

Famous Makers
Some of the most famous carvers are Yoshimura Shuzan, Masanao, Izumiya Tomotada and Ohara Mitsuhiro. Their pieces command very high prices. There are many other well-known netsuke makers that regularly appear in auctions in major auction houses.

Studying netsuke is to dive into the deep end of the pool. One way to tell if a netsuke you find is made by the artist that it is signed by is to familiarize yourself with the specialties of each artist. Suzuki Masanao’s specialties are toads, animals and beasts, mountains and water, and natural scenes, for example, flowers and birds. Like Suzuki, each artist had favored materials and themes.

A frog netsuke by the famous Shunko (circa 1850).

Shunko’s signature is on the bottom of the frog.

Netsuke sometimes have meanings hidden in the images used or the combinations of images used. For example, on one netsuke, the visual image is of a frog sitting backwards on a sandal made from rice straw. In Japan, the sandal is often used as a metaphor for traveling; a trip. The frog is often used to represent good fortune and returning home. The word for returning home and frog in Japanese is “kaeru.” Although the Japanese character for returning home and frog are different, they are homophones. You could say the netsuke is about returning home safely from a trip, without any bad incidents.

Some points used in dating netsuke are the shape of the holes used to thread the string and the patina of the netsuke. Well-used netsuke will have misshapen holes where the string has worn down part of the material. The patina on well-used netsuke will be soft and dulled from rubbing up against the kimono.

An inro—a little box—that was used to keep small items.

The detail of the inro showing inlaid birds (circa 1860).

There are some great places to go to learn how passionate netsuke collectors. The International Netsuke Society is the dominate group for most people. You will find links to other resources on their site.

I would like to thank Tachi Yoshitaka, the owner of Yakata, for his generosity in letting me use photos from his website. He asked me to note he doesn’t speak English, so if anyone has any serious purchase inquiries about items on his site, please direct them to me and I will relay them to Mr. Tachi.

David Pike is a Worthologist who specializes in items from Japan, including porcelain.


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