Netsuke is a uniquely Japanese art form. These superb little objects of wood, ivory and ceramics, as well as dozens of other materials, tell the story of Japan from earliest times. Here we find the peasant, the fisherman, the beggar rubbing shoulders with the scholar, the samurai, the warrior, as well as an enchanting collection of animals, fish, insects and benign and ferocious gods. Also represented are objects of daily living, eggplants, tea bowls, flowers. The mythology as well as the various religions of Japan from Buddhism to Shintoism are represented in netsuke form.
Considering the great interest of netsuke in the United States and Europe, very little is actually known of the beginning of these miniature carvings. It is certain that netsuke (literal translation: to attach the root) came into existence as early as the 15th - 16th century. As the Japanese had no pockets intheir kimonos, they had to find a method to carry small belongings, and a convenient way was a leather pouch attached to long double strings and pulled through the obi (a long sash or belt which was worn around the kimono). The netsuke, which always has openings through which the string passes, acted as a toggle, holding the pouch in place. Early netsuke were purely utilitarian, being fashioned of small stones, pieces of bamboo and other woods, shells and gourds. The pouch was mainly used for tobacco, whereas another implement, a small box of either three or five compartments, called an inro, was used for medicines. Sometimes these two items were carried together and suspended from the same netsuke. About 100 years later the Japanese used the ojime bead which acted much like our watch chain slide and kept the inro from opening or turning.
A typical katabori netsuke depicting a cockerel in wood. Unsigned, 19th century. 4.2 cm.
There are several types of netsuke of which the katabori, a completely carved three dimensional work of art, is the most sought after by collectors. A kagamibuta is a bowl shaped netsuke with a metal lid, sometimes decorated, sometimes plain. This was most often used with the tobacco pouch as an ash container. Manju netsuke are round and flat and resemble a button. In Japan a manju is a flat, round rice cake. They can be solid ivory or wood, or beautifully carved and reticulated. This latter type is called a ryusa netsuke. Sashi netsuke are elongated Katabori pieces.
Netsuke can be carved of different materials; ivory and wood being the most popular. They can also be fashioned from horn, tortoise shell, metal or ceramics. They are classified by collectors according to age, subject matter, origin, style, carver or school. Unfortunately, we don't have the space to go into the many different subjects and designs. Suffice to say that these dear little figures tell us a story. Study the faces of the people, animals, gods and devils and you will see a full range of human emotion; joy, sadness, distress, frustration, anger and love. Inspiration for early netsuke came from the Chinese. Compare the Chinese foo dog to the Japanese shishi and you will at once see the similarity. As netsuke art became more sophisticated the carvers reached back into their rich history, religion and fables as well as every day life, for inspiration. We now find the kabuki entertainer, the noh mask, the sumo wrestler, the kappa (water imp) and Raijin, the god of thunder. Although women are in the minority when it comes to netsuke art, we still find them represented. The pearl diver comes to mind, as well as the mermaid, a mother and her baby, a beggar woman and of course, Okame (goddess of mirth) who is always represented with her serene, happy face.
There were thousands of netsuke carvers and to identify them takes special skill and patience since some of them have identical names. The history of netsuke is usually divided into three periods: the early, middle and late periods.
The early period
(17th through early 19th century)
During this time the subject matter came mainly from the Chinese, and netsuke portraying Chinese legend, history and customs were greatly admired by the Japanese. The earliest of the carvers never signed their pieces. Some of the outstanding carvers of the latter part of this period were Masanao, Tomatada and Okatomo (all from the Kyoto area).
An ivory netsuke of a rain dragon. 19th century - unsigned.
The middle period
(most of the 19th century)
Netsuke carving came into its own during this time. Many of the artists now had influential patrons. They trained and schooled other carvers. During the middle period, the netsuke carver perfected his art, concentrating on Japanese themes, striving for excellence of design and execution and using materials of tremendous variety. Some carvers of this period were Mitsuhiro, Masakazu, Kokusai and Kaigyokusai.
A ceramic netsuke of a badger holding a saki container. Signed Ogata Kazuhei, late 19th - early 20th century.
The late period
(late 19th and early 20th century)
During the latter part of the 19th century Western influence and style were introduced to Japan after two centuries of isolation. European merchants clamored for Japanese wares, good, bad and indifferent. The excellence of netsuke carving diminished, but the little carved objects found great favor with the foreigners who took them back to the West. With the advent of Western style clothes in Japan, the netsuke lost its practical purpose as a toggle and became strictly an art form. Among outstanding carvers of this period were Tokoku and Sosui.
Netsuke are popular collector's items today, treasured both by the Japanese and Westerners. A really good netsuke seldom shows up at a flea market or general antiques shop. People interested in learning about netsuke would do well to seek the advice of a knowledgeable dealer or collector. Most of the netsuke being sold are of poor quality, flat and lifeless. Although some are carved in Japan, most originate in Hong Kong and some are not even ivory.
A seated rat in wood by Masanao of Kyoto. 18th century.
There are some fine books written on netsuke collecting, both in Japan and in the West. Here are a few titles of books you might want to locate: "Netsuke, Familiar and Unfamiliar", by Raymond Bushell, "The Netsuke Handbook by Ueda Reikichi", by Raymond Bushell and "An Introduction of Netsuke", by Joe Earle. It is often worth trying the public library or a good book dealer for more information.
Last, but not least, we should mention the contemporary netsuke. Although new, some of these are extremely well carved and beautiful. These netsuke are strictly works of art and, as such, command high prices, sometimes costing more than a fine antique.
Mermaid with coral ball. Ivory - Sumi, circa 1985.
A seated Daruma emerging from a nine year meditation, carved in wood with inlays. Koju (school of Tokoku), late 19th century.
Prices of fine netsuke range from several hundred to thousands of dollars. Before investing, study, read, look, feel. Learn about damage and repairs. Buy one good netsuke rather than five average ones. Signatures are not as important as good carving and charming subject matter. Hold a netsuke in your hand and feel the warmth of the wood admire the glow of the ivory. Explore the world of netsuke. You will most certainly fall in love and it is a lifetime love affair.