The Folklore and Fashion of Japanese Netsuke

February 4th, 2011

For diminutive objects, Japanese netsuke are an enormous subject, as this interview with Christine Drosse so amply shows. Drosse is a Curatorial Administrator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, whose Pavilion for Japanese Art is home of the museum’s collection of netsuke, 150 of which are on permanent view. A netsuke collector herself, Drosse also writes a column called “Netsuke Basics from A to Z,” which is published in the quarterly “International Netsuke Society Journal.” To learn more about netsuke, visits LACMA’s online exhibitions: “Netsuke: Urban Life in the Edo Period” and “Netsuke of the Meiji Period.”

This ivory mask-shaped netsuke is from the 18th or 19th century and features sumi-ink staining.

When men wore kimono in the 17th century, they had hanging containers and pouches called sagemono and stacked containers called inrō in which to carry small personal items. The containers hung by a cord that was attached to a small carving which was slipped underneath the kimono sash at the hip. This carving was called a netsuke and its mass would prevent the cord of the hanging container from slipping out from beneath the sash.

Initially, the container cords were tied to small readily available items such as pieces of wood, root, coral, or shell. Such were the origins of netsuke in Japan. Gradually these small functional toggles developed into what most of us know today as netsuke.

Netsuke were used by men. They held things like tobacco pouches, money pouches, and small multi-tiered containers called inrō.

Inrō were typically rectangular in shape and made of lacquer, with up to five compartments that stacked neatly onto one another. In such a container one could hold medicine or a seal and ink. The entire inrō would hang from a cord attached to a netsuke.

Collectors Weekly: Were inrō carved, too?

Drosse: They could be. Tobacco boxes were made of wood and were carved much more frequently than was the case with inrō. Inrō were made of wood or ivory as well, in which case they would likely have had carved designs on them. Most of the carving, however, was reserved for netsuke and the small sliding bead called an ojime.

An ojime was another functional part of the ensemble. The cord would be threaded through the ojime so that when the bead was slid down toward the container, it prevented the lid or top section of the inrō from opening.

Collectors Weekly: Can you tell us about LACMA’s netsuke collection?

A wooden horse from the early 1800s, carved by Kano Tomokazu, has inlaid eyes.

Drosse: The museum’s netsuke collection was a gift from Raymond and Frances Bushell. Mr. Bushell was a lawyer who lived in Japan after World War II. At that time, netsuke were very inexpensive and easy to come by in Japan. Mr. Bushell began his collection while living there and over the course of the next few decades amassed a collection that must have numbered over a thousand.

The oldest netsuke in the collection are probably from the early 18th century, maybe the late 17th. Dating netsuke is a not an exact science. There are a number of things to look for. An important factor is evidence of wear. Cord holes that have seen a great deal of use will have soft edges and are commonly misshapen. The rest of the netsuke will also have a soft feel to it from rubbing against the kimono. These visual clues help in dating a netsuke.

In the mid- and late 19th century, artists started carving netsuke that were more naturalistic. The hair of animals such as dogs and rabbits was rendered with tiny incised lines. You don’t see that in late-17th or early-18th century pieces. Early pieces also did not have inlaid eyes. For the most part the carving on early pieces was carried out just enough to convey the subject matter. Early pieces often portrayed Chinese themes and motifs such as dragons, immortals, and mythical beasts including kirin, baku, and Chinese lions.

Collectors Weekly: Would you say the early ones were more utilitarian than artistic?

This immortal carrying a toad is from the first half of the 19th century and was carved by Naitō Toyomasa.

This immortal carrying a toad is from the first half of the 19th century and was carved by Naitō Toyomasa.

Drosse: Yes. Though carvers sought to create aesthetically pleasing pieces and no doubt consumers enjoyed visually attractive carvings, the functional role of netsuke was of primary importance in the early period of their use. That changed though in the 19th century.

In the mid-19th century, after 250 years of self-imposed isolation Japan’s new government opened Japan to the West. Visitors from America and Europe soon arrived and discovered netsuke, which became instant favorites. As souvenir-hunters became their main clientele, netsuke carvers created works catering to their love of detail and ornamentation.

For example, before tourism the cord holes in netsuke were simple and unadorned. However, once netsuke started being collected by Westerners, the carvers started decorating the holes. They would line them with stained ivory or carve decorative borders around them. Such touches appealed to foreign tastes so carvers incorporated them into their works.

The impact of foreigners on netsuke production could be felt in other ways as well. It was foreigners who brought to Japan clothing with pockets. The Japanese began wearing trousers and jackets and in time no longer had use for netsuke. Netsuke consequently went from functional to decorative objects. This was in the mid-to-late 19th century.

Collectors Weekly: Japanese men simply stopped wearing kimonos?

Drosse: Eventually, yes. Over the course of the latter decades of the 19th century, the Japanese integrated many Western things into their daily lives. One of the things that they adopted was Western clothing. As more and more Japanese traded their kimono for trousers, the need to carry hanging containers slowly diminished to the point where inrō, pouches, and the like became obsolete. The introduction of cigarettes, likewise, eliminated the need to carry pipes, pipe cases, and tobacco pouches or boxes.

Collectors Weekly: Beyond their level of detail, how else did netsuke change for the tourist market?

Here, chrysanthemums and a butterfly are inlaid in ivory, tortoiseshell, and mother of pearl.

Here, chrysanthemums and a butterfly are inlaid in ivory, tortoiseshell, and mother of pearl.

Drosse: Early netsuke were very compact—if there had been anything sticking out from the piece like an arm or a dog’s tail, it could break off, or it might tear the kimono. That wasn’t an issue when it came to netsuke made for the export market because Westerners didn’t wear them.

Around the mid-19th century, carvers began to make pieces called okimono which translated essentially means ‘standing thing.’ These carvings were basically netsuke without holes. Artists designed netsuke with a flat or wide bottom so they would stand up and could be placed in a cabinet or upon a shelf. Though older netsuke were not made as decorative display items, later works catered to Western tastes for delicate figurine-like objects.

Collectors Weekly: How do scholars categorize netsuke?

Drosse: There are a number of types of netsuke. They are distinguished primarily by their form.

The oldest netsuke were probably just rings, about 2 or 3 inches in diameter, resembling a bracelet. Men’s sashes in those days were narrower, narrow enough to thread through this ring. One ring could have several hanging containers tied to it.

A stained and inlaid ivory catfish from the 19th century.

A stained and inlaid ivory catfish from the 19th century.

Most of these early ring-style netsuke were very simple. Some were more elaborate, shaped like a dragon whose body and long neck and tail create a loop, or a group of monkeys holding one another’s tails. You don’t see these early ring netsuke very often.

Katabori are the most popular type of netsuke with collectors. They are basically miniature in-the-round sculptures which range in height from about 1 ½ to 2 ½ inches. The manjū is named after the traditional Japanese favorite sweet rice cake which is shaped like a small bun. Manjū netsuke are carved primarily on their surface.

The kagamibuta, which means ‘mirror lid’ is similar in shape to the manjū. It is made of a bowl upon which is placed a metal lid, which is what the word ‘mirror’ in its name refers to. The ryūsa is also usually shaped like a manjū, except that rather than limiting the carving to the outer surface, ryūsa have designs executed by cutting through the material and created a pierced effect. Dragons amid swirling clouds are the type of design typically found in ryūsa netsuke.

Sashi are very narrow netsuke, between four and six inches long. They are designed to be inserted between one’s sash and kimono. The cord would be attached at the top so that the entire netsuke except the top would be hidden beneath the sash. For example, if a sashi was carved like a dragon, the creature’s body would be under the sash and its head would be looking out over the top of the sash. There would be some kind of opening—perhaps the dragon’s mouth?—that would hold the cord.

A type of netsuke similar to the sashi is the obihasami. The obishasami, however, has a hook at the bottom which would hold the lower edge of the sash. I haven’t seen sashi or obihasami that are very old. They seem to have developed later.

Finally there are mask netsuke that, for the most part, are miniature versions of masks used in Japanese theater. Most of them were carved of wood but some were also made of pottery and porcelain.

Collectors Weekly: How did netsuke motifs evolve?

Naitō Toyomasa carved this kappa creature riding a turtle in the first half 19th century.

Naitō Toyomasa carved this kappa creature riding a turtle in the first half 19th century.

Drosse: The earliest netsuke had Chinese motifs—China had always been an important source of inspiration for the Japanese. From the early 17th through the mid-19th century, the Dutch were the only other people that the Japanese interacted with. Carvers apparently favored the Dutch as netsuke subjects with their big noses, round eyes, curly hair, and beards. Tall standing Dutchmen are most common in 18th-century netsuke.

Most other netsuke motifs from that period are traditional—plants and animals from nature, subjects from folklore and legends, deities and religious figures, and zodiac animals. Subjects found in netsuke increased greatly in the 19th century as foreign goods, books, and imagery were introduced into Japan. It was during this time that new subjects entered carvers’ repertoire.

Collectors Weekly: What are some of the other netsuke whose subjects are derived from Japanese folklore?

Though famous for his oxen, 18th-century artist Tomotada carved other animals, such as this ivory tiger and her cub.

Though famous for his oxen, 18th-century artist Tomotada carved other animals, such as this ivory tiger and her cub.

Drosse: There’s a creature called a tengu that lives in rivers and is prone to attacking unaware travelers as they walk through wooded areas. There’s another animal called a kappa that has a small bowl-like indentation on the top of its head that is filled with water. It is the water from which he draws his power so if attacked, one merely need push him over so that the water spills out. There are countless tales like these that are found in netsuke.

Another very popular netsuke motif is that of the tongue-cut sparrow. The tale tells of a hurt sparrow who is found in the woods by a kind man who cares for it and nurtures it back to health. The sparrow, it turns out, is magical and brings great treasure to the man in return for this kindness. The man’s neighbor sees this and hatches a plan to make herself rich too. She steals the bird and demands that it give her a box of treasure as it had done her neighbor. The bird presents the woman with a large covered box. However, upon opening the box, instead of riches she finds a host of ghoulish and terrifying creatures. This story warns of the consequences of greed.

Then there’s the story of Tekkai sennin, a wandering immortal who could depart his body temporarily by blowing his spirit from his mouth. In netsuke one will often see Tekkai sennin with his head raised and his mouth blowing out his spirit. There are few netsuke, however, that represent the departing spirit. In those that do, the spirit being released is depicted as a stream of air or perhaps little clouds with a tiny figure on it. Tekkai sennin is not a rare subject in netsuke but a Tekkai sennin shown with its spirit is unusual.

Collectors Weekly: What can you tell us about the carvers?

A seal carved as a Southeast Asian-style lion from the 17th century.

A seal carved as a Southeast Asian-style lion from the 17th century.

Drosse: Based on the quality of some pieces I’ve seen, I would say that some netsuke were made by amateurs who probably carved them for their own use or perhaps to sell on occasion. The netsuke that most collectors today seek out were made by fairly well known and certainly talented individuals who carved netsuke for a living.

Most serious present-day collectors know these artists names and the types of netsuke or motifs they favored. Thought not all were famous during their own time, by the 19th and 20th century, when netsuke collecting became a worldwide phenomenon, most collectors would have been familiar with the top netsuke carvers’ identities.

Some of the names we know today include Shuzan, Masanao, Tomotada, Mitsuhiro, and Kokusai. Shuzan was probably one of the earliest netsuke carvers. Kokusai worked much later, in the mid-late 19th century. Masanao and Tomotada worked in the 18th century. Masanao carved a number of dogs, Tomotada is famous for his oxen. He carved single oxen as well as pairs with a mother and calf.

Some collectors focus on a particular carver. There were carvers who produced a large number of works such a Masanao of Kyoto, Kokusai, Mitsuhiro, and Masatoshi to name just a few.

Collectors Weekly: Were artists limited by their materials?

This is baku, the monster that eats nightmares, in ivory, from the 18th century.

This is baku, the monster that eats nightmares, in ivory, from the 18th century.

Drosse: Sometimes. In pre-modern Japan sections of the country were somewhat secluded due to the country’s mountainous terrain and the difficulties that travel presented. Artists and craftsmen living in a particular area often produced similar wares and used similar materials—those that were available locally. In regards to netsuke, the availability of materials very much shaped netsuke production in certain regions.

Elephant-ivory is associated with 18th century netsuke made in Kyoto and Osaka. Both cities were major trade centers, which meant carvers working in these areas would have had greater access to imported goods than carvers living farther away.

Native trees were an important source of wood for carvers. Which region used a particular type of wood depended on where the trees grew in abundance. In the mountainous area of Nagoya carvers used cherry wood. In Hida, yew was the wood of choice.

Deer antler was another native material that was abundant and found favor with carvers from the Tokyo neighborhood of Asakusa in the 19th century. Ceramic netsuke primarily came from areas around Hirado and Kyoto which were known for pottery production.

Collectors Weekly: What are some of the more unusual materials you’ve seen used?

Drosse: Some of the more standard materials used in netsuke were elephant ivory, boars tusks, various native and imported woods, tree nuts and peach pits, lacquer, and pottery and porcelain. Netsuke made of glass are less common, as are works in cloisonné. Petrified sea pine looks like black coral and is very hard but was also occasionally used by carvers.

Carvers also used teeth. Though opinions often differ as to exactly what animal a particular tooth may have come from, there is no doubt that it is a tooth. There are netsuke made of the dried claws of birds or the jaws of small animals with all the teeth. Netsuke made of preserved animal parts are not very common.

Collectors Weekly: So netsuke were not always carved?

Drosse: No, actually, they weren’t. There are lacquer netsuke for example which have a wood or papier-mache like substrate over which the lacquer was applied. The finished design is done using different lacquer techniques and sometime inlays of other materials and requires no carving. Some pieces like the round-shaped manjū were turned on a lathe. Most ceramic netsuke were cast from molds though some of these may have had a bit of carving to refine the finished design or add details. Even though netsuke can be produced by any number of methods, people generally understand netsuke to be carvings.

Collectors Weekly: We’ve been talking about the functionality and design of netsuke, but did they also telegraph social status?

Drosse: Yes. Life in Edo-period Japan was highly regulated. Among other things, the government enacted countless edicts and laws limiting people’s ability to display personal wealth. Certain colors and designs were seen as ostentatious and therefore banned. One way in which people circumvented the rules was through the use of netsuke and sagemono. The motif on an inrō or the clever pairing of netsuke, ojime, and inrō was a way to display one’s knowledge, taste, wealth, or status in the community.

Collectors Weekly: When did you first get interested in netsuke?

An early-19th century stained wood carving of a snail on well bucket, by Shigemasa.

An early-19th century stained wood carving of a snail on well bucket, by Shigemasa.

Drosse: I was over at a friend’s house and he had a couple of books on netsuke. I started looking at the pictures and thought they were nice. However, when I realized how small they actually were my interest was piqued. I wanted to learn more about them.

I’ve always liked wooden things, natural things. As a kid I collected miniature things. I also love the fact that netsuke have been used, that somebody carried something with them 100 or 200 years ago. They are like pieces of history and I like that connection. I guess netsuke just appealed to me on a variety of levels. I bought one, and then another, and then another, and that was it. Most collectors will tell you that as you get more pieces and you learn more about them you just get more and more into it. I guess that’s my story as well. But I wasn’t looking for any of that; I wasn’t looking to get involved in anything, really. It just happened.

Collectors Weekly: What are some of your favorite pieces in your personal collection?

Drosse: I have an ivory Dutchman that’s pretty unique. He’s in a pose, screaming or something. I’m not sure what he’s doing but he’s very interesting looking. There are a lot of Dutchman netsuke. Most of them are in ivory. Typically they’re tall and thin and they wear a hat and have shoes on and the kind of fitted leggings that were worn in the 18th century, with a coat that went to their knees. Often they are carrying a gun, a chicken, or a dog. The one that I have is really unusual and I fell in love with it.

Collectors Weekly: What advice do you have for someone who is thinking of starting a netsuke collection?

Ishikawa Rensai carved this ivory and inlaid piece depicting lotus blossoms and a bird in the mid-to-late 19th century.

Ishikawa Rensai carved this ivory and inlaid piece depicting lotus blossoms and a bird in the mid-to-late 19th century.

Drosse: Take it slow. Try to see as many real, authentic pieces as you can. Go to a museum. You can’t handle netsuke in a museum but you can be reasonably sure that what you’re looking at is real. There are a ton of fake netsuke out there that are represented as being old. People who don’t know any better buy them.

I’d also go to auctions, even if you aren’t ready to bid. They have previews during which you can handle the pieces so you can tell what real wear feels like versus fake wear and what the color of truly old ivory looks like versus the color of ivory that’s been made to look old.

It’s all about knowledge, so do what you need to do to learn. Talk to dealers. Read books. Don’t start out with the most expensive piece you can find. And when you do buy your first piece, show it to someone you trust and ask them, “How did I do? What do you think?” Every netsuke collector has made mistakes, so be prepared to learn from them and move on.

(All images courtesy the Raymond and Frances Bushell Collection, Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

One comment so far

  1. Patti Walters Says:

    I have 3 netsuke purchased in the 80′s when I had more money than sense from a store in the World Trade Center. I liked them because they were tiny, beautiful and I had just returned from a business trip to Japan and was enthralled with all things Japanese. I realize now that they are probably not worth what I paid for them but can you tell me if older netsuke in ivory had very pale colors in the design?


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