Netsuke Lessons

We will be providing short lessons that focus on the general kinds of questions that beginning netsuke and ojime collectors often have. We will also be addressing various subject matter of interest to the more experienced collector.

Over time, we will be adding more lessons to these pages. If there are any particular topics that you would like to see discussed, we invite you to email your suggestions to us.

Netsuke Lesson #1: What Are Netsuke?

Netsuke (pronounced somewhere between nets-keh and nets-kay) are miniature carvings, the best of which are masterpieces of art. This unique art form originated in Japan over 300 years ago.

Netsuke were originally used as functional objects. Traditional Japanese clothing (kimono) did not have any pockets. To carry around various personal objects - such as a money pouch (kinchaku), a tobacco pouch (tobakko-ire), or a medicine case (inro) – one or more of these items would be threaded onto a loop of cord. A netsuke would be put on the other end of the loop. Then, the netsuke would be slipped up under the kimono sash (obi) until it sat on the top edge of the obi, acting as an anchor for the object and allowing it to conveniently hang from the obi without falling. These various personal items are called sagemono, which translates as “hanging things.” A bead (ojime) would also be threaded onto the cord and be located between the netsuke and sagemono. The ojime slid up and down the cord, enabling the sagemono to be opened or kept closed.

Types and Qualities of Netsuke

Netsuke can be classified into various types according to their distinctive forms. These types include: katabori, kagamibuta, manju, and mask. Katabori netsuke are carved in the round and look the most like miniature sculpture. Kagamabuta netsuke consist of a bowl and a coordinated lid. Manju netsuke usually have a round shape that resembles a Japanese rice bun that is called a manju. Manju netsuke are always button-like, but they are not always round. Ryusa netsuke are a specific type of manju. Ryusa are hollow and their surface has a pierced pattern. Mask netsuke are usually miniature models of masks that are used in Noh and other types of Japanese theater, although some come only from the imaginations of their carvers.

Because they were originally meant to be worn, the overall design of a netsuke had to be compact and sturdy. There could not be any protrusions or sharp edges that could break off or damage a delicate fabric. The design also had to incorporate a hole (himotoshi) through which the cord could pass. Ideally, a netsuke should look good from every angle and also feel good in one's hand. It should provide visual and tactile aesthetic pleasure.

In Japanese culture, everyday utilitarian items often serve an aesthetic purpose. Although the first netsuke were found objects (such as a piece of wood, a shell or a stone), they evolved into finely crafted and beautifully decorated works of art.

Netsuke Materials

The most common materials used for netsuke were different types of ivories and woods. However, netsuke-shi (carvers) worked with a wide variety of materials including various metals, coral, lacquer, porcelain, bamboo, bone and stag antler, as well as some rare and exotic materials, such as narwhal, baleen and rhinoceros horn. Today, most netsuke are carved from wood, mammoth ivory or stag antler, although a great variety of other materials are used. None of the contemporary netsuke we sell contains any materials from any endangered species.

Subject Matter

One of the things that makes netsuke fascinating is the huge variety of subject matter that is portrayed. The subjects are drawn from both reality and imagination. Netsuke can depict endless aspects of daily life (including Japanese customs and culture). They can depict subjects from nature, history or mythology. They may even reflect philosophic or aesthetic ideals. Netsuke appeal to the mind and heart, as well as the eye and hand. They may charm, amuse or astound the collector: Some of them illuminate and inspire.

Netsuke Carving Spans Three Centuries

The tradition of netsuke carving reached its peak during the second half of the Edo period (1608 – 1868). During this time, sumptuary laws forbade anyone except members of aristocracy or the samurai class from wearing jewelry. Netsuke-shi were kept busy carving pieces for members of the burgeoning merchant class (as well as members of the upper classes), who would show off their wealth by wearing extremely beautiful netsuke. Netsuke were very important accessories that could reflect the interests and good taste of the owner.

Japan was a closed society until Commodore Perry opened it up to foreign trade in the mid-19th century. Western dress gradually replaced the kimono, and by the beginning of the 20th century the majority of Japanese people no longer used netsuke. However, western collectors were already captivated by this distinctive art form. They provided a whole new market that continues to flourish today.

Generations of talented netsuke-shi have continuously maintained the rich and expressive tradition of netsuke carving. Currently, there is a select group of gifted artists – in Japan and other countries throughout the world – who are keeping the art form alive and vibrant. Their work can be found in fine galleries, great private collections, and museum exhibitions.

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