Karen’s Cabinet of Curiosities March 2017


Curiosity: Japanese netsuke

Created: mid to late 19th century

Artist: Only one of the netsuke has a signature (mei), but I could not find out which carver it belongs to.

Measurements: between 3.5 cm and 4.5 cm in diameter                                                                 

The small netsuke collection of the School of Art is part of the George Powell Bequest.

Traditional Japanese clothes such as the kimono, widely worn between the 17th and 19th century, had no pockets. Women could sometimes store small items in their sleeves but men had to find something else to keep things such as tobacco pouches, pipes, purses, small, decorated containers (inro) and their writing brush and ink-well (the set is called a yatate). A practical way was to hang those objects on a cord from their sash (obi). Things attached to the sash as such were called sagemono (‘hanging things’). A netsuke (‘root-fix’) is the small counterweight at the other end of the cord that keeps it from slipping. The holes in the netsuke through which the cord is threaded are called himotoshi.

The history of the netsuke probably goes back to the 12th century although they don’t seem to appear in illustrations before the 17th century. Sagemono on the other side were already depicted during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). Maybe netsuke were not seen as interesting enough and might have only been pieces of wood or similar natural objects. The golden age of the netsuke was the Edo Period (1603-1868). The shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542/3-1616) had taken over the rule of the country and moved the government seat from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo). To reduce foreign influences, for example Catholic missionaries, the chance that internal competitors to power might unite with external forces and the danger of being colonised, the shogun isolated Japan from the rest of the world. Only very few licensed traders or officials from China, Korea and the Dutch East India Company were allowed in. Furthermore, Japanese were forbidden to travel abroad.

The Edo Period had a strict hierarchical structure starting with the nobility at the top and continuing downwards from there with the samurai (warriors), farmers, artisans and merchants. Whereas the aristocrats and the samurai were obliged to live a life style appropriate to their privileged place in society and to visit court at regular intervals, merchants were not permitted to show off their wealth, which was often greater than that of members of the upper tiers. However, exquisitely carved netsuke made of precious materials such as ivory were an unobtrusive way of demonstrating their good taste, knowledge about art and their prosperity.

After the Tokugawa shoguns lost power and the Meiji emperors (1868-1912) resumed sovereignty, the country was forced by internal tensions and pressure from other nations such as the United States to open their borders again. Contact with the Western world led to a change in dress style and made the netsuke largely redundant as an everyday object, but they became very popular among Europeans and Americans as collectables.

Netsuke were commonly made of ivory, lacquer or wood such as box tree, cherry, cypress, yew or camellia; they were inlaid with mother-of-pearl, cloisonné, ebony, metals, coral, amber or porcelain. Typical forms were the katabori, three-dimensional figures, and the round (rarely square) manju, named after the bean paste/rice cakes that are still popular in Japan. The School of Art netsuke collection comprises only one katabori; the rest of them are manju, or more specifically kagamibuta (‘mirror lid’) which are manju with a decorated metal plate on one side. They are carved from ivory with the disks made of copper, bronze or brass. It is quite hard to decide on the metals used for each netsuke; they could be alloys sometimes. It is also difficult to establish the meaning of some images, so I have to admit that, despite my research, most descriptions are guesswork and/or incomplete. The disks are decorated with pictures of, for example, Handaka Sonja, one of the rakan, who is shown with a dragon emerging from his bowl. Rakan were the sixteen apostles of Buddha. The toad could be Kappa, a mythical water creature with a frog-like body, said to attack humans.

The School of Art’s netsuke were created in the second half of the 19th century, so it can be assumed that they were produced for Western collectors rather than their original everyday use.

(Click on the images to enlarge them.)


Barker, Richard, Smith, Lawrence. Netsuke: The Miniature Sculpture of Japan. London: British Museum Publications Ltd., 1976. Print.

The Carlo Monzino Collection of Netsuke, Inro and Lacquer: The Property of a Private Trust, Sale LN5368. London: Sotheby’s, 1995. Print.

Holland, Neil, Meyrick, Robert. To instruct and inspire: 125 Years of the Art and Crafts Collection. Aberystwyth: University of Wales, School of Art P, 1997. Print.








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