A Miniature Art Of Japan
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Published by
Copyright 1951
Total 233 pages

As kimono have no pockets, it was customary for people to carry small belongings in a kinchaku (money pouch), inro (medicine case), or a tobacco-pouch. A netsuke was attached to the end of the cord and served as a button to hold the pouch between the girdle and garment. A bead called ojime (string-fastener) ran along the cord. Being intricately carved, netsuke were also a decorative accessory. The art of netsuke developed from the mid 17th century to mid 19th century.

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Types of netsuke

Netsuke may be classified by the materials, namely wood, ivory, horn, lacquer work, earthenware, metal and stone; or by the design, such as dolls, stage-masks, etc. But most commonly they are divided according to their form into katabori (figure carving), kagami-buta (lid-covered), manju (bun-shaped) and ryusa (a variety of manju).

Inro with Netsuke and Ojime By Shibayama

Inro with Netsuke and Ojime By Shibayama
Design : A rabbit, three butterflies, and flowers inlaid on ivory with coral, shell, tortoise¬shell, etc.
Size : Inro (Medicine-box)—2.7 in. 1. ; Netsuke —1.2 in. d. ; Ojime (strina-fastener)—0.4 in. 1.

The multiple functions of netsuke

As already stated, netsuke are a piece fastened to the cords or strings attached to an inro, kinchaku (money-pouch), tobacco-pouch, a bunch of keys, amulet case, or lunch-bag, and serve to keep the cords from slipping through the girdle and garment. But sometimes they are intended for some other purposes in addition to that of checking the slip of the cords.
In the first place, the materials of netsuke are often applied to medical purposes. The most popular of these is unicorn, which is the upper jaw of a species of whale found in the arctic regions, and has, so it is said, the virtue of allaying fever. The carved piece of unicorn is used for netsuke at ordinary times, and when the wearer is attacked with a fever, scrapings of it are infused and taken as a febrifuge. As unicorn is hard to distinguish from ivory, the spot where the cord is fastened and the other part which is unimportant in design are left with a crust and no carvings are wrought there, so that the material may be recognizable as unicorn and taking scrapings from it many not affect
the general design.

A mask of demon

A mask of demon By Ueda Jugyoku [ivory, dyed ; 1.5 in. h.]

It is said that if one takes scrapings of ivory internally, a thorn or splinter run into one's skin will come out. It is further thought that deer horn has an antidotal value for the bite of an adder. Netsuke of these materials are often used for medical purposes.
Some netsuke were used as ash-trays. These were employed with tobacco-pouches, mostly by peasants. Chiefly of metal, particularly of cast metal, they were so made as to hold tobacco ashes. The reason this form of netsuke became so popular is that Japanese smokers were in the habit of knocking out the ashes into an ashtray and lighting the next pipe with the ashes while they were still glowing.
There is a tobacco-pouch netsuke ingeniously devised like the modern cigarette lighter. It is made of brass or iron, and when the lid is opened, the flint and steel worked by a spring make sparks and set fire to the tinder which is also inside the netsuke.
Another specimen is the sundial netsuke. It consists of a small vessel opening on hinges, one part of which is fitted with a compass, while the middle of the other part is formed in a cave around which the hours are marked and in the center of which rises a rod. When the piece is placed in the right direction according to the compass and exposed to the sun, the shadow of the gnomon falls upon one of the hour lines and thus shows the time of day. Although of not much artistic value, the sundial netsuke may be said to be a highly advanced variety.
Then we have the soroban netsuke, which was patronized by merchants. The soroban, or abacus, is a calculator used by the Japanese from olden times. This netsuke was made mostly of wood, sometimes of ivory, and one could calculate figures from five to seven digits. Other varieties of netsuke include one which may be called a sickle netsuke, with the blade folding into the handle, and we may mention also those in the form of candle-sticks, telescopes, magnifying glasses, etc.
As may be seen from the above, there were a great many kinds of netsuke which combined their original purpose with various other uses. It is interesting to note that with the development of this midget sculpture more and more works of highly artistic value were created, but pieces combining purely practical purposes were also much sought after.

Netsuke design

A monkey cherishing a peach

A monkey cherishing a peach By Kaigyokusai Masatsugu [ivory; 1.2 in. h.]

The inro, tobacco-pouch and money-pouch were worn on the person or used often in company, so that they easily attracted attention. It was natural therefore that people should have grown more and more luxurious or fastidious about these things. The same can be said of the netsuke which are attached to them. In its inception, netsuke were things for practical use merely to check the slipping of inro, kinchaku, etc. from the girdle, but in the middle of the Edo Period (1600-1867) there was a tendency to vie for excellence in material and workmanship as well as for novelty of design. Though of insignificant proportions, design was regarded as the soul of netsuke, and much importance was attached to it.

A Monkey-leader/Ofuku

Left : A Monkey-leader By Negoro Sokyu
[wood, lacquered ; no sig.; 2.9 in. h.]
Right : Ofuku (Banko Ware)
[earthenware ; 1.6 in. h.]

The designs of netsuke are of immense variety, and this forms their notable characteristic. It may be accounted for by the fact that netsuke was a rising indus- rial art unfettered by old tradition and its use spread among the people in general without distinction of class. In other fields of art, for instance, painting, conditions were quite different. The Kanos of Edo were painters in the Shogun's employ generation after generation; among other artists there were many who were engaged by daimyos and received stipends. They were not allowed to break through the bonds of tradition, but had to paint conventional pictures according to the style handed down in their respective families. It is almost impossible to find anything fresh or free and untrammeled in the works of these protege painters.
In the field of netsuke art, on the contrary, such aristocratic patronage was unknown, for netsuke found favor with farmers, tradesmen and artisans, not the samurai class. Towards the end of the Edo Period, there was a netsuke carver named Hojitsu (Meikeisai) who was almost an employee artist to the Shogun, but this was a very rare instance. Netsuke developed as a free, demotic new art unrestrained by any tradition or authority. Naturally they were marked by novelty of designs covering a wide range of subjects and manifested a popular taste peculiar to the Edo Period.

Netsuke should be finished with due consideration for the effect which they may produce when worn at the girdle rather than when taken off the cords and viewed in one's hand. The side bearing the eye for the cords is regarded as the reverse and made free from unevenness, while the other side is the obverse and worked upon. For instance, in the case of a standing human figure, the cord-eye is made on its back and of course its front is the obverse. In general the whole figure is bent to the front in bow-shape so as to keep the obverse from rubbing, and the elaborate carving is executed there.

However, it is interesting to note that in making netsuke the artist does not confine his consideration to his work as a piece merely to be worn at the girdle, but exercises his skill so that it may deserve appreciation when it is taken off the cords and placed on the palm or a table. For example, a human figure standing on one foot is so made as to balance itself and does not fall. Almost all works of netsuke are devised as to stand.
Sometimes not only carving, but various other contrivances are made. In some human figures the tongue or the head moves. In other works the seeds in the lotus fruit and bee larvae in the honey-comb are movable, but they are so devised as never to slip out. There is for example an ingeniously made netsuke the subject of which is taken from an ancient tale of Japan, Ddjdji Monogatari. (See Ch. IX. 6.) It represents the temple bell around which the monster serpent coils itself, and on turning the serpent's head, the face of the young priest, hidden inside and visible through the broken part of the bell, turns white, blue and red alternately.


Horaisan (Land of Elixir) (Ch. IX. 11) By Kagetoshi [ivory; 1.3 in. h.]


Long-leg (Ch. IX. 23) By Minkoku [ivory ; 1.5 in. h.]