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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Netsuke: From Fashion Fobs to Coveted Collectibles

From the seventeenth through mid-nineteenth century, Japanese citizens of all classes wore the kimono—a simple T-shaped robe constructed with minimal cutting and tailoring—wrapped around the body and held in place with an obi sash. In order to carry small items such as tobacco, medicine, and seals, ingeniously constructed sagemono (a collective term for “hanging things”) were suspended on cords that hung from the obi sash (29.100.841). Stacked, nested containers, known as inrō, were specifically designed to hold medicine or seals (10.211.2081). Netsuke served as anchors or counterweights for inrô and sagemono (14.40.843a,b). A single cord was threaded through a cord channel on one side of the suspended container, through two holes (himotoshi) in the netsuke, then through the other side of the container, and knotted on the underside of the container (JP1954). A decorative bead, or ojime, slid along the cord between the netsuke and sagemono, allowing the user to open and close the container (14.40.878a,b).

The wearer would slip the netsuke under and dangle it over the obi, allowing the sagemono to hang suspended between waist and hip. In order to access the contents of the sagemono, the wearer slipped the netsuke behind the obi sash, liberating the ensemble. By sliding the ojime toward the netsuke, the contents of the container were easily accessible.

Primary sources referencing netsuke are relatively scant. Most of our knowledge about Edo-period (1615–1868) netsuke carvers derives from Inaba Tsûyrû’s Sōken kishō (Sword Furnishings and Paraphernalia, 1781), a seven-volume publication that focused primarily on swords, but also includes a description of fifty-four famous carvers of the period, most from the regions of Kyoto and Osaka.

Originally worn as part of a male kimono ensemble by men of the warrior class, inrō and netsuke developed as a form of conspicuous consumption within a culture that imposed a rigid four-tiered social system with warriors at the top, followed by farmers who tilled the land, artisans who crafted material goods, and merchants at the bottom. The artisans and merchants were collectively referred to as townspeople, or chōnin. Given that the merchants were economically better off than many members of the socially superior military class, inrō and netsuke allowed merchants to display their wealth without breaking any sumptuary laws that regulated the types of houses they could build or fabrics they could wear. Inrō and netsuke, often made of expensive, rare materials and bearing the signature and seal of the carver, were thus designed not only for their functional ability to carry things, but also as markers of wealth (36.100.249).

Two of the most commonly used materials for netsuke were ivory and wood, with boxwood favored for its fine grain and durability. About 80 percent of surviving antique netsuke were carved in various types of native Japanese wood—cypress, cherry, black persimmon, yew, camphor, zelkova, and camellia. Elephant tusk ivory was one of the most popular materials for netsuke carvers for centuries (10.211.1444). With the enactment of international trade restrictions on elephant ivory in 1989, however, netsuke carvers turned to other sources, including fossilized mammoth and walrus tusks. Extant eighteenth- and nineteenth-century netsuke made of or inlaid with coral, shells, metals, ebony, porcelain (91.1.213), cloisonné, mother-of-pearl, and various nuts attest to the skilled carvers’ ingenuity in conveying the plasticity of these materials, despite their hardness and resistance to wear (10.211.780).

Traditionally, netsuke carvers worked in specific formats. Three-dimensional figures, or katabori, account for the most numerous type (10.211.2348). They are carved in the round and often referred to as miniature sculptures, although unlike most sculptures, the underside of the base is also completely carved (91.1.989). Rounded forms (manjū), named after the round sweet bean cakes they resemble, were also quite popular (10.211.1271; 10.211.1276). Another conventional netsuke shape is the kagami, or mirror, consisting of a round, bowl-shaped base and a lid fashioned of a flat disk of metal. A variety of metals such as brass, bronze, copper, gold, iron, pewter, and silver were used (91.1.940). Two alloys, shakudō (copper and gold) and shibuichi (copper and silver), were especially favored for their range of colors and patina.

Carvers drew on varied themes for these accessories—nature, mythical tales, historical figures, masks used in theatrical performances, and gods and demons (10.211.513). Other subgroups suggest a fascination with erotica, the grotesque, or parodies and satirical depictions of elite culture. Given that netsuke were small and easily concealed, portrayals of ribald themes or satirical iconography could easily be hidden from the Tokugawa military authorities, thereby providing the townspeople with a whimsical and in some cases subversive outlet from officially sanctioned Neo-Confucian cultural norms prevailing during the Edo period.

During the late nineteenth century, netsuke transitioned from functional and fashionable accessories to objets d’art favored by Westerners for their exquisite carving and diminutive size. Upon the opening of Japan’s ports to foreign trade in 1854 and the subsequent introduction of Western-style suits and uniforms, the kimono receded into the confines of the private sphere. Once the carvings ceased to be necessary accoutrements for everyday male dress, demand for netsuke as a fashion accessory declined as well. But with the increasing number of foreigners residing in Japan, the market for netsuke as a collector’s item expanded. Most netsuke can be held in the palm of one’s hand, rendering it a perfect souvenir of sojourns to what was then an “exotic East.” Compact and portable by design, netsuke were exported in large numbers. The Russian jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé (1846–1920), known for his eponymous Fabergé eggs, was entranced by netsuke and became an avid collector. The majority of the netsuke in the Museum’s collection were presented by Mrs. (Margaret) Russell Sage (1828–1918), one of the Museum’s great benefactors, in 1910. Other bequests came from New Yorkers who flourished in the late nineteenth century, including the chief designer for Tiffany & Co. Edward C. Moore (1827–1891), the founder of the B. Altman and Co. store Benjamin Altman (1840–1913), the antiquarian Stephen Whitney Phoenix (1838–1891), and Louisine Havemeyer (1855–1929), wife of the sugar magnate Henry O. Havemeyer (1847–1907).

Bowing to traditions established by Japanese carvers of the Edo period, contemporary carvers infuse netsuke with a vitality and freshness while simultaneously honoring their original, functional attributes. No longer required to employ compact designs with smooth surfaces to prevent damage to silk kimono, nor sturdy materials to avoid the risk of breakage, modern and contemporary designers are free to incorporate new materials and unusual shapes into their work.

Netsuke crafted by contemporary carvers unveil the international appeal of what was once a quintessentially Japanese tradition. Until the 1960s, most professional netsuke carvers were Japanese nationals. Beginning in the late 1960s, non-Japanese began carving netsuke, and the total number of international carvers has grown to over one hundred. Today, netsuke are produced and appreciated by carvers and collectors from around the world. One of the world’s most renowned collections of contemporary netsuke, amassed by the late Imperial Prince Takamado Norihito (1954–2002), attests to the ways in which innovation and expertise can grow from a rich historical tradition, even on an astonishingly small scale.