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One of the most charming groups of Japanese arts-and-crafts are the miniature sculptures known as "netsuke" - not to be confused with the so-called okimono.

Netsuke are worn on the kimono whereas okimono are placed on the furniture inside the home.

Netsuke are carved objects of an average height and width of 1 to 2 inches and used to serve as counterweights for all miniature objects that were worn hanging from the sash of the pocketless Japanese robe, the kimono. These objects could consist of lacquer containers called "inro" containing medicinal powders or tablets, or cloth bags for carrying tobacco, money, mirrors and other personal belongings. They were attached to a silk cord which was pulled through, underneath the sash called "obi". The netsuke, carved from wood or ivory, was then attached at the other end of the silk cord by means of two holes connected by a ???, which are called himotoshi "Japanese". Its name comes from the Japanese words "ne" for "root" and "tsukeru" for "to be attached", as originally a simple piece of root seems to have been used to serve this purpose.

The development led from a found to a fashioned piece of root- or burl-wood to the now famous meticulously carved human figures or animals to a manju named after the sweet round cakes, which were served during the tea-ceremony. The production of these manju is documented in a publication as early as the 17th century.

Thanks to the big social and political changes since the middle of the 17th century, the prestige and prosperity of merchants and business people increased, who then wanted to show off their new wealth. As they were not allowed to wear swords they searched for other status symbols. Simultaneously, smoking came into fashion and since the second half of the 17th century bans on smoking in public were more and more ignored. This led to many people openly displaying their small pipes, often decorated with silver bowls and mouthpieces, and wearing them in slim cases hanging from the sash, as well as bags made of silk or leather or wooden boxes filled with the finely cut tobacco.
Just like today no business transaction was valid without the personal seal and signature at the bottom of the contract, receipt or other document, and it was therefore important to carry the seal together with the container of red ink at all times. These seals were kept in elegant lacquer containers, which separated into horizontal compartments in which everything had its place. Medicines or those popular tablets that are being sucked on even today by Japanese during conferences to sweeten the breath, were also stored in these so-called inro or jitanbako. The netsuke was a counterweight for all those miniature cases and objects. All in all, there were many items that had to be handy at all times and were therefore carried around. So it is easy to understand how big the demand for 'netsuke' was at the end of the 17th, during the 18th and until the late 19th century. However, when European dress was introduced and became popular in Japan, netsuke began to slowly disappear as an item of personal apparel from everyday life.

But let us get back to the story of manju as those were the first types to appear.

These mostly round and button-like manju were above all very functional: nothing could break off and neither did they catch the silk fabric of the obi or kimono. It is not known what started off the development to the netsuke of human and animal figure netsuke at the end of the 17th and into the 18th century. In any case, the so-called katabori netsuke were extremely popular and in all netsuke collections today, 90 out of 100 are katabori netsuke. Manju only seem to have come back into fashion in the second half of the 19th century, when some well-versed carvers of the Edo-school in today’s Tokyo - such as the carvers of the Kikugawa group - started producing them more and more. The design of a manju requires a lot of fantasy and great proficiency since a discernable depiction had to be created across a diameter of only 4 cm at most, often including the edges and the reverse side.

Comparing the depictions on manju and katabori netsuke, it becomes obvious that historical and legendary people were the preferred choice for manju. Animal manju are extremely rare and even the otherwise popular plant motifs are fairly scarce. Only the round blooms of chrysanthemums and peonies have tempted some artists to try and prove their technical ability by carving and under-cutting every single petal.

Knowledge of the samurai’s numerous heroic deeds during the varied history of Japan was obviously still widely spread in the second half of the 19th century. For us present day observers however it is often necessary to do thorough research before being able to identify a particular samurai or religious figure. Generally, the meticulousness with which the artists have carved the depictions, mostly in bas-relief on a round fond, is inspiring to see. Each of the subject’s hair, fine patterns on their rich garments -sometimes even on weapons and armour- everything was minutely engraved and accentuated through dark colouring.

A variation of the manju are kagamibuta which are based on the same round basic shape. Here, a loose metal lid with a small latch on the inside lies on the round bowl-like underside and required the collaboration of artists working in metal. The cord which connects the netsuke with the item it is supposed to hold is led through the hole in the centre of the lower bowl and then pulled through the latch. This cord also holds the lid in the right position on the capsule. The design of this metal plate usually is made of one of the alloys known from sword fittings, such as shibuichi, shakudo or sentoku - very rarely of silver, gold or iron - was left to the manufacturers of sword fittings. They decorated these plates in high or low embossed relief with engraved, punched, inlaid or open work motifs that again required high technical ability and artistic ingenuity.

It is not surprising that those metal artists have taken many of their subjects from the rich source of legends surrounding the big battles of medieval Japan.

Besides 'manju' and 'kagamibuta' the figurative design of netsuke soon evolved, to differentiate what were called 'katabori'-netsuke by the Japanese.

The seven gods of fortune (Shichi Fukujin), saints, mythological animals and people, native and exotic animals, flowers, fruits and scenes as well as objects of everyday life and many other things provided an endless source of subjects for the carvers from the middle of the 18th century until approx. 1900. Let us ramble a bit through the forest of these subjects:

The seven gods of fortune by no means have the aura of transcendent aloofness, not even the incontestable dignity of a god as known in the West. The Japanese have an almost converse opinion of their gods of fortune: they have human flaws and weaknesses, such as the only lady in the group 'Benten' who is always ready for a flirt and therefore popular among her peers.
The big-bellied HOTEI who loves children always likes to joke with his little friends and lets them pluck his beard or clean his ears. If they get too wild he will sometimes shake them about in his large bag. His companion FUKUROKUJU, whose head is strangely elongated due to the amount of wisdom he carries in it, has advanced to the status of a sex-symbol: his head takes on an obvious phallic shape most of the time. The third of the group, DAIKOKU, likes to point with a grin to a forked turnip with an explicit shape awaking erotic associations, which become obvious in his face. JUROJIN with a deer and a scroll appears more esoteric, though EBISU riding on his carp is full of zest for life and BISHAMONTEN who protects the world in the North is a more martial figure with an attraction to sake and beautiful women.
Among the legendary figures we find taoistic immortals, hermits who wander through the mountains wearing clothes made of leaves and knotted branches, often with bizarre animals, such as Gama with a three-legged toad or Chokwaro, who keeps his horse in a gourd and only conjures it up when needed.

The Japanese calendar is based on a 60 year cycle, originates in China and consists of a combination of the twelve animals of the zodiac with the five elements wood, fire, earth, metal and water. The JUNISHI, the twelve animals, rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, cockerel, dog and boar are often found among netsuke, but their popularity is varied. The rat and monkey, symbols for fertility, wealth and ability are featured frequently. Even the dog not native to Japan but known for its loyalty is depicted frequently, as he was given to every woman as an omen for an easy birth. Ox, tiger and hare and the horse which is popular in Shinto-shrines and for its virility can be seen quite often. Though in contrast, dragon and snake are rare and every collector will be hard-pushed to find a cockerel, a goat or a boar.

A very popular creature is the legendary shishi, a lion-like animal that can be found as guards of honour in front of temples in China. As a playful variation, with a brocade ball between its paws or in the mouth, sometimes as mother with one or two cubs, the shishi is an often depicted beast.

Careful nature studies are necessary for the accurate depiction of a dog’s or a puppy’s head: the ears, muzzle, legs and paws will tell a lot about the technical abilities of the carver.

Someone experienced with animal depictions in netsuke will recognize the work of KOKEI in a shaggy goat without even having to read the signature. The masculine strength in an aggressive looking tiger with turned head and long curved tail reveals a design by the master TOYOMASA, who is known for his carvings of boars, monkeys and toads.

Every now and then the power of expression was accentuated through eyes inlaid with brass and oversized paws such as seen in the animals of TANAKA MINKO, particularly his tigers.

The zenith of the powerful but also finely detailed animals - almost without exception made of ivory - was reached by the Kyoto-school. The oval, cushion-like bulges above the eyes and large paws equally with a kind of cushion in the centre are a trademark of TOMOTADA. His pupil OKATOMO adopted a lot of skills from his teacher, though his animals are distinguishable through their usually fine and charming faces and an almost feminine refinement; additionally, they are all smaller than those by Tomotada. The star of the Kyoto-school however is MASANAO, not to be confused with a large number of namesakes from NAGOYA. The mix of realistic power with moving elegance in the facial expressions is unsurpassed.
Another word about Tomotada: Although he is apparently the inventor of the lying ox depiction, - sometimes alone, sometimes with a young one - not even one percent of ox-netsuke bearing his name have been made by him or even at the same time in his school. Especially the head, eyes, ears and legs folded underneath the body have to be studied. If they are flat and spindly, the piece is chronologically very far apart from the original design.

I would also like to mention the accomplished KAIGYOKUSAI and astute MITSUHIRO who were among the artists flourishing at the end of the 19th century.

In his masterful control over the carefully chosen ivory (preferably from 7 year old bulls) Kaigyokusai is unmatched. He composed a piece perfectly while ensuring a naturalistic depiction and arranged it to remain highly functional. His sitting crane from the collection of KENZO IMAI in Kyoto is a wonder of perfection. He manages also to depict on a round manju with a diameter of 4 to 5 cm, all 12 animals of the zodiac, each in its typical posture. Playful puppies or rabbits, rolling together in a ball with minutely engraved fur, are equally perfect in his chrysanthemum flowers carved of amber from the Brockhaus collection or the group of peonies published by Bushell in Collector’s Netsuke.

My absolute favourite among the famous netsuke-carvers is OHARA MITSUHIRO. Like Kaigyokusai he has also carved water birds, but his ducks are more vivid and simplistic in their shape and thus express better the typical posture and silhouette of the animal. Also, his pieces have a tactile quality thanks to a wonderfully glossy, partly transparent patination.

Particularly charming are his plain objects of everyday use, which he depicts with subtle flair for the essential. He seems to master all materials equally and is capable of carving of ebony an iron teakettle, whose surface looks like rusty iron and also feels like it! In the same way a chawan carved of kaki-wood suggests the surface of a Raku-ceramic. No object is too profane for him: a sake-bowl in the shape of a gourd, a roof-tile, a piece of charcoal or a toy pigeon.

The preferred material was ivory imported from India and Africa, a rare and also expensive material, of which even the smallest piece was carefully used, for example to produce Ojime (a bead, tightening the cord and thus keeping all compartmens of the inro in place). The teeth of sperm whale, narwhale and walrus were also used, as well as many of the native and imported woods, bamboo, stag antler or even earthenware and porcelain, stones and metal. The preferred wood was the hard and fibrous boxwood.

At this point one has to praise the Japanese handicraft. The study of the material to be used, its hardness and other characteristics are the first steps, apart from which one can expect a masterly control of the diverse knives, gravers and polishing agents. The natural state of the wood grain or the root-canal in ivory is taken into account when choosing the subject. Up to a certain point the choice of depiction hence depends on the natural characteristics of the material. In contrast to European artists, who put their own inspiration first, the Japanese carver is ready to follow the conditions of the material and to subordinate his own design. This is shown clearly in the ring-shaped fissures as they tend to appear in ivory particularly during carving, that have been integrated into the design through engraving a branch arranged in a circle as part of the composition. Also the aesthetically pleasing ‘swallowtail-repair’ is the direct answer to a crack in the material.

The glossy and porous centre of the walrus tooth can be found in places where it is either not obvious or deliberately integrated into the depiction as decoration. This can be the case also with the aslant twisted epidermis of the narwhale tooth, which might make an interesting base for an animal sitting atop.

The strong grain of the so-called Tagayasan-wood imported from Indonesia is accentuated through removing the soft parts with a tough brush and creating thus a grain even richer in contrast.

After 40 years of working with netsuke, having described more than 100,000 pieces in various catalogues, those small fine carvings have still not lost the fascination for me that they had since the beginning. I never get bored or lose my interest in a subject I might have seen 100 times before, as the variations are numberless and each individually carved detail of the hundredth monkey or shishi is different. Even if the larger figures that seem to have been the fashion at the end of the 17th and into the 18th century are similar, it is still surprising to see the differences and individuality of each sculpture. Above, I have tried to point out the distinctive features of the animal depictions by mentioning some famous carvers. But also the inumerable objects, fruits and scenes of daily life tell tales about the immense fantasy of Japanese netsuke-carvers, even their sometimes adorable sense of humour, as seen for example in the rare erotic depictions. There is hardly anything that has not been turned into a netsuke. And that is the appeal of these small gems.

last updated by mh! at 04.09.2007 10:54

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