A Netsuke, pronounced neh-tsu-keh, is a magnificent and extremely detailed Japanese carved miniature sculpture, ranging from one to two inches in size. The carvers were known as netsuke-shi, and have been carving pieces of this nature since the late 16th Century.
Netsuke originally served the functional purpose of a toggle. The traditional Japanese dresses, the kimono and kosode, were made without pockets. Women would use the sleeve of the kimono to tuck small personal items into. However, men would store their tobacco, pipes, medicines and other items used daily inside a sagemono. The sagemono ranged from small woven baskets to beautifully crafted boxes known as inro. These, containers so to speak, would be attached to a silk cord that passed behind their obi (sash). The cord was then thread through drilled holes of the netsuke preventing the sagemono from slipping through the obi. The sagemono were held shut by ojime, which were sliding beads on the cord that passed through the sagemono and netsuke.
Netsuke were predominately made from ivory, however other materials were used. Netsuke-shi used things such as boxwood, metals, and hippopotamus tooth to name a few. The carvings, like many other art forms, reflected the nature of the society that created them, while often possessing significant meanings for each owner. They cover a range of subjects from animals, real and mythical, to heroes and villains from folklore, creatures of the sea, immortals of Japanese legend, the bizarre, the beautiful, and the amusing. Some netsuke can symbolise simple, single objects and some can portray entire scenes from history, mythology, and literature, all beautiful in their own way. As morbid as it is, a prime example of this is a memento mori netsuke in the shape of a skull. Made to remind the owner, or family, that death is absolute.
It only took a few centuries before the beauty of netsuke was discovered by the world. In 1853 Commodore Perry arrived in Japan, from the United States, to establish a relationship and open trade with a country that had practically been in isolation for more than 200 years. This is when netsuke, and many other Japanese cultural art forms would begin their journey out of Japan on trade ships. As cultural traditions began to be shared through the countries, Japan began to see the decline in traditional fashion, making way for European styled garments. Japanese men began to opt for suits, and along with the suits came pockets. Which meant things like sagemono and netsuke became obsolete, for their functional purposes.
This was was when Western Europe began a love affair with collecting oriental artefacts. Thus, increasing the collection of Netsuke in Europe towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, removing all functional purpose for the pieces, but elevating them to solely an art form of immense artistic merit.
It is often asked if netsuke are fake if unsigned. The answer is no, there are many unsigned netsuke. As considered by experts, some of the greatest netsuke is unsigned. Among them are the netsuke frequently referred to as the Meinertzhagen Kirin after its first official western owner, and a famous ivory netsuke depicting an Ama (Japanese diving girl) and a squid.
Netsuke continues to be very popular in today’s market for oriental antiques. Although they are no longer used functionally, netsuke will always hold their place of beauty and uniqueness in the world. There are netsuke displays all around the world including Los Angeles County Museum of Art, British Museum and National Museum in Tokyo. The Antique Guild has a beautiful collection of Netsuke as seen in the pictures in this article. Head into the store today to view our full collection.