By Michelle Bunting
Japanese Netsuke held in the collection of the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum
The Japanese netsuke (pronounced “nets-keh”) are miniature sculptures historically used by men from the 17th to mid-19th centuries to suspend personal items from the sash of their kimonos which were traditionally designed without pockets.
Sagemono (hanging things) were draped from the kimono sash using cords attached to inrô, small stacked containers for transporting medicine and seals. Items used daily including tobacco, purses and writing implements were also suspended by cord with the netsuke acting as a counterweight.
Netsuke history is laden with drama, intrigue and emotion.
In the 1600s, the ruling Tokugawa family sought to protect their power from outside influences and the forming of alliances between domestic enemies and foreigners hoping to infiltrate Japan’s tightly secured borders. As such, netsuke flourished and between 1780 and 1850, experienced its golden age, the result of Japan’s isolation from the rest of the world.
Despite the Tokugawa’s best efforts, by the mid-1850s Japan was becoming increasingly influenced by Western culture and fashion making Netsuke all but obsolete. Fortunately a resurgence of interest in Japan and America in the 1970s kept this beautiful artisan tradition alive and thriving today.
Historically, netsuke have been carved from raw materials ranging from ivory until it was banned in the 1980s to antler, coral, shells, ebony, porcelain and wood. Eighty percent of surviving antique netsuke are carved from native Japanese wood ranging from cypress, cherry, black persimmon, yew to camphor, zelkova and camellia.
The intricate detail hand carved into each netsuke evokes a powerful sense of Japanese history and tradition eliciting emotion in those who experience the power of netsuke.
Indeed, one woman was so overcome when she saw a 19th century netsuke that she cried uncontrollably until the netsuke was removed from sight. Only then was she able to calm herself.
The power of netsuke is their ability to bring Japanese art, history and mythology to life. The 3D netsuke above is a katabori netsuke, the most common type of netsuke which is a three-dimensional carving usually of an animal, deity, mythical creature or human being. In this instance the netsuke possibly depicts a conflict between two men and a supernatural being. The level of detail in the 3D image shows the beast (centre) is covered in hair which is distinctively lacking on the arms and legs of the two men he is fighting. The creature’s facial features also differ from that of the two men further differentiating them from their aggressor.
Both blindness and conflict are common themes in netsuke and Japanese mythology. The two men are blind and the beast they are in conflict with is partially blind. The creature holds a club as a weapon which could explain the dent in the upstanding man’s skull – visible from the highest vantage point of the 3D image. The line that runs across the front of the ear of the creature and along his skull could mean he is wearing a mask.
As you can see, the history of netsuke is deeply embedded in theatrics and emotions.
Netsuke thrived under an elitist ruling family, overcame the threat of obsoletion and moved beyond the controversial use of ivory to remain a significant part of Japanese culture today.
About the author
Michelle Bunting is trained as an anthropologist and documentary film maker and is particularly interested in rituals, tradition, and intangible culture. She currently works as a learning technologist at the Centre for Education Futures, University of Western Australia.
1. R. Barker & L. Smith, Netsuke: The Miniature Sculpture of Japan (London, 1976).
2. J. Earle, An Introduction to Netsuke, (London, 1980).
3. International Netsuke Society, n.d., FAQ. Available from: http://www.netsuke.org/page-1125375
4. B. Teri Okada, Netsuke: Masterpieces From The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, 1982).
5. The Met, Netsuke: From Fashion Fobs to Coveted Collectibles (2009). Available from: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nets/hd_nets.htm. [20 October 2016]