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The Hare with Amber Eyes netsuke, by Masatoshi, Osaka, ca. 1880, signed. Ivory, amber buffalo horn. Ivory netsuke of the Hare with Amber Eyes 2.JPG
The Hare with Amber Eyes netsuke, by Masatoshi, Osaka, ca. 1880, signed. Ivory, amber buffalo horn.

Netsuke( 根付 ) [netsɯke] are miniature sculptures that were invented in 17th-century Japan to serve a practical function.

Japan Country in East Asia

Japan is an island country in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies off the eastern coast of the Asian continent and stretches from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and the Philippine Sea in the south.



Traditional Japanese garments—robes called kosode and kimono —had no pockets; however, men who wore them needed a place to store their personal belongings, such as pipes, tobacco, money, seals, or medicines. Their solution was to place such objects in containers (called sagemono ) hung by cords from the robes' sashes ( obi ). The containers may have been pouches or small woven baskets, but the most popular were beautifully crafted boxes ( inrō ), which were held shut by ojime , which were sliding beads on cords. Whatever the form of the container, the fastener that secured the cord at the top of the sash was a carved, button-like toggle called a netsuke.

<i>Kosode</i> Japanese robe

The kosode (小袖) is a basic Japanese robe for both men and women. It is worn as both an undergarment and overgarment. The literal meaning of the term kosode is "small sleeve," which refers to the sleeve opening. They were traditionally worn during the Japanese Edo Period (1600–1868).

<i>Kimono</i> Japanese traditional garment

The kimono(着物, きもの) is a traditional Japanese garment. The word kimono literally means "thing to wear on the shoulders"; ki comes from the verb kiru (着る), a gender-neutral verb describes clothing worn on the shoulders or on the entire body, and mono (物) means "thing".

<i>Obi</i> (sash) sash for traditional Japanese dress

Obi(, おび) is a sash for traditional Japanese dress, keikogi, and part of kimono outfits.

Netsuke, like the inrō and ojime, evolved over time from being strictly utilitarian into objects of great artistic merit and an expression of extraordinary craftsmanship. Such objects have a long history reflecting the important aspects of Japanese folklore and life. Netsuke production was most popular during the Edo period in Japan, around 16151868. Today, the art lives on, and some modern works can command high prices in the UK, Europe, the USA, Japan and elsewhere. Inexpensive yet faithful reproductions are available in museums and souvenir shops.

Edo period period of Japanese history

The Edo period or Tokugawa period (徳川時代) is the period between 1603 and 1868 in the history of Japan, when Japanese society was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate and the country's 300 regional daimyō. The period was characterized by economic growth, strict social order, isolationist foreign policies, a stable population, "no more wars", and popular enjoyment of arts and culture. The shogunate was officially established in Edo on March 24, 1603, by Tokugawa Ieyasu. The period came to an end with the Meiji Restoration on May 3, 1868, after the fall of Edo.

Okimono , small and purely decorative sculptures, were often made by the same artists who produced netsuke.

<i>Okimono</i> Japanese carving

Okimono is a Japanese term meaning "ornament for display; objet d'art; decorative object", typically displayed in a tokonoma alcove or butsudan altar.


The term is formed from the two Japanese characters ne+tsuke, meaning "root" and "to attach". In English the word may be italicized or not, with American English tending to favour the former and British English the latter. [1] [2]

American English Set of dialects of the English language spoken in the United States

American English, sometimes called United States English or U.S. English, is the set of varieties of the English language native to the United States. It is considered one of the most influential dialects of English globally, including on other varieties of English.

British English is the standard dialect of English language as spoken and written in the United Kingdom. Variations exist in formal, written English in the United Kingdom. For example, the adjective wee is almost exclusively used in parts of Scotland and Ireland, and occasionally Yorkshire, whereas little is predominant elsewhere. Nevertheless, there is a meaningful degree of uniformity in written English within the United Kingdom, and this could be described by the term British English. The forms of spoken English, however, vary considerably more than in most other areas of the world where English is spoken, so a uniform concept of British English is more difficult to apply to the spoken language. According to Tom McArthur in the Oxford Guide to World English, British English shares "all the ambiguities and tensions in the word 'British' and as a result can be used and interpreted in two ways, more broadly or more narrowly, within a range of blurring and ambiguity".


Drawing of a man wearing an inro supported by a netsuke passed through the ties of his hakama. Netsuke-p1030001.jpg
Drawing of a man wearing an inrō supported by a netsuke passed through the ties of his hakama .
<i>Noh</i> Classical Japanese theatre

Noh, derived from the Sino-Japanese word for "skill" or "talent", is a major form of classical Japanese musical drama that has been performed since the 14th century. Developed by Kan'ami and his son Zeami, it is the oldest major theatre art that is still regularly performed today. Traditionally, a Noh program includes five Noh plays with comedic kyōgen plays in between; an abbreviated program of two Noh plays and one kyōgen piece has become common in Noh presentations today. An okina (翁) play may be presented in the very beginning especially at New Year, holidays, and other special occasions.

Relief Sculptural technique

Relief is a sculptural technique where the sculpted elements remain attached to a solid background of the same material. The term relief is from the Latin verb relevo, to raise. To create a sculpture in relief is to give the impression that the sculpted material has been raised above the background plane. What is actually performed when a relief is cut in from a flat surface of stone or wood is a lowering of the field, leaving the unsculpted parts seemingly raised. The technique involves considerable chiselling away of the background, which is a time-consuming exercise. On the other hand, a relief saves forming the rear of a subject, and is less fragile and more securely fixed than a sculpture in the round, especially one of a standing figure where the ankles are a potential weak point, especially in stone. In other materials such as metal, clay, plaster stucco, ceramics or papier-mâché the form can be just added to or raised from the background, and monumental bronze reliefs are made by casting.


Marine ivory netsuke attached with cord to inro box, by Kimura Jukkyoku, Edo period, 18th century Inro, Ojime, and Netsuke LACMA AC1998.249.313 (1 of 2).jpg
Marine ivory netsuke attached with cord to inrō box, by Kimura Jukkyoku, Edo period, 18th century

Unusual materials [3]

According to Bushell (13/ 2:6), "The literal translation... is seapine.... Whether literal or figurative the translation is a misnomer, as the material is, in actuality, a coral formed by skeletons of living organisms.... In color, umimatsu, black coral, is black or blackish brown, sometimes showing streaks of light brown or dirty yellow." Bushell goes on: "As material, umimatsu is more acceptable to collectors than carvers. Leading carvers naturally avoided the material. It was prone to crack, crumble or chip. Carvers find that it is risky for carving details and subtle effects. Perfect pieces of black coral were difficult to obtain."
Walnut netsuke (approx. 17th century) Walnut Netsuke.JPG
Walnut netsuke (approx. 17th century)


Like many other art forms, netsuke reflect the nature of the society that produced them. This effect is particularly pronounced in netsuke, owing to long periods of isolation imposed both by geography and internal politics and limited avenues of self-expression for Japanese citizens due to custom and law. [6] [7] [8] As a result, netsuke display every aspect of Japanese culture, including its rich folklore and religion, crafts, trades, and professions, all types of people and creatures, both real and imagined, and every kind of object. As in other aspects of Japanese culture, the subjects portrayed by netsuke trend, over the long term, away from an initial emphasis on motifs of Chinese derivation toward a focus on objects of more strictly national interest. [9]

Some netsuke represent single, simple, objects, and some depict entire scenes from history, mythology, or literature.

Cultural references

See also

Related Research Articles

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Nick Lamb is a sculptor specialising in the Japanese art form of netsuke. One of a handful of non-Japanese carvers of netsuke, Lamb has built a reputation since the 1980s as one of the best living practitioners of this art. He is known for meticulous, graceful carvings, typically of animals. His preferred medium for carving is boxwood. Lamb was born in 1948 in Cambridge, England, and educated at Berkshire College, Maidenhead, Berkshire, England. He originally trained as a graphic designer, and was introduced to netsuke by someone who had seen a miniature carving he had done as a pastime. He began to carve full-time in 1988 and moved to the United States in 1995 to be closer to fellow carvers and netsuke collectors.

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  1. "Netsuke: From Fashion Fobs to Coveted Collectibles", Metropolitan Museum of Art
  2. "Netsuke & Inro", Victoria & Albert Museum
  3. 2005 INS conference Burt Drexler lecture, unless otherwise noted
  4. Lazarnick, George "Netsuke & Inro Artists, and How to Read Their Signatures", page 1361, Reed Publishers, 1981
  5. Yuzuru Okada, "Netsuke A Miniature Art of Japan", page 54, Japan Travel Bureau, 1951
  6. Okada, Barbra "Japanese Netsuke and Ojime From the Herman and Paul Jaehne Collection of the Newark Museum", pages 3-4
  7. Bushell, Raymond "The Netsuke Handbook of Ueda Reikichi", pages 25-26, Charles E. Tuttle, 1961
  8. Sadao, Tsuneko S. and Wada, Stephanie "Discovering the Arts of Japan, A Historical Overview", page 202 and page 234, Kodansha International, 2003
  9. F.M. Jonas, "Netsuke" page 44, J.L. Thompson & Co., 1928
  10. F.M. Jonas, "Netsuke", J.L. Thompson & Co., 1928