A uniquely Japanese art form, netsuke (pronounced “net-skeh”) tells the story of the country in flora, fauna and myth. Netsuke, which means “to attach the root,” traces its own roots to the Edo period (17-19th centuries) and was used as a toggle to hold in place the sagemono (pouch) hung from cords that were pulled through the obi (sash or belt) tied around the kimono. The pouches served as pockets as kimonos had none but as kimonos went out of fashion, netsuke emerged as sculpture in its own right. Early netsuke were purely utilitarian, carved from small stones, shells, bamboo and other pieces of wood. As the art of netsuke developed, master carvers sought inspiration in history as well as everyday life.
Netsuke vary in type with completely three-dimensional carvings called katabori (as all netsuke represented here) being the most collectible. Netsuke always have holes for cords to pass through although not always as dramatically as per the particularly expressive one above. The most popular materials used to carve netsuke are ivory, wood and coral. Early period netsuke (17th-early 19th century) were heavily influenced by Chinese mythical figures such as the oft-represented shishi, an imperial guardian lion-dog. The shishi-mai (lion dance), depicted below, is a traditional protective Chinese dance that has been completely absorbed into Japanese culture and is even performed at religious Shinto festivals.
In the early 18th century, the repeal of a century old law prohibiting the growth and sale of tobacco had a beneficent effect on the art of netsuke. Tobacco was the most commonly carried item in the pouches and craftsmen again found netsuke to fasten the pouches in wild demand. As confidence in the booming market grew, craftsmen gave free reign to their abundant imaginations and stunning workmanship. Techniques and individual styles developed and a new class of artisans, netsuke-shi, devoted solely to this art, was born. Originally ignored by Japanese art historians due to their functional nature (although always admired and collected by Westerners), netsuke have begun to be recognized in their home country as the exquisite works of art they are. Below are more of these small treasures from Flying Cranes Antiques Ltd. Gallery, which can be reached here for more information.