A clue to the function of a Netsuke can be gleaned from the two Japanese characters used to form the word – namely “root” and “fasten” or “fix”. From this we can infer that early netsuke could have been fashioned simply from small pieces of rootwood and used to anchor something in place. The need for these “toggles” as they are often referred to, was driven simply by the fact that the Japanese kimono worn by both sexes and all classes throughout the whole period in question has no pockets. All personal everyday items for example tobacco, medicines, herbs etc were carried in a variety of pouches and small boxes (collectively termed “sagemono” ) suspended from the Obi belt via a cord. The netsuke was simply attached to the other end of the cord and hence stopped the various containers from slipping out.
The Japanese however, with their love of art and subtle expression realised that these practical small objects could be used to display great refinement in personal taste and status. They were clearly visible, sitting as they did above the obi and formed a perfect means to communicate an awful lot about the person wearing them.
A very wide range of material was used in their production. Numerous native Japanese woods were favoured by many schools, often using the species that grew in abundance in their area for example cherry, boxwood, cypress, ebony, persimmon etc.
Elephant ivory was much prized having entered Japan via China during the 17thC with its creamy tactile texture and superb carving characteristics.
Other types of ivory were also used – narwhal tusk, sperm whale teeth, walrus and hippo tusks and even wild boar teeth. Yet more exotic materials included mother of pearl, fossilised wood, stag antler, coral, lacquer and even various metals – in fact virtually anything that could be successfully and crisply carved.
Types of Netsuke
To further delight the collector netsuke come in a variety of styles the most common being the true miniature three dimensional sculpture that most people think of. This type of carving is called “katabori” meaning “carved in the round” and can depict virtually any subject – real animals (especially the Zodiac animals), imaginary beasts (Kirin, Baku etc), figures real or legendary. In fact the list is genuinely endless limited only by the imagination of the artist and the demands of the customer be they Imperial Household or merchant!
Another variation frequently encountered is the Manju netsuke so named because it resembles the shape of a manju rice-cake, a sort of compressed round smooth cushion.
Sashi netsuke are unusually long examples again carved in three dimensions often hooked to clip over the top edge of an obi.
Kagamibuta are a type of manju of slightly more robust form with an inlaid mixed metal plaque often decorated by master sword fitting craftsmen.
There are also seal netsuke, box netsuke, mask netsuke, in fact the collector has a bewildering array of styles, materials and subject matters to choose from!
It is impossible in these few words to fully document the detailed developments in artistic styles but broadly, early examples are very simple and quite rare being at the time more functional than valuable.
During the 18thC netsuke became larger and artistically refined with bold and superbly carved examples of animals (frequently tigers) and figures (frequently foreigners).
The early part of the 19th C saw a continuation of 18th styles in conjunction with a general move towards more intricate carvings and a greater range of subject matter.
However the Meiji period ushered in some dramatic changes that had an equally dramatic effect on netsuke carvers. Japan was fast becoming “Westernised” in nearly every way. This not only affected the structures of government and society but everyday life as well. Western styles of dress became highly fashionable for both men and women. These were exciting vibrant times for many especially in the new capital Tokyo, but conversely unsettling and worrying times for others.
The decline in traditional dress had the effect of drastically reducing the demand for Netsuke which had no place on the new Western clothing. Likewise the closing of temples had a marked effect on the religious carvers as demand plummeted. These artists found themselves in a similar position to the metalworkers of the age – becoming somewhat redundant. Many netsuke carvers now switched over to carving Okimono whilst some schools closed completely and others resorted to producing items that were of a lower quality and intended for tourist consumption.
During the Meiji period anyone interested in Netsuke could now enjoy a ready supply of high quality old treasures rendered surplus to requirements and many fine collections were formed primarily by foreigners resident in Japan during these rapidly changing times.
See also separate section on Okimono for further details.
Netsuke come in a wide range of quality.
They vary from the very finest pieces destined for the wealthy connoisseur (and these are truly breathtaking) through to superb middle range pieces and on to a lower quality product destined for more of a mass market.
The best way to judge quality is to handle as much material as possible, visit museums, sales and exhibitions and study any reference book available of which there are many. Beauty is often in the eye of the beholder!
Condition and damage
As with any work of art, condition always has a bearing on its desirability and value. By the very nature of the material (excluding metalwork) Netsuke can be very susceptible to everyday knocks, damage and simple wear from usage. The vast majority were actually used for their intended purpose. Wood and ivory are easily chipped and broken especially those intricate examples with vulnerable protuberances. In skilled hands minor chips can often be removed and years of grime cleaned away but I would counsel against acquiring anything that has obvious major damage.
Also, being natural materials, wood and ivory can be prone to cracking as a result of atmospheric changes – too dry, too hot etc. Surprisingly, inevitable age cracks in netsuke are tolerated by most collectors and are often seen as contributing to its attraction as an old, noble and honourable work of art. This is however a matter of personal choice.
Many Netsuke have been treasured and cosseted for generations within collections and are still perfectly preserved with only minor inevitable age defects – perhaps some wear to the finer detail. Having survived for often several hundred years it is unlikely that any further deterioration would occur unless they are subjected to extremes of heat or dryness.
It is a certainty that any signed piece will be far more desirable than the same piece unsigned.
Many carvers of high quality or otherwise produced works that were both signed and unsigned. I have encountered works that were undisputedly by a master but carry no signature. This is frequently encountered on 18thC examples but can apply to all periods. Many truly outstanding works are unsigned. This is a frustration encountered in many areas of Japanese Art.
Also it is always wise to be fully satisfied that the signature appearing on a work matches the expected style and quality of the purported maker. Driven purely by potential financial gain some items can carry spurious marks added at any time since their manufacture.
Many excellent and highly comprehensive reference books on the subject are available and the aspiring collector would be well advised to invest in as many as he could find. Many carry hundreds of excellent illustrations covering possibly thousands of artists from all schools and periods.
General advice is to buy from reliable trustworthy sources who will stand by all attributions, signatures and condition reports until such time as the collector is totally confident in his own judgement and knowledge.
There is a well-known saying “something is worth what someone will pay” – and in truth nowadays that applies perfectly to these wonderful works.
Certainly pieces by artists such as Tomotada, Masanao of Kyoto, Okatomo, Okatori, Rantei, Yoshitomo, Kaigyokusai Masatsugu, Tomokazu and many other masters, together with their star pupils were rare and very expensive when they were made! These masterpieces represent the pinnacle of this art form and are sought by wealthy collectors worldwide. They therefore command very high prices but fine examples do still surface.
However In my opinion there are a great many high quality works that sit just below the finest pieces and represent staggering value for money. Thankfully it is still possible to form a collection of superb work by these numerous artists for an outlay that looks very modest bearing in mind the time it took to produce them and the sheer quality and artistry – not to mention the enjoyment that owning these wonderful objects seems to bring. Many netsuke will either leave the fortunate owner in awe of the power and majesty conveyed in such a small item or smiling at the sublime artistry or highly eccentric subject matter!
As with all forms of Japanese Art it is my contention however that a few better things are always preferable to a high volume of lesser items! Given such a wide range of possibilities, collectors often focus on a particular time period, or a school or an artist or perhaps a given subject matter. Netsuke are without doubt the most widely internationally collected of all the Japanese Art forms but thankfully, due to such a large domestic demand over several hundred years in Japan there is a wealth of excellent material available, to both the beginner and the advanced connoisseur.