Japanese Era Names
MINIATURE SCULPTURE AT ITS FINEST
Netsuke is a form of
miniature sculpture particular to Japan and one with no counterpart in
Western culture. The proper pronounciation for netsuke is "net-skay," and
the term is never pluralized.
Netsuke exist because the kimono is
constructed without pockets. In place of a pocket, the Japanese used an
inro (sectioned box) to hold items such as money, tobacco, and
writing implements. The inro — with a cord drawn from the top under
the kimono's sash — was counterbalanced by a netsuke. This prevented the
inro and cord from slipping through the sash.
usually carved from ivory or wood, but some are made of stag antler,
bamboo, porcelain, metal, or other rare materials. Generally between one
to two inches high, netsuke differ from purely decorative forms of
sculpture in that their practical use imposes strict limitations on
Netsuke must be compact and free of projections that might
catch on kimono sleeves. They must be durable enough to withstand wear
from daily use and strong enough to support the full weight of the
inro. Furthermore, a netsuke's design must not be spoiled by the
holes necessary for insertion of its cord.
MORE THAN FUNCTIONAL
The height of netsuke
carving occurred during the Tokugawa period (1615-1868) when Japan was cut
off from the rest of the world — except for a nominal Dutch and Chinese
trading post at Nagasaki.
This isolation is responsible for one of
the most fascinating aspects of netsuke — they were produced by and for
Japanese, solely to their taste and subject matter. Netsuke subjects,
style, and treatment express the character of the Japanese people. The
introduction of Western dress to Japan brought about the demise of netsuke
as a functional object. But in some respects they are more alive today
than ever before.
THRIVING COLLECTORS MARKET
Netsuke collectors are extremely active. Scholarly books,
publications, and netsuke study societies abound. The earliest collections
of netsuke were formed in Europe and are well documented.
HOW TO START COLLECTING
collectors have also made their mark in the field. Almost any antiques
fair will have netsuke for sale. It is possible to buy netsuke from fine
collectors for a few hundred dollars. Netsuke from important collections
come up for sale at auction regularly, and it is still possible to buy
some of the finest examples for a fraction of what masterpieces in other
fields would cost.
As netsuke were carved in great quantity, it is
also possible (with a bit of knowledge and luck) to find undiscovered
treasures. Novice collectors should educate themselves through reading and
handling as many netsuke as they can find.
A good book of
signatures is essential for beginning collectors. Although netsuke carvers
were often renowned for their renditions of a certain form, it was not
uncommon for a student to sign his master's name as a way of relating his
creation back to the master's work. This makes questions of authenticity
In addition, some of the finest examples of
netsuke are unsigned, thereby rendering authentication impossible — and
Beginners can start a collection by focusing on:
specific subjects such as frogs, oxen, or erotica;
an appealing medium —
boxwood, metal, or ivory are examples;
or certain forms such as the
kagamibuta (in the shape of a bowl and disc) or manju
(shaped like rice cakes).
There's no better way to begin collecting
than by handling the pieces yourself and talking with collectors and
dealers. If you're interested in expanding into a new field — take a
the listings at eBay!
Netsuke: Japanese Life and Legend in Miniature by Edwin Symmes
The Ultimate Netsuke Bibliography:
An Annotated Guide to Miniature Japanese Carvings by Norman Sandfield
Japanese Netsuke in Oxford by Oliver Impey
Netsuke, Familiar and Unfamiliar: New Principles for Collecting
by Raymond Bushell
by Patrizia Jirka-Schmitz
The Japanese Art of Miniature Carving
by Matthew Welch, Sharen Chappel
Japanese Treasures: The Art of Netsuke Carving in the Toledo Museum of Art
by Carolyn Putney
Inro to Netsuke
by Tokyo National Museum
Netsuke: Fantasy and Reality in Japanese Miniature Sculpture
by Joe Earle