Tracing 4 Centuries of Japanese Culture With Netsuke

Left: Lot 1709, Snarling tiger netsuke figurine, Auktionshaus Michael Zeller (September 25);
Right: Lot 1366, antique Japanese netsuke, Sheppards (September 29)

The perfect union of form and function, netsuke – the intricately carved ornaments formerly worn in Japan as a solution to the lack of pockets in the Japanese kimono – are tactile, balanced, and individually distinctive. Perhaps equally appealing for collectors is the way in which different styles of netsuke trace changes in Japanese culture.

“When people ‘read’ netsuke, they are immersed in the most exciting visions of life, nature, and art as conceived by the Japanese people. Many display a powerful vision of human life with precise and captivating depictions of the ordinary; a fondness for drama, expressivity, humor, and the bizarre,” says Antje Papist-Matsuo, Asian Art Specialist at Auctionata.

“There is no traditional separation in Japan between high and low art, so we can find the same range in subjects for netsuke in both painting and the applied arts. To collect netsuke is to appreciate Japanese paintings, ceramics, lacquer works of art, and prints,” he adds.

From the earliest gourd toggles to technically masterful objets d’art, the evolution of netsuke mirrors the development of Japanese religion, fashion, and education. While they once served a very practical purpose, today, netsuke have morphed into highly coveted collector’s items that still evoke these developments and vivify the culture of Japan, today, netsuke have morphed into highly coveted collector’s items that still evoke these developments and vivify the culture of Japan.

Meaning & Significance

Until the late 19th century, most men in Japan wore pocketless kimonos with no place to keep belongings. Netsuke (meaning “to attach the root”) allowed them to securely fasten hanging pouches (sagemono) and boxes (inro) to a kimono sash (obi). Sagemono would have held tobacco, while inro were internally compartmentalized to hold medicines or payment seals.

Lot 568, Carved ivory figure of a deity with four finely carved
ivory netsuke, Leonard Joel (October 16)

Early Period (17th to early 19th century)

In the early years of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1867), the now-largely-ornamental samurai began to spend lavishly on decorative objects. Ceremonial occasions allowed them to display carved netsuke decorated with gold, to accompany matching inro.

From 1716, with the lifting of a ban on tobacco, demand for netsuke increased among other classes as smoking (and thus, sagemono) gained in popularity. The category of netsuke called “kagamibuta” – a bowl-shaped toggle that doubled as an ash-holder – came into its own. Advances in technique, particularly in the 18th century, allowed artists to create delicately hollowed out ryusa and katabori (the latter popular among collectors for being carved in three dimensions).

Katabori netsuke of old man with carp, 19th century, The Cobbs (March 2014)

“Most netsuke are of the katabori type, which means they are figurative. Besides a stunning carving quality, katabori netsuke often display storytelling aspects which offer the collector an exciting entrance into the magnificent world of Japanese popular folk themes and religious narratives,” says Papist-Matsuo. As schools of netsuke had not yet been established, artists during the 18th century enjoyed relative freedom of expression. Examples from this period have particular character and, often, humor.

Due to the strong influence of Chinese culture and trade, fantastical figures from Buddhism and Chinese mythology, as well as symbols of the zodiac, were common subjects. In fact, many artists making netsuke were chiefly employed at carving Buddhist statues. They used similar techniques in their new line of work, adding colored coral and inlay for accents, and turning these tiny figures into devotional objects. Good quality netsuke from this period are stylistic expressions of place. Few artists signed their pieces, but their tendency to adopt a local style allows experts to identify netsuke from Kyoto versus those from Edo, for example.

The range of materials from which netsuke were made expanded alongside advances in artistic techniques and tools. While few are found today, examples from the 16th and early 17th centuries were made of hollowed gourds. Around the mid-18th century, most examples were made of wood, bone, or ivory, sometimes with colored detailing. Netsuke in metal, jade, shell, or ceramic from this period can also be found.

Middle Period (early to late-19th century)

Considered the heyday of the art form, the Middle Period saw artists being sponsored, which led to the establishment of schools. More examples can be found with signatures, which can, in some cases, add to the object’s value.

“The most famous netsuke artist is probably Tomotada,” says Kevin Page of Kevin Page Oriental Art, who cautions that artist signatures are not necessarily true indicators of value. “Just because the signature of a well-known artist appears, doesn’t mean the artist himself made the netsuke. It’s not that other artists were trying to deceive, it’s simply that they often emulated a school, and signed the name of the artist who established that school.” The difference in value between a true signature and a school signature can be in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Reclining ox netsuke by Tomatada, late 18th century,
Van Ham Fine Art Auctioneers (December 2015)

“Of course, netsuke signed by famous artists or workshops will attract most attention and will always realize high prices, but pieces with famous signatures also bear the strong risk of being fakes. So, an unsigned netsuke by an unknown artisan but with a compelling carving design is always a recommended choice for the avid collector,” adds Papist-Matsuo.

“Overall, it takes enormous skill to carve a small object in the round. That has inherent value in itself. You can find netsuke that stand on one leg and are 6 inches tall, but will still balance perfectly on a table,” says Page.

Later, new technology would alter style. With the dissemination of printing in the first half of the 19th century, artists in schools began to use reproductions from books as models. This is said to have increased the intricacy and technical detail of figures, but at the cost of some character. At the same time, Japanese themes replaced those from China, with local folktales and native animals taking the place of imperial and religious sagas as source material.

Late Period (late-19th to early 20th century)

The Perry Expedition – which led to the establishment of diplomatic relations between Japan and the West in 1953-54 and resulted in the eventual collapse of the ruling Tokugawa shogunate – started the process of opening Japan up to Western influences. By the 1870s, Western trends in art had a great influence on netsuke artists as well. Examples from these years show a focus on decorative elements and quirky subjects depicted in a realist style.

Lot 78, Ivory netsuke, rodent with a nut, Meiji period (1868-1912),
Auctionata AG (October 6)

Despite such an extensive history, the greatest impact on netsuke arose from changes in men’s fashion. Where Tokugawa Ieyasu had prescribed dress codes by class back in the 1600s, almost 300 years later Western influence suggested that the suit was preferable to the kimono. As pockets (and pre-rolled cigarettes) became popular, netsuke lost their early purpose as functional objects.

Reincarnated as collector’s items for a largely Western market, some netsuke of this period demonstrate a reduction in quality. With less of a focus on longevity, many netsuke of this period were simply made to be beautiful objects to appeal to their new audience. Copies of antique netsuke were common, but these replicas often lacked the individual flair of the originals.

Despite some of the lower quality netsuke produced during the Late Period, other examples hold a value of their own when viewed as technical expressions of the art of netsuke. If collectors are interested in netsuke of this era, it is worth seeking advice from professionals on what to look out for.

“The average collector of netsuke will look for captivating carving designs reflecting outstanding carving skills of the artisan. Successful designs will be a pure pleasure for the collector’s eye, adaptations of masterpieces notwithstanding,” says Papist-Matsuo. “This is why contemporary netsuke are also very popular nowadays. The fascination for high quality miniature carvings depicting familiar topics narrated in a progressive or contemporary style will continue.”

Netsuke as Collector’s Items

While their functional element has now faded, all netsuke should still have two characteristics of form. They must incorporate space through which the (now theoretical) fastening cord could pass and be free from protrusions that could have caught and damaged an obi or kimono.

Lot 87, 3 ivory and resin netsuke, a lion and figures, Meiji period,
Auctionata AG (October 6)

“In general, the older the netsuke, the larger the himatoshi, or holes for the passage of the cord. This is simply due to different styles over the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. One thing collectors should do is look for signs of wear around the himatoshi to see if they are examining a genuine antique,” explains Page.

“Today, the most coveted netsuke are made of either ivory or bone and of boxwood. Of course, the avid collector is always looking for a piece of good or very good quality netsuke, which by and large requires a combination of features like carving quality, inventiveness of design, rarity, artistic aura, and age. A true netsuke masterpiece won’t fail in any of these appraisal categories,” says Papist-Matsuo.

The advantage in using soft materials like wood or ivory was their ability to take on a patina with handling. This patina contributes to a particular attribute of netsuke: its aji, or smoothness and weight in the hand. As objects that directly connected form and function, netsuke were made to be touched, and their feel is as important artistically as their appearance.

“Rather like worry beads, they would have been handled constantly. If you hold an antique netsuke in your hand it should feel smooth,” notes Page. Netsuke in good condition will show no signs of restoration or later alterations, adds Papist-Matsuo, with a good carving design and matured surface to please “both the collector’s hand and eye.”

Got your eye on netsuke? See rare examples up for offer in upcoming auctions including Hannam Auctioneers’ Fine Oriental and European Antiques (September 30), Dogny Auction’s Belle Vente d’Automne (October 4), 888 Auctions’ Jade, Jewellery & Asian Works of Art (October 6), Auctionata AG’s Art from China and Japan (October 6), Strauss & Co.’s S. African & International Art, Decorative Arts & Jewellery (October 10), Leonard Joel’s Asian Art, Classic Furniture & Objects (October 16), and more.