Japanese Netsukes

During the month of September, Rosenberg Library displayed an assortment of Japanese netsukes. Pronounced “net-skays”, netsukes are miniature hand-carved sculptures crafted from ivory, wood, horn or other natural materials. These artifacts were donated to the library in 1980 by the Estate of Frances A. Mattei, an antiques collector in Galveston.

Netsukes were first developed in the 1600s as the solution to a very basic problem. Kimonos, traditional Japanese garments, had no pockets. In order to carry personal belongings, individuals had to use boxes called “inros.” The inro was suspended from a double cord worn beneath the kimono sash or “obi”. The cord was secured to the sash by a special toggle — the netsuke. Over time, these functional accessories evolved into elaborately detailed works of art.

 Japanese Netsukes
“Trick” netsukes have moving parts which can reveal hidden surprises or details. This trick netsuke features a man (probably an actor) with a rotating face. He holds a fan in one hand and an ax in the other. On one side, the man wears a pleasant expression on his face.

By the late 1800s, most Japanese men had abandoned the kimono in favor of Western-style dress. With the addition of pockets to the Japanese wardrobe, netsukes ceased to serve an everyday purpose. However, with the rising popularity of Japanese art in Europe and America during the late 19th century, netsukes became popular collectibles. These small objects with fine details were ideal for display in glass vitrines, a fixture in almost any Victorian salon.

Netsukes came in the form of people, plants, animals, masks, and deities. Characters from ancient Japanese folklore such as grotesque goblins, evil demons, or other creatures with supernatural powers were often adapted into netsuke figurines.

Unlike other forms of art, netsukes were intended to be handled and admired as everyday objects. Planes and angles were carved with great attention to detail so that the object was pleasing to look at from all directions. Like cuff links in Western cultures, netsukes were favorite fashion accessories collected by Japanese men.

 Japanese Netsukes
When the face is turned, he wears a vicious scowl.

The appeal of netsukes faded after the turn of the 20th century, but the onset of WWII sparked a resurgence in collecting. Soldiers stationed in Japan brought back these beautifully carved objects as souvenirs, and many netsukes have ended up in the attics of family homes or on the shelves of antique shops.

Even today, collectors seek out these tiny objects with big personalities. Though now mass-produced for export, netsukes continue to be manufactured in Japan. These are often low-quality and fashioned from plastic, but they remain popular tourist souvenirs. Contemporary netsukes carved in the traditional manner are available at museum shops or specialty stores.

Rare antique netsukes signed by renowned carvers have been sold for thousands of dollars at auction.

 Japanese Netsukes
A close up of the two holes through which the kimono cord is threaded. These are usually located on the back or the bottom of the netsuke and are called “himotoshi.”

Netsukes were the focus of The Hare With Amber Eyes, the
Rosenberg Library Museum Book Club’s Fall 2012 selection. In the book, author Edmund de Waal explores the intriguing world of fine art and collecting in Eurpose during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This fascinating tale recounts how — almost overnight — the Nazis robbed wealthy Jewish families of their vast collections of art along with their human dignity.

Past Treasures