Netsuke were originally simple designs hooked onto the obi to hold pouches and belongings, but developed into a form of art that is still growing today. Netsuke are miniature pieces of art that can be rolled around in the palm; they can be enjoyed from all angles, some even depicting stories when flipping it around.
Netsuke are miniature carved ornaments that are an accessory to 'wafuku' or Japanese traditional clothing. They originated in the Edo period as hooks to hold pouches and cases to the obi. They quickly became popular and developed into a form of art enjoyed by many.
Netsuke are most commonly made from wood or animal fangs and horns, but can be made from a variety of materials including ceramic, seeds, and metal; netsuke are not limited to certain materials. Different types of wood can be used to create different feelings and colours, as do other choices of material.
So what makes netsuke so significant?
The key aspects that separate a netsuke from other forms of carvings and accessories is that they are meant to be put in peoples hands, touched, and slowly worn down by people and time. There is a certain softness to antiques that have been worn over and over, like rocks tumbled by running water, and statues polished by visitors hands. This change that happens over time is called 'nare', which also means 'settling' or 'getting used to', and is highly valued by collectors.
While many forms of art are favoured to stay frozen in time, untouched and unscathed, the wear and tear of netsuke are a part of its beauty.
Ko-netsuke and Gendai-netsuke
In essence, ko-netsuke (ko being the kanji for old) refers to netsuke from the Edo period through Meiji and Taisho, while gendai-netsuke (gendai meaning modern) refers to netsuke from Showa onwards.
Ko-netsuke compared to gendai-netsuke have higher functionality, as old netsuke still acted as hooks for the obi. As we progress in time to modern netsuke, they lose functionality and start to solely become pieces of accessory, although some artists believe in preserving netsuke’s original purpose.
Ko-netsuke can be identified from its ‘nare’, which can look like staining, yellowing, scrubbing of the surface, etc… Nare on netsuke made from horns or fangs tend to look almost melted from the softened details and body.
Gendai-netsuke vary greatly in material, styles, and themes. Just like ko-netsuke, gendai-netsukes motifs can be playful and comedic, while some are hyper realistic and crafted with incredible detail.
Theme is important to netsuke just like any piece of art. Lunar animals, three wise monkeys, mythical creatures, gods, and youkai are some common themes. Modern netsuke artists are constantly creating new ideas, techniques, and styles to out into these miniature artworks.
Types of Netsuke
There are types of netsuke that are determined by its shape, or how they were made.
Katabori-netsuke: these are most likely what pops into ones mind when talking about netsuke. They are carved from any material and depict 3D people, animals, or plants. The variety within this type of netsuke is great.
Manju-netsuke: These are flat and shaped like a 'manju' or dumpling. They are most commonly wood or fangs/horns.
Ryusa-netsuke: Ryusa-netsuke are essentially manju-netsuke with openwork carving.
Men-netsuke: These are shaped like a 'men', or mask. The masks can be of oni, gods, foxes, etc.
Hako-netsuke: 'Hako' meaning box; this netsuke is shaped like a tiny box.
Sashi-netsuke: These are shaped quite differently from the other netsuke which are tied with string. This netsuke is long and thin, and is stuck in between the obi.
Kagamibuta-netsuke: This netsuke is made up of a bowl like carving and a round metal lid. The lid is engraved with designs.
Haizara-netsuke: These function as ashtrays.
Netsuke are beautiful pieces of portable and compact art, and is a great item to incorporate in wafuku, or even as an accessory on everyday items. The world of netsuke continues to evolve and expand as peoples tastes and interests change; we hope that you can find a netsuke that suits you!