Gentlemen's Jewelry of Old Japan

by: Joseph Kurstin and Gilles Lorin

As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring 2008

Figure 1: Three-case lacquer inro decorated with a musk cat playing with a peacock’s feather, signed Jutokusai Tachibana Hogyoku (18th century) Ivory netsuke of a musk cat, unsigned (18th century) Gold lacquer ojime.

The following is an excerpt from the exhibition catalog ‘The Peacock’s Feather: Gentlemen’s Jewelry of Old Japan: An Exhibition of Netsuke, Inro and Sagemono at the Morikami Museum in Conjunction with the 2007 International Netsuke Society Convention’ written by Joseph Kurstin and Gilles Lorin. The catalog Includes over fifty netsuke, thirty-nine inro with netsuke, and nearly twenty other sagemono. Each piece is given a brief description with insights into the artists and subject matter. This catalog provides a rare opportunity to see some of these incredible works of art never seen or seldom shown before. The pieces illustrated here are among the finest examples in private hands and certainly rival those of the world’s major museum collections. The catalog is available for sale at

The inro illustrated in fig. 1, with its beautiful peacock’s feather, was the inspiration for this volume’s title. The male peacock struts with his tail feathers spread wide, displaying their great beauty and size to attract his female counterpart and to advertise his supremacy to his competitors. Just as the peacock parades his fine display of beautiful, large, and colorful feathers, so the Japanese male of the 17th and 18th centuries flaunted an equally fine display of elegant netsuke and inro. Both show off their social status in ways that are different, yet very similar. Throughout all ages man has endeavored to make statements about his status in society. The male of the species has used his strength, power, and intelligence, his wealth, his culture in the arts, his athleticism, his physical appearance and taste in fine clothing, the partner he chooses, all the toys he owns, and his sexual prowess to impress both competitors and members of the opposite sex. So it was in the 17th and 18th centuries in Japan with use of the fabulous netsuke and inro.

Three-case lacquer inro decorated with a horse, unsigned (19th century) Ivory netsuke of a horse, Unsigned, Kyoto School (18th century) Meno stone ojime

Why did these objects come to be made? The Japanese in the 17th, 18th, and first part of the 19th century lived in a society closed off from the rest of the world. Their dress, customs, way of life, and culture were formed with very little influence from foreign cultures. They dressed in beautiful kimono, robes that were works of art in themselves. The kimono had no pockets (pockets were invented in Europe in the later 18th century), and so the Japanese had to carry objects of daily use strung through their obi or sash. The objects that hung down below the sash were called sagemono (hanging object). These were various types of containers of which the inro was by far the most beautiful (a multi-compartmented lacquer case with exquisite decoration). Another sagemono was the tonkotsu, a personal tobacco case that was wonderfully decorated but less sophisticated than the inro. Still another was the tabako-ire, a leather or brocade pouch with a fine clasp. Both were used in combination with the kiseruzutsu (pipe case). A cord from the sagemono passed behind the sash and was attached to a toggle called a netsuke (root-to-hang) at the upper edge of the obi, preventing the sagemono from falling. The netsuke were extraordinary miniature sculptures of intriguing loveliness. An ojime, or closing bead, was used on the cord to keep the sagemono closed, completing the ensemble. As the use of tobacco increased in the early Japanese society, the use of the pipe case and tobacco case or pouch began to replace the use of netsuke and inro. These beautiful enhancements to the Japanese costume were exempt from the sumptuary laws of the day, which prohibited the ostentatious display of wealth, such as gold, silver, gemstones, or jewelry. Finely worked netsuke, ojime, inro, kiseruzutsu, tonkotsu, and tabako-ire became the jewelry of the Japanese gentleman.

Multi-colored brocade tabako-ire (tobacco pouch), unsigned (19th century) and a carved lacquer kiseruzutsu (pipe-case), signed Hokkei (19th century

Saikaku Ihara (1641–93) was a great Haikai poet who later became a popular novelist in the late 17th century. He was the first novelist to write about the common man (chonin), the merchants and the courtesans and their daily life in the Edo period (1600–1868). His books became immediately and immensely popular, and he was a best seller in his own time, the second half of the 17th century. By the end of the 17th century, a period known as the Genroku period, costume itself had become fine art. Saikaku Ihara never missed an opportunity to describe in detail what his characters were wearing. Due to his writings, we know much more about the daily life of the chonin in Japan at that time. Although he often wrote with a sexual connotation, the real value of his books today is the description of the life and customs of the common man during the 17th century. Saikaku Ihara’s The Life of an Amorous Man (Koshoku Ichidai Otoko), published in 1682 by the author when he was 41 years of age, give us an idea of the costumes and accessories in vogue and their importance to 17th century Japanese culture and the Japanese male of that time (translated in 1964 by Kenji Hamada, a native of Hawaii): "Yonosuke did not take kindly to the prostitute’s estimation of himself. Anyone could tell a man’s occupation and place in society by the kind and size of inro medicine case and netsuke he carried with him on his sash... Dangling from his sash was a tiny netsuke wood carving inlaid with agate. His folding wallet was of colored leather, and his flat medicine inro case had gold and lavender braid... Anyone seeing him could tell at a glance he was headed for the gay quarter."

Four-case lacquer inro modeled and decorated as a cricket cage, signed Koma Kyuhaku (18th century) Ivory and metal netsuke decorated with quails in grasses, unsigned (19th century) Gold lacquer ojime

With the dawning of the Genroku period (1688–1704), Japan’s fine arts had reached their quintessential elegance and continued to flourish for the next fifty to one hundred years and so, along with them, did the miniature arts of the netsuke and inro artists. The great warriors and samurai Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa were instrumental in uniting Japan, and finally after winning the famous battle of Sekigahara in 1600 Tokugawa became the first Shogun, and thus peace came to a nation previously beleaguered by battles and wars between the many regional feudal warlords, or Daimyo. Prior to that time, Japan was divided into a number of small fiefdoms held by these Daimyo who endlessly battled for territory and wealth, forcing the country to expend all its resources towards financing these conflicts rather than on development of business, trade, the arts, and the betterment of the people. The government formed by Ieyasu Tokugawa (Tokugawa Shogunate) imposed order with laws and edicts that rendered the warlords powerless and discouraged rebellion amongst these ambitious princes and Daimyo. Thus, a united Japan became peaceful after hundreds of years of civil wars. With prolonged peace came prosperity and, with prosperity, the great arts flourished. The newly moneyed merchant class began to enjoy this period of unprecedented prosperity, colorful luxuries, and irrepressible gaiety. With idle time and spare money, the townspeople began to dress well and to use accessories to show off their wealth and status. In an attempt to control the populace, sumptuary laws prohibiting the ostentatious show of wealth were enacted by the bakufu, the law-making body of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Netsuke, inro, and kiseruzutsu and other sagemono were overlooked by these restrictive laws, which may have encouraged the demand for them. As other fine arts flourished, these great miniature arts also rose to extraordinary heights of beauty and craftsmanship. Freedom of expression and the great demand for these costume accessories led a number of talented artists to devote their energies to the creation of these miniature arts of surpassing quality.

Single-case lacquered leather tonkotsu decorated in stag antler and horn with a mokkugyo, signed Kokusai, Asakusa School (19th century. Stag antler kagamibuta netsuke decorated with prayer beads, signed Koku (19th century). Coral ojime

Sagemono and netsuke, even in the 17th century, were very important in the aesthetics of dress, and the fineness, quality, and size of a man’s inro and netsuke might well signify the gentleman’s status in life. Styles and subjects in netsuke, inro, and other sagemono designs also changed with changing times.

The nouveau riche merchant class and other chonin needed a vehicle to display their newfound rank and power, and so these small, portable accessories became for all classes a way of displaying one’s wealth, literary and worldly knowledge, connoisseurship of fine art, and awareness of fashion. These diminutive masterpieces were used primarily by men, because it was a male-dominated society, but also were occasionally used by women.

The early netsuke-shi and inro-shi produced great and powerful works of art in those early days. The cost of these miniature marvels could be that of a great piece of jewelry or even a house, much as our jewels of today.

The paintings and sculpture of most Western and Eastern cultures are readily understood as great works of art and beauty. However, other objects may be regarded as fine arts, jewelry included. Netsuke, inro, ojime, kiseruzutsu, tonkotsu, tabako-ire were at that time created as articles to be worn, despite their great beauty as art. They are relatively rare articles in comparison to the abundance of paintings and other similar art objects. Too often the museum curators have considered netsuke and inro as craftsmanship rather than works of art. They are, nonetheless, great works of art on par with any work of art in the world. And although they are avidly pursued by collectors, most curators and even the Japanese themselves have never seen the great netsuke, inro and tobacco implements that exist. Most of these have been in private hands rather than in museum collections and are seldom shown. As recent exhibitions have drawn record audiences, awareness of these wonderful collectibles has grown and so has the number of collectors.

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