Japan's Miniature Treasures
by Helga L. Zipser
As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring
My sincere thanks to R. A. L. for sharing his extensive
knowledge and expertise of netsuke; and for being my editor and
Netsuke is a uniquely Japanese art form. These
superb little objects of wood, ivory and ceramics, as well as
dozens of other materials, tell the story of Japan from earliest
times. Here we find the peasant, the fisherman, the beggar rubbing
shoulders with the scholar, the samurai, the warrior, as well
as an enchanting collection of animals, fish, insects and benign
and ferocious gods. Also represented are objects of daily living,
eggplants, tea bowls, flowers. The mythology as well as the various
religions of Japan from Buddhism to Shintoism are represented
in netsuke form.
Considering the great interest of netsuke in the
United States and Europe, very little is actually known of the
beginning of these miniature carvings. It is certain that netsuke
(literal translation: to attach the root) came into existence
as early as the 15th - 16th century. As the Japanese had no pockets
intheir kimonos, they had to find a method to carry small belongings,
and a convenient way was a leather pouch attached to long double
strings and pulled through the obi (a long sash or belt which
was worn around the kimono). The netsuke, which always has openings
through which the string passes, acted as a toggle, holding the
pouch in place. Early netsuke were purely utilitarian, being
fashioned of small stones, pieces of bamboo and other woods,
shells and gourds. The pouch was mainly used for tobacco, whereas
another implement, a small box of either three or five compartments,
called an inro, was used for medicines. Sometimes these two items
were carried together and suspended from the same netsuke. About
100 years later the Japanese used the ojime bead which acted
much like our watch chain slide and kept the inro from opening
A typical katabori netsuke
depicting a cockerel in wood. Unsigned, 19th century. 4.2 cm.
There are several types of netsuke of which the
katabori, a completely carved three dimensional work of art,
is the most sought after by collectors. A kagamibuta is a bowl
shaped netsuke with a metal lid, sometimes decorated, sometimes
plain. This was most often used with the tobacco pouch as an
ash container. Manju netsuke are round and flat and resemble
a button. In Japan a manju is a flat, round rice cake. They can
be solid ivory or wood, or beautifully carved and reticulated.
This latter type is called a ryusa netsuke. Sashi netsuke are
elongated Katabori pieces.
Netsuke can be carved of different materials;
ivory and wood being the most popular. They can also be fashioned
from horn, tortoise shell, metal or ceramics. They are classified
by collectors according to age, subject matter, origin, style,
carver or school. Unfortunately, we don't have the space to go
into the many different subjects and designs. Suffice to say
that these dear little figures tell us a story. Study the faces
of the people, animals, gods and devils and you will see a full
range of human emotion; joy, sadness, distress, frustration,
anger and love. Inspiration for early netsuke came from the Chinese.
Compare the Chinese foo dog to the Japanese shishi and you will
at once see the similarity. As netsuke art became more sophisticated
the carvers reached back into their rich history, religion and
fables as well as every day life, for inspiration. We now find
the kabuki entertainer, the noh mask, the sumo wrestler, the
kappa (water imp) and Raijin, the god of thunder. Although women
are in the minority when it comes to netsuke art, we still find
them represented. The pearl diver comes to mind, as well as the
mermaid, a mother and her baby, a beggar woman and of course,
Okame (goddess of mirth) who is always represented with her serene,
There were thousands of netsuke carvers and to
identify them takes special skill and patience since some of
them have identical names. The history of netsuke is usually
divided into three periods: the early, middle and late periods.
The early period
(17th through early 19th century)
During this time the subject matter came mainly
from the Chinese, and netsuke portraying Chinese legend, history
and customs were greatly admired by the Japanese. The earliest
of the carvers never signed their pieces. Some of the outstanding
carvers of the latter part of this period were Masanao, Tomatada
and Okatomo (all from the Kyoto area).
An ivory netsuke of a rain
dragon. 19th century - unsigned.
The middle period
(most of the 19th century)
Netsuke carving came into its own during this
time. Many of the artists now had influential patrons. They trained
and schooled other carvers. During the middle period, the netsuke
carver perfected his art, concentrating on Japanese themes, striving
for excellence of design and execution and using materials of
tremendous variety. Some carvers of this period were Mitsuhiro,
Masakazu, Kokusai and Kaigyokusai.
A ceramic netsuke of a badger
holding a saki container. Signed Ogata Kazuhei, late 19th - early
The late period
(late 19th and early 20th century)
During the latter part of the 19th century Western
influence and style were introduced to Japan after two centuries
of isolation. European merchants clamored for Japanese wares,
good, bad and indifferent. The excellence of netsuke carving
diminished, but the little carved objects found great favor with
the foreigners who took them back to the West. With the advent
of Western style clothes in Japan, the netsuke lost its practical
purpose as a toggle and became strictly an art form. Among outstanding
carvers of this period were Tokoku and Sosui.
Netsuke are popular collector's items today, treasured
both by the Japanese and Westerners. A really good netsuke seldom
shows up at a flea market or general antiques shop. People interested
in learning about netsuke would do well to seek the advice of
a knowledgeable dealer or collector. Most of the netsuke being
sold are of poor quality, flat and lifeless. Although some are
carved in Japan, most originate in Hong Kong and some are not
A seated rat in wood by
Masanao of Kyoto. 18th century.
There are some fine books written on netsuke collecting,
both in Japan and in the West. Here are a few titles of books
you might want to locate: "Netsuke, Familiar and Unfamiliar",
by Raymond Bushell, "The Netsuke Handbook by Ueda Reikichi",
by Raymond Bushell and "An Introduction of Netsuke",
by Joe Earle. It is often worth trying the public library or
a good book dealer for more information.
Last, but not least, we should mention the contemporary
netsuke. Although new, some of these are extremely well carved
and beautiful. These netsuke are strictly works of art and, as
such, command high prices, sometimes costing more than a fine
Mermaid with coral ball.
Ivory - Sumi, circa 1985.
There are organizations about netsuke where interested
collectors learn and exchange information. Best known is the
Netsuke Society (P.O. Box 31595, Oakland, CA 94604 7595).
We are very fortunate to have in Florida some fine netsuke dealers,
some extremely advanced collectors and some netsuke collections
that can be viewed by the public. The Cummer Museum in Jacksonville
displays about nine hundred netsuke; the collection of the late
Morton Hirschberg. The Lowe Art Museum of the University of Miami
also has a fine, permanent collection of netsuke. An outstanding
exhibit of world class netsuke can be seen at the Japanese Pavillion
of Epcot Center at Disney World until May 1997. If you have a
chance to view any one of these, I urge you to do so.
A seated Daruma emerging
from a nine year meditation, carved in wood with inlays. Koju
(school of Tokoku), late 19th century.
Prices of fine netsuke range from several hundred
to thousands of dollars. Before investing, study, read, look,
feel. Learn about damage and repairs. Buy one good netsuke rather
than five average ones. Signatures are not as important as good
carving and charming subject matter. Hold a netsuke in your hand
and feel the warmth of the wood admire the glow of the ivory.
Explore the world of netsuke. You will most certainly fall in
love and it is a lifetime love affair.
About the author:
Helga L. Zipser has been in the antiques business for 30 years.
She owns La Petite Galerie, Inc., in Tampa, Florida and specializes
in European porcelain, furniture, paintings, silver and glass.
She exhibits at many of the major Florida antiques shows.
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