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Fig. 1: Netsuke of Seiobo Sennin (the Chinese “Royal Mother of the West”), artist unknown, Japan, late 17th–early 18th centuries. Stained ivory and horn. H. 5 5/8". Private collection; photography courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The term netsuke refers to a miniature sculpture, 6 inches in its largest dimension but usually nearer to 2 or 3 inches, that is carved from wood, ivory, or horn and drilled with a passage allowing it to be threaded on a cord. Netsuke are generally believed to have been first used in Japan circa 1600, when it became fashionable for men to carry everyday necessities in a number of small containers suspended from the waist by silk cords, including purses, inro (tiered medicine containers), and pouches for tobacco. At first, the cords were tied to a ring that passed around the obi (sash), but over time the ring was replaced by the kara, a smaller, thicker ring that did not pass around the obi. Instead, the cords were tied together through the hole in the center of the kara, which was then drawn up between the obi and the wearer’s body until it emerged above the obi. Toward the middle of the seventeenth century, the kara was replaced by imported Chinese ivory seals and other small items that could be made to serve as toggles. Soon after, Japanese craftsmen started to carve purpose-made toggles drilled with a passage for the cord, and the netsuke as we know it was born. The subsequent development of this fascinating art form is the subject of the exhibition Netsuke: Fantasy and Reality in Japanese Miniature Sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through March 10, 2002.

Despite their seemingly practical origin, even the earliest netsuke, carved in Osaka and Kyoto, are much more than mere toggles. Not only were most of them carved from ivory, a rare and exotic imported material, but their subject matter is usually very different than anything seen in other contemporary crafts such as lacquer or metalwork. For example, prior to the first half of the eighteenth century, most Japanese decorative arts only rarely incorporate figural designs, yet the netsuke of this early period are primarily figural, due in large part to the interests of the netsuke patrons.
Fig 2: Netsuke of a tigress and cubs, Tomotada of Kyoto (active around 1781), Japan, mid- to late 18th century. Stained ivory and horn. H. 1 7a/16". Private collection; photography courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The early carvers and their clients were particularly drawn to ijin, a term used during the Edo period (1615–1868) to describe foreigners—those who were directly observed as well as those written about or pictured in printed books and other sources to which the carvers referred for inspiration. These include imaginary, freakish tribes from distant lands, personalities from Chinese history and myth, or Dutchmen, the only Europeans allowed regular access to Japan after 1641. Most popular of all were sennin (Fig. 1), perfected human beings of Chinese origin who transcended everyday life and often sought freedom by taking leave of their bodies or dwelling in the depths of rivers. Their popularity may be interpreted as the subversive desire to escape from the crushing weight of regulation and bureaucracy imposed by the military regime of the Tokugawa shoguns.

Fig. 3: Netsuke of a rat licking its tail, Masanao of Kyoto (active around 1781), Japan, mid- to late 18th century. Stained ivory and horn. H. 1 7/16”. Private collection; photography courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Animals have always formed an important part of the netsuke-carver’s repertoire. The earliest examples were mainly dragons and other imaginary creatures drawn from both Chinese and Japanese myth and legend. Toward the middle of the eighteenth century, netsuke that depicted the twelve animals of the East Asian zodiac1 became increasingly popular—to such an extent that today up to half of the most sought-after netsuke represent the zodiac animals. These netsuke would have made ideal New Year’s gifts because they were suitable for wear throughout the following twelve months and could be recycled every twelve years (Fig. 2). The animal carvings of the two Kyoto masters Masanao and Tomotada, both active in the second half of the eighteenth century, are rightly regarded by today’s connoisseurs as among the pinnacles of netsuke art. Their work combines the inherited traditions of skillful carving, vegetable and ink staining, and compact forms, with a new naturalism and immediacy that reflects the influence of the Kyoto-based Maruyama Okyo (1733–1795) school of painting, which was influenced in part by Western prints and books. It is no surprise to learn that Matsura Seizan (1760–1841), one of the very few Edo period collectors whose thoughts on netsuke have survived in written form, possessed an ivory carving of a rat (Fig. 3) that he regarded as shashin, “copied from life.”

Fig. 4: Netsuke of Nitta no Shiro slaying a boar, Okakoto of Kyoto, Japan, late 18th–early 19th centuries. Stained ivory and horn. H. 1 15/16”. Private collection; photography courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Kyoto carvers were also probably the first to introduce a narrative element into their work, using images from illustrated books. Beginning with the single animal representations, a second figure was added, usually a person, to create a story that often depicted a moment in a dramatic sequence of events (Fig. 4) without losing sight of the sculptural compactness for which the netsuke are celebrated. By the mid-nineteenth century, carvers based in Edo (present-day Tokyo) had become overly reliant on highly prescriptive pattern books and exploited the narrative potential of netsuke to the limit, producing a mass of very detailed yet nonsculptural and poorly modeled carvings that are less desirable than their earlier counterparts. Many artists, however, continued to make fine pieces into the early twentieth century, despite the fact that changes in attire no longer required the routine wearing of netsuke. Painter and carver Kano Tessai (1845–1925), for example, produced work (Fig. 5) that closely reflects trends in Yoga (Japanese painting in the Western style), and even today a select group of netsuke carvers both inside and outside Japan is supported by an enthusiastic international network of dealers and collectors.

Fig. 5: Netsuke of a dried salmon, Kano Tessai (1845–1925), Japan, late 19th–early 20th centuries. Buffalo horn. L. 6 7/8”. Private collection; photography courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Since their introduction to the West, netsuke have become part of a self-contained tradition of collecting and informal scholarship that has seen little need for reference to Japanese or East Asian culture. The Boston exhibition, by contrast, aims to set these little carvings firmly in their original cultural context, presenting an interpretation that is based on the systematic study of extant netsuke, of contemporary or near-contemporary Japanese documents, and on recent fieldwork in Japan itself. Such an approach should enable new and less partisan audiences to appreciate the process by which the finest carvers were able to use received imagery to create miniature sculptures of unparalleled beauty and power. In this act of almost magical transmutation, the true delight of netsuke surely lies.

Joe Earle, the curator of Netsuke: Fantasy and Reality in Japanese Miniature Sculpture, was Keeper of the Far Eastern Department at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum from 1983 to 1987. He has curated many exhibitions in Japan, the United States, and Europe and has written, edited, or translated more than a dozen books on Japanese art.

  1. The animals of the twelve-year cycle are the rat, buffalo, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, cock, dog, and boar.

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