Netsuke Art in Japan

Netsuke of a Scene with a Shape-shifting Tanuki, 19th century,

During the Edo period (1615-1868), in the 17th to 19th centuries, netsuke were worn as part of a carrying system that originally formed part of a male kimono ensemble by members of the samurai class, as well as men from the chonin (townspeople) class. As the kimono was secured with an obi (sash), in order to carry small, personal, items sagemono (collective term for ‘hanging things’, such as purses, smoking utensils, writing cases, medicine carriers and seals) they were suspended on cords that hung from the obi. The purpose of netsuke was to help suspend these objects, including inro (small, nested container for medicine) from the obi of a man’s pocketless kimono, acting as a counter-weight for sagemono.


Sagemono were connected through a single cord that was threaded through a cord channel on one side of the suspended container and then through two holes (himotoshi) in the netsuke. This then threaded through the other side of the container and was knotted on the underside of the container. A decorative bead, ojime (sliding bead), moved along the cord between the netsuke and sagemono, allowing the user to open and close the container securely. The wearer would slip the netsuke underneath so it then dangled over the obi, allowing the sagemono to hang suspended between waist and hip. In order to access the contents, say of the inro, the wearer simply slipped the netsuke behind the obi to liberate the ensemble. By sliding the ojime toward the netsuke, the contents of the container were easily accessible.

Netsuke can be classified into five general types – manju, ryusa, kagamibuta, sashi and katabori. Manju are round and flat (like the rice cake which has the same name) and decorated with etching or relief carving. Ryusa are classed as a variety of manju, hollowed out with deeply carved openwork. The kagamibuta (mirror lid) is also usually round in shape and comes in two parts: a decorated lid, typically metal, and a bowl of ivory or wood that can also be elaborately carved. Sashi netsuke are long and often have cord holes at one end, and was worn inside the obi. Perhaps the most interesting and most popular form is the katabori – figural netsuke. This form uses people or animals, usually carved in three-dimensions, including the bottom.

Materials Used in Netsuke

Although many materials have been used in the creation of netsuke, including horn, bone, metal, lacquer, black coral, ceramics, mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell, animal teeth, amber, semi-precious and hardstones, glass, and nuts, around 80 percent were made out of either some sort of ivory (elephant, walrus, stag antler and boar tusk) or wood. Popular woods used by the carvers included boxwood (tsuge), fruitwoods, cypress, and other conifers. Carvings styles and subject matter can also often be classed, as the schools tended to specialise in favourite subject matter and styles of carving. Groups of netsuke carvers developed in different regions of Japan, notably in Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, Iwami, and later in Edo itself.

Various carving techniques were used to created different visual effects, such as enhancing the illusion of depth, recreating intricate textile patterns, and hair. Netsuke are often inlaid with other materials, such as tortoisehell, coral, amber, shell, or metal to create the desired effects, such as eyes and other facial features. Ivory could also be stained, or painted, again used to enhance the overall design effect, create shadows, texture and contours.

Ivory first seems to have been used in the creation of netsuke during the 17th century, as a by-product of the shamisen (stringed instrument) industry, where the plectrum used for plucking the instrument was usually made out of ivory. As the popularity of netsuke and ojime grew in the 18th and 19th centuries, better quality ivory was also chosen for the luxury objects with the finest quality ivory coming from Siamese (Thai), or Annamese (Vietnamese) tusks.

As the status of Edo and its citizens rose, inro and netsuke also developed as a form of conspicuous consumption within a culture that imposed a rigid four-tiered social system with samurai at the top, followed by farmers who tilled the land, artisans who crafted material goods, and the merchants at the bottom (artisans and merchants classes were collectively referred to as chonin). Given that the merchants were economically better off than many members of the socially superior samurai class inro and netsuke allowed merchants to display their wealth without breaking any sumptuary laws that regulated the size of houses they could build or style of luxurious fabrics they could wear. These objects were often made of expensive, rare materials and bore the signature or seal of the carver or maker, become more markers of wealth rather than practical carrying devices.

Japanese Folklore and Characters

One netsuke in the display depicts a ‘trickster’ animal, a tanuki – a popular choice for carvers. Other similar types of animals were the fox and the kappa, a vampire-like animal. The kappa and fox were messengers of the Shinto gods, with the kappa representing the river god and the fox the god of rice and agriculture – Inari. Although these animals were affiliated with the gods, their behaviour was often destructive. The fox was primarily a trickster and was feared the most because its spirit could possess a human and assume their form. The tanuki was also a shape-shifter and played malicious, sometimes deadly, jokes. Another popular netsuke subject, a fox disguised as a priest, probably takes its inspiration from the play Tsurigitsune (Trapping of the Fox), that was part of a kyogen repertoire performed repeatedly from the 1700s through the 1900s. It tells the tale of a fox that assumes the guise of the priest Hokuzosu to escape its hunters.

Netsuke were also a way to make a subtle and often humorous fashion statement. People outside of the ruling samurai class, including the increasingly wealthy merchants, due to the sumptuary laws were restricted in how much luxury they could display. However, through such practical items such as netsuke, a certain degree of show and opulence was possible thus allowing netsuke to develop into imaginative works of art – intricately carved miniature sculptures that could fit in your palm.

This exhibition, at the Dayton Art Institute, explores these ‘little wonders’ and their remarkable variety of subject matter that they depict from the popular culture of the time, from characters in folk tales and scenes of everyday life to monsters and a menagerie of animals.

Netsuke and the Art of Little Wonders, until 12 February, 2023, Dayton Art Institute, Ohio,