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A netsuke is a small sculptural object which has gradually developed in Japan over a period of more than three hundred years. Netsuke initially served both functional and aesthetic purposes. The traditional form of Japanese dress, the kimono, had no pockets. Women would tuck small personal items into their sleeves, but men suspended their tobacco pouches, pipes, purses, writing implements, and other items of daily use on a silk cord passed behind their obi (sash). These hanging objects are called sagemono. The netsuke was attached to the other end of the cord preventing the cord from slipping through the obi. A sliding bead (ojime) was strung on the cord between the netsuke and the sagemono to allow the opening and closing of the sagemono.

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What is a netsuke?

A netsuke is a small, intricately carved toggle or ornament that originated in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868). These objects were typically made from materials like ivory, wood, bone, or metal, and they served both practical and decorative purposes.

Historically, netsuke were used to secure small personal items, such as medicine boxes (inrō), tobacco pouches, or purses, to the sashes (obi) of traditional Japanese garments, such as kimonos. Since kimonos lack pockets, the netsuke would act as a counterbalance by being attached to a cord that looped under the sash, holding the item in place.

Netsuke vary widely in their designs, often depicting animals, mythological creatures, everyday scenes, or figures from folklore. Each piece is a unique work of art, reflecting the skill and creativity of the carver. Over time, netsuke became highly collectible items, valued not only for their functionality but also for their artistic merit.

Today, they are considered important artifacts of Japanese culture and craftsmanship, and they are often collected and studied by enthusiasts worldwide.

What kinds of netsuke exist?

Netsuke come in various types, each with unique characteristics and functions.

Here are some of the primary types:

1. Katabori Netsuke (Sculptural Netsuke):

  • These are the most common type and are three-dimensional, detailed sculptures. They often depict animals, people, mythical creatures, or everyday scenes.

2. Manju Netsuke:

  • Named after a type of Japanese confection, these are flat and round, resembling a disc or bun. They often feature intricate carvings or engravings on their surfaces.

3. Ryusa Netsuke:

  • A variant of the manju netsuke, these are carved with openwork designs, creating a lace-like effect. They are often very detailed and delicate.

4. Kagamibuta Netsuke:

  • These consist of a bowl-shaped body, often made from ivory or wood, with a separate metal or ivory disc lid. The lid is usually decorated with intricate carvings or metalwork.

5. Sashi Netsuke:

  • These are long and thin, designed to be worn tucked into the obi. They often have a simple, elongated shape, but can also be intricately carved.

6. Netsuke with Inlays:

  • These netsuke incorporate different materials inlaid into the main body. Common inlays include mother-of-pearl, semi-precious stones, or other contrasting materials, adding color and texture to the piece.

7. Karikuri Netsuke (Mechanical Netsuke):

  • These feature moving parts or hidden compartments, often designed with a playful or surprising element.

8. Mask Netsuke:

  • These are small replicas of traditional Japanese theater masks, such as those used in Noh or Kyogen plays.

9. Minitature Tools and Implements:

  • These netsuke are shaped like tiny tools or household items, often highly detailed and realistic.

Each type of netsuke not only served a practical purpose but also reflected the artistic tastes and cultural influences of its time, making them fascinating objects for both historical study and artistic appreciation.

What are the materials of a netsuke?

Netsuke are crafted from a variety of materials, each chosen for its particular properties and aesthetic qualities.

The most common materials used include:

1. Ivory:

  • One of the most popular materials, ivory is valued for its smooth texture and durability, allowing for intricate carvings. Elephant ivory is the most common, but walrus, mammoth, and narwhal ivory have also been used.

2. Wood:

  • Various types of wood, such as boxwood, cherry, and ebony, are used to create netsuke. Wood offers a warm, organic feel and can be intricately carved and polished.

3. Bone:

  • Similar to ivory but more affordable, bone from animals like cattle or deer is used. It can be finely carved and polished to a smooth finish.

4. Horn:

  • Animal horns, particularly those from deer or buffalo, provide a material that can be carved and polished, often producing a translucent effect.

5. Lacquer:

  • Lacquer netsuke are made by applying multiple layers of lacquer over a wooden or fabric core. The lacquer can be carved or inlaid with materials like mother-of-pearl.

6. Metal:

  • Metals such as bronze, silver, and gold are used, either alone or in combination with other materials. Metal netsuke are often cast or hammered into shape and can feature detailed engravings.

7. Porcelain and Ceramic:

  • These materials are less common but offer a different texture and finish. They are often painted and glazed, providing colorful and durable netsuke.

8. Coral:

  • Coral, particularly red or pink varieties, is used for its vibrant color and smooth texture. It is carved and polished to create detailed netsuke.

9. Jade and Other Semi-Precious Stones:

  • Stones like jade, agate, and quartz are used for their beauty and hardness. These materials allow for detailed carving and are highly valued.

10. Amber:

  • Fossilized tree resin, amber, is sometimes used for its warm color and unique natural inclusions. It is relatively soft and can be carved into intricate designs.

These materials allow artisans to create a wide range of textures, colors, and effects in their netsuke, making each piece unique and highly collectible.

What are the most important netsuke schools?

Netsuke schools refer to the distinct styles and traditions of carving that developed in various regions of Japan, often associated with master carvers and their apprentices.

Some of the most important netsuke schools include:

1 Kyoto School:

  • Known for its refined and elegant style, the Kyoto School produced some of the earliest netsuke. Carvers from this school often depicted traditional subjects like mythological creatures, animals, and everyday life scenes with great detail and grace.

2. Osaka School:

  • This school is recognized for its dynamic and expressive style. Netsuke from Osaka often feature bold designs and a high level of craftsmanship, with a focus on naturalism and movement.

3. Edo (Tokyo) School:

  • As the political center of Japan, Edo produced many skilled carvers. The Edo School is known for its variety of styles and subjects, ranging from realistic to imaginative. The school is characterized by meticulous detail and innovative techniques.

4. Nagoya School:

  • Nagoya carvers are famous for their intricate and often humorous designs. They frequently used a wide range of materials and incorporated inlays and mixed media in their work. This school is also known for its detailed depiction of human figures and daily life scenes.

5. Tsu School:

  • Originating in the Tsu region, this school is noted for its realistic and finely detailed carvings. Tsu netsuke often feature animals, particularly hares, and are admired for their lifelike quality and exquisite workmanship.

6. Sōshū (Odawara) School:

  • Known for its use of native woods and lacquers, the Sōshū School produced netsuke with a distinctive naturalistic style. The carvers often utilized the natural colors and grains of the wood to enhance the beauty of their designs.

7. Kansai School:

  • This is more of a regional style rather than a single school,
    encompassing various styles from the Kansai area, which includes Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara. The Kansai style is diverse but generally known for its high artistic quality and attention to detail.

8. Iwami School:

  • Based in the Iwami province, this school is celebrated for its small, finely detailed netsuke, often carved from boxwood. The carvers of the Iwami School are known for their exceptional skill in creating lifelike animal figures and intricate designs.

These schools and their master carvers significantly influenced the art of netsuke, each contributing unique styles, techniques, and subject matter to the tradition. Collectors and historians study these schools to appreciate the rich diversity and historical development of netsuke carving.

What is shibayama?

Shibayama refers to a highly decorative and intricate form of Japanese inlay work that is often found on various art objects, including netsuke, inrō (traditional Japanese cases for holding small objects), and other personal ornaments. This technique involves the meticulous inlaying of materials such as mother-of-pearl, coral, tortoiseshell, ivory, and various semi-precious stones into a base material, which is typically wood, ivory, or lacquer.

Key Characteristics of Shibayama Work:

1. Intricate Inlay:

  • Shibayama is renowned for its detailed and elaborate inlay designs. Artisans cut tiny pieces of various materials and inlay them into the surface of the object to create complex images and patterns.

2. Nature Themes:

  • The designs often depict scenes from nature, such as flowers, birds,insects, and landscapes. These natural motifs are rendered with great attention to detail and color.

3. Dimensionality:

  • Shibayama work often has a three-dimensional quality. The inlaid pieces are sometimes carved to stand out from the surface, adding depth and texture to the design.

4. Base Materials:

  • Common base materials include lacquered wood, ivory, and sometimes metal. The smooth surfaces of these materials are ideal for the fine and precise inlay work.

5. Cultural Significance:

  • Shibayama work became popular during the late Edo period and into the Meiji period (1868-1912). It was highly valued both domestically in Japan and by foreign collectors, particularly during the time when
    Japan opened up to international trade.

6. Artistic Collaboration:

  • The creation of Shibayama pieces often involved collaboration between different artisans. For example, one artisan might create the base object, while another specialized in the inlay work.

Shibayama-netsuke are particularly prized by collectors due to the combination of their functional purpose and the exquisite artistry involved. The term “Shibayama”; itself comes from the name of the family that popularized this technique, with Shibayama Senzo being one of the most prominent artisans associated with its development.

Overall, Shibayama represents a pinnacle of Japanese decorative art, showcasing the intricate craftsmanship and aesthetic sensibilities of the artisans who created these beautiful and intricate works.