What is a netsuke? (pronounced “nets-keh”)
A netsuke is a small sculptural object which has gradually developed in Japan over a period of more than three hundred years. Netsuke (singular and plural) 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.
The entire ensemble was then worn, at the waist, and functioned as a sort of removable external pocket. All three objects (netsuke, ojime and the different types of sagemono) were often beautifully decorated with elaborate carving, lacquer work, or inlays of rare and exotic materials. Subjects portrayed in netsuke include naturally found objects, plants and animals, legends and legendary heroes, myths and mystical beasts, gods and religious symbols, daily activities, and myriad other themes. Many netsuke are believed to have been talismans. These items eventually developed into highly coveted and collectible art forms. Today we see a broad range from “folk art” carvings to levels of sophistication some consider to be fine art.
With transition to European dress, the use of sagemono and netsuke declined, nearly disappearing over the period from the end of 19th to the first quarter of the 20th century but the production of netsuke did not completely go away. Instead, under a strong influence of Western collectors visiting Japan in larger and larger numbers, netsuke developed into a form of fine art and exists as such today with true master-carvers from all over the world still creating these little masterpieces. Unfortunately, the souvenir industry both in Japan and abroad stimulated production of low artistic value mass-produced figurines mimicking the real netsuke to satisfy the growing tourist demand. Those netsuke-like objects should not be confused with the authentic art pieces regardless of their age and origin.