Collecting Articles and Features

Netsuke – Japanese Netsuke

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netsukehorseNetsuke date back to the 17th Century, and became extremely popular in Europe towards the end of the 19th Century. This coincided with the Japanese adopting the suit and its pockets and with oriental artefacts being very much in vogue with buyers in western Europe. A huge supply of redundant netsuke came into Europe and were sold in many places as novelty items very cheaply.

For the collector today there are many styles, and types, some by well known designers and the range in price can be incredible: from a few $/£ to £140,000 paid for a netsuke horse carved by Tomotada.

Netsuke served both functional and aesthetic purposes. The tradtional Japanese dress, the kimono had no pockets. The robes were hung together by a broad sash (obi), so items that were needed to be carried were held on a cord tucked under the sash. The hanging objects (sagemono) were secured with carved toggles (netsuke). A sliding bead (ojime) was strung on the cord between the netsuke and the sagemono to tighten or loosen the opening of the sagemono.


The best known accessory was the inro, a small box used by the wealthy for carrying medicines and seals. Netsuke were also used to secure purses, and were widely used to hold the tobacco pouches that became almost universal with the introduction of smoking in Japan.

The quality of Netsuke was variable. As everyday objects many were carved quickly with left over materials. Netsuke could be made using a variety of materials mainly wood, and ivory (also shell, bone, horn, even metal and precious stones). Wealthier people would have finer netsuke, and it could be possible to tell the status of an individual by the quality of their netsuke. The workmanship is some is outstanding and despite their small size 1 to 2 inches, there can be considerable detail.

netsukesceneThere are several types of netsuke including: manju, round or square button like boxes; and kagamibuta, comprising a metal lid and a bowl; and katabori. The range of subjects included all manner of animals, birds, the heores and villains from folklore, the immortals and mythical animals of Japanese legend, the grotesque and the amusing. The variety and variability of netsuke is a reason for their continued popularity today. Knowledgeable collectors look for compactness, a design that appears good from any angle, and the cord holes must not interfere with the piece and may often form part of it.

netsukerabbitWith the decline of the kimono there was less demand in Japan for netsuke, but they continued to be produced for export. Some skilled designers continued to produce excellent pieces which are much sort after. Production continued into the 20th Century with a revival in the art as interest incr eases. In recent years a number of poor netsuke have been produced and a number of fakes of original pieces have also been manufactured. These pieces are often produced using ivory obtained from illegally poached elephants and other animals. Resin replicas are also being produced. Many are sold as such but collectors should be careful.

Forms of Netsuke

  • 200px-KataboriNetsukekataborinetsuke (形彫根付) or “sculpture netsuke” – this is the most familiar style, a compact three-dimensional figure carved in the round, usually around one to three inches high
    • anaborinetsuke (穴彫根付) or “hollowed netsuke” – subset of katabori which is hollowed-out and carved within; the most common are scenes in clams
    • sashinetsuke (差根付) – this is an elongated form of katabori, literally “stab” netsuke, similar in length to the sticks and gourds used as improvised netsuke before carved pieces were produced, about six inches long
    • obi-hasami – another elongated netsuke with curved top and bottom. It sits behind the obi with the curved ends visible above and below the obi.
  • mennetsuke (面根付) or “mask netsuke” – the largest category after katabori, these were often imitations of full size noh masks, and share characteristics in common with both katabori and manju/kagamibuta
  • 200px-ManjuNetsukemanjunetsuke (饅頭根付) or “manju netsuke”- a thick, flat, round type of netsuke, with carving usually done in relief, sometimes made of two ivory halves. Shaped like a manju.
  • ryusanetsuke (柳左根付)- shaped like a manju, but carved like lace, so that light shines completely through
  • 200px-KagamibutaNetsukekagamibutanetsuke (鏡蓋根付) or “mirror lid netsuke” – shaped like a manju, but with a metal disc serving as lid to a shallow bowl, usually of ivory. The metal is often highly decorated with a wide variety of metallurgical techniques.
  • karakurinetsuke (からくり根付) or “trick/mechanism netsuke” – any netsuke that does something, ones with moving parts or hidden surprisesForms of Netsuke text – Copyright (C) 2000,2001,2002 Free Software Foundation, Inc. 51 Franklin St, Fifth Floor, Boston, MA 02110-1301 USA Everyone is permitted to copy and distribute verbatim copies of this license document, but changing it is not allowed.

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