Fashion in itself is an artistic expression, as well as a reflection of one’s culture and history. Bearing that in mind, let’s examine Japan’s fashion piece of the 17th century – ‘netsuke’.
During the 17th century, and even well into the 19th century, people were only wearing kimono and such, so many things were created in connection to the kimono. As those who are avid fans of Japanese culture know, the traditional kimono does not have pockets. Japanese women solved this problem mainly by tucking small personal items into their sleeves. However, Japanese men eventually came up with pouches hanging from the obi (a sash) that could serve as external pockets. These external pouches are called ‘sagemono’. At the same time, netsuke were created in order to prevent the sagemono from slipping or falling from the obi.
The period of Japan in which netsuke were created was a time when there was a strict line between different social classes. Warriors or samurais were at the top of the social hierarchy while merchants were at the bottom. Social rules dictated that this hierarchy was followed, even when it came to the building of houses and fabrication of clothes. However, at that time, there were quite a handful of merchants in Japan that were wealthier than many warriors. Netsuke, that are often made of expensive and rare materials, provided said merchants with the capability to flaunt their wealth without breaking social rules, because anyone – regardless of social class – could wear them, as long as they could afford it.
There are different types of netsuke, depending on style, shape, size, and material. Here is a list of the kinds of netsuke.
Katabori-netsuke (形彫根付, sculpture netsuke)
This is the most common type of netsuke. These are compact three-dimensional figures carved in a round shape and are usually around one to three inches high.
Anabori-netsuke (穴彫根付, hollowed netsuke)
This is a subset of katabori that is carved out with a hollow center. Clams are most commonly the motifs for this type of netsuke.
Sashi-netsuke (差根付, stab netsuke)
This is an elongated form of katabori, similar in length to the sticks and gourds used as improvised netsuke before carved pieces were produced. They are about six inches long.
This is another elongated netsuke, with a curved top and bottom. It sits behind the obi with the curved ends visible above and below the obi.
Men-netsuke (面根付, mask netsuke)
This is the second largest type, just a bit smaller than katabori. These were often imitations of full-size noh masks, and share characteristics with both katabori and manju-netsuke.
This netsuke was named after ‘manju’, a Japanese sweet. Manju-netsuke are thick, flat, and round, resembling their namesake. It is usually made of two ivory halves, with the carving raised in accordance with a sculptural technique called ‘relief’.
This netsuke is shaped like a manju-netsuke but carved like lace, so that light is transmitted through the item.
Karakuri-netsuke (からくり根付, trick/mechanism netsuke)
Any netsuke that has moving parts or hidden surprises is called karakuri-netsuke.
With the opening of Japan’s port for foreign trade in 1854, Japan also opened its doors to Western culture. Under Western influence, Japanese men began to favour Western suits and uniforms over kimono. With this shift in interest, the sales numbers of kimono for men slowly declined.
Consequently, kimono-related items such as netsuke were no longer crucial for everyday wear. It lost its function as a fashion item, and therefore, its production diminished as well. But its appeal apparently did not.
Foreigners found netsuke new and fascinating. The fact that such a tiny object could have such exquisite carvings made netsuke a favourite collector’s item. With the increase of foreigners settling in Japan, there was another market for netsuke carvers. This time the primary buyers mostly foreigners instead of Japanese natives.
The fact that netsuke at this time was valued as an art piece actually liberated carvers from the standards they had to follow when netsuke were still used for kimonos. Originally, carvers had to make the netsuke compact and smooth in order to avoid damage to the kimono, and at the same time sturdy to avoid breakage. These restrictions meant that carvers only had limited materials and designs to choose from. Contemporary artists, on the other hand, had free reign on new and even unusual styles to play with, while still keeping the core appeal of netsuke.
In the present times, a lot of foreigners are still interested in netsuke. Sadly, many are fooled by low-quality replicas of these beautiful Japanese items. So if you are planning to purchase a netsuke, it is better to be careful and very discerning when you choose, so that you will get your money’s worth.
The Sagemonoya Netsuke Gallery is a good dealer to go to because it is recognized by the International Netsuke Society as the only antique shop in Japan specializing in netsuke and sagemono. The Sagemonoya Gallery sells over 500 items of not only antique netsuke and sagemono, but good contemporary ones as well. You can visit their shop in Tokyo, or you can inquire via their website. Excluding national holidays, they are open from Wednesday to Saturday from 1.30 pm to 6 pm.
If you are an avid fan of netsuke and are planning to visit Kyoto this year, you might want to consider seeing the Sagemonoya Gallery collection at the Kyoto Antique Fair, which will be held at Kyoto Pulse Plaza on three separate dates. The first one will run from March 25 to 27 2016. There is another one from June 24 to 26 and later this year from October 28 to 30. Aside from netsuke, you can also enjoy the rest of the fair and see excellent and rare antiques from all over Japan.