Netsuke: a brief introduction to a Japanese art of passion and utility

Currently live on Lark Mason Associates is offering an encyclopedic collection of Netsuke.  Cute, utilitarian, erotic, religious, and mythological, they are truly exceptional.  We have taken this opportunity to write a little bit about this Japanese art form using netsuke from this sale as illustrations.


It is believed that netsuke began to be used in Japan in the 16th century.  As the country became unified and more stable, cities like Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo became thriving metropolises where a townsperson would need an attractive, yet practical, way to carry necessities such as money and tobacco pouches (sagemono). Early netsuke were more utilitarian than decorative.  Simple sections of a material such as wood or ivory, with some sort of means of passing a cord through- either a natural or drilled himotoshi.

masanobu-netsukeSimplicity eventually gave way to personal expression: small Chinese ivory carvings were converted to use as netsuke.  The Japanese produced carvings with an eye towards fashion as well as function, creating more compact compositions with unobtrusive himotoshi.


The above carving bears many hallmarks of an early netsuke. The classical subject and bold carving of a dragon amongst the waves, the simplicity of the shape and the unhidden himotoshi, the apparent age and wear of the material itself, all indicate this is likely a rather early netsuke

Although different types of dragons exist in Chinese mythology, the Japanese habitually depict the three-toed rain dragon. Terajima Ryoan’s Wakan sansai zue, a type of encyclopedia published in 1715 lists the nine attributes of different creatures of which the dragon was believed to be composed: the head of a camel with the horns of a deer, eyes of an oni, ears like an ox, the neck of a snake, and body of a sea serpent covered with the scales of a carp, with a hawk’s claws and paws of a tiger.


Others have a more religious meaning. This beast of burden, with its placid nature, is an emblem of Zen Buddhism whose teachings follow the ten stage journey of a herds-boy and his ox. The ox does not need to be led by the boy as it follows its own natural instincts, thus serving as an example to his master.


A reclining ox is also associated with the popular Japanese story of court minister Sugiwara Michizane who was falsely implicated in a play against the emperor and banished to Kyushu where he died of grief. On the journey to bring his remains back to Kyoto the bullock pulling his cart lay down in the road and refused to move, forcing the groom to bury his master at that spot, which was later marked with a Shinto shrine. His name was eventually cleared after his avenging spirit attacked the Imperial Palace with thunderbolts and he was defied as Tenjin. He came to be known as the patron saint of literature and a cult grew up in his name, the shrines all displaying a sculpture of a reclining ox.


The above and below netsuke reference a legend in which the octopus-physician to Ryujin, the Dragon King of the Sea, prescribes a monkey’s liver to heal the King’s daughter.  The monkey outwits the jellyfish sent to capture him, by telling the jellyfish his liver is on land.  When sent to fetch his liver from land the monkey makes his escape and the jellyfish is pounded to a pulp by Ryujin, which is how jellyfish became so gelatinous.


In the first carving the monkey, with a very human-like bemused expression, seems to have the situation well in hand. There seems to be little danger that the octopus will have any success in securing his prey. Osaka, 19th century.  While in the carving below the octopus physician has the situation in hand, however unlike the monkey he seems hesitant as to how to proceed.

Netsuke were as much signs of status as they were expressions of taste and personal flair.  Netsuke are made up of carving of myths and legends, erotic encounters, and simple weights carved to show skill or aesthetic prowess through cute or intricate characters.



Currently several of us in the iGavel office are reading The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, the story of a man’s family’s collection of netsuke.  They began collecting in 1871 and in 2009 they were inherited by the author, who having only a cursory understanding of netsuke of them dove head first into the world of family history and netsuke.  Start your collection today and change your family’s destiny.