Netsuke’s origins are practical. Because a kimono has no pockets, an inro (small external purse) was often worn, attached to the obi (sash) by a cord. The cord was looped through himotoshi (holes in the underside of a netsuke) and under the obi, securing the inro to the kimono. Because the kimono was the traditional dress of the Edo period (1603-1868 CE), netsuke were as common in Japan during this time as buttons or toggles might be in the West. Furthermore, while they began as functional objects with simple designs, over time expressive depictions of people, animals, mythological creatures, and noh (theatre) masks became desirable. Fine detail and exotic materials also caused them to take on more of the qualities of jewellery, especially among the upper classes. As a result, Netsuke became one of the primary sculptural art forms in Japan during a period when it was closed to the West. So netsuke carving evolved over several hundred years, exclusively in Japan. In the Meiji period (1868-1912 CE), Japan opened up to trading with the West, and the ensuing “golden age” of netsuke carving was to be its swan song. As the kimono fell out of fashion during this time, the netsuke both lost its functional purpose in Japan and became a source of fascination for Western collectors.1 2
I first encountered netsuke at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) while living in L.A. as a young man. It happens to be one of the most exquisite collections of netsuke on public display. I wandered in by chance. What struck me most, and still inspires me today, is the expressive, sometimes even humorous nature of this form. To me, the most interesting netsuke not only display remarkable skill in carving and inlay, but also capture a moment. We learn something about the figures depicted, and perhaps even about the richness of life’s ordinary moments as well. We can tell that the mouse has been woken up by a flea. We know that the go player just lost the match. It is also a wonderful fusion of fine art and functional craft–it must be able to accompany the wearer through similar moments of everyday life. It is therefore both refined and robust, carved from hard materials that both retain detail and tolerate, even improve, with wear. I liked them so much, I had to try my hand at it, and soon fell in love.