Introduction to Netsuke

Introduction to Netsuke
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The traditional Japanese garment, the kimono, has no pockets. Small personal items to be carried were either tucked into the kimono’s large sleeves, slipped under the sash (obi), or placed in small multi-compartment cases (inro) or other hanging containers (sagemono) that were suspended from the obi with cords. Netsuke—pronounced nets-keh—are toggles and were worn to counterbalance these containers. The cord of the inro, purse, or tobacco pouch was threaded under the obi and attached to the netsuke through holes or openings (himotoshi) in the netsuke. The netsuke held the entire ensemble in place by resting atop the obi and preventing the cord from slipping down.

Precisely when netsuke were first used in Japan is not known, although historical documents and pictorial evidence suggest the mid-late 17th century. The earliest netsuke, however, were not the detailed carvings with which most people are familiar. In fact, early netsuke were rarely carved specifically for use as toggles. Rather, they were often small, readily available items adapted for use as netsuke. Any compact object around which a cord could be tied would suffice. Pieces of wood (sometimes resembling animals) or coral were often used as netsuke, as were other items of suitable shape and size. The first forms carved specifically for use as netsuke were simple—round and compact, or ring-shaped—followed by the development of the miniature sculptures (katabori) that would eventually become the most popular type of netsuke. It was during the 18th century that netsuke evolved from their earliest forms to these expressive and sometimes quite ornate miniature works of art. In the late 18th and early 19th century, netsuke carvers honed their craft to its highest level. This period is considered the Golden Age of netsuke production.

In the mid-19th century, Japan ended a period of nearly 250 years of self-imposed isolation. Foreigners were once again permitted to travel in Japan, and trade with the West brought to Japan hitherto unseen sources of information and inspiration. During this time—the Meiji period (1868–1912)—ever increasing influences from the West and a quickly modernizing Japan led to great changes in netsuke design and production and ultimately led to the transition of netsuke from functional objects to purely decorative miniature sculptures.

- Chris Drosse, LACMA, (2006)

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