Netsuke: Miniature masterpieces from Japan

Traditional Japanese clothing did not have pockets. Men used pieces of carved wood or ivory called netsuke to hang small personal items from the sashes around their waists.

Tobacco pipes, pouches and decorative containers called inrō were attached to netsuke with cords.

The earliest netsuke (‘root-fix’ in Japanese) were probably simple knobbly roots. Then craftsmen began to make intricate carvings from wood, ivory and other materials.

During the Edo period (1603-1868) the military government passed strict laws governing what people wore. A wealthy merchant could show his taste in a subtle way by wearing a tiny, beautifully carved netsuke and not get into trouble.

In the Meiji period (1868-1912), the Emperor encouraged men to wear western clothing and netsuke were less in demand. Craftsmen used their skills to make decorative carvings called okimono, often larger and more delicate than netsuke, for sale to the growing numbers of western tourists.

 

A fine netsuke could take one or two months to make.

The craftsmen would use different tools such as saws, chisels, knives, and drills to shape the carvings, then sand and polish them. Sometimes makers carved their names on their work.

Craftsmen often inlayed one material into another. Many netsuke were stained with ink to highlight finely carved details.

 

Ryūshi Komada, Master carver of netsuke and okimono, Tokyo.

© Ryūshi and Makiko Komada