Netsuke (pronounced “netskee”) are Japanese functional toggles, often carved and decorated. The kimono, the traditional clothing of the Japanese, had no pockets. Instead a sometimes multi layered box called an Inro was worn, suspended from cords which were pushed up under the Obi, the broad band of fabric that was worn around the waist. The netsuke, through which the cords passed, allowed the suspension of the inro which was used to carry a variety of objects, from seals to medicines.
Netsuke were also used to facilitate the suspension of other items from the obi. Pipe cases, (kiseruzutsu) tobacco boxes and pouches. The collective name for all these items is “sagemono”.
The first netsuke were simple sticks or sometimes stones to which the cords were tied, these, over time were replaced by pieces of ivory or bone, still in the traditional stick shape, now with a hole for the cord to pass through. This was called the “himotoshi”. The stick form of netsuke is known as “Sashi”.
Although there are many different forms of netsuke, the most sought after are the “katabori”. These are sculptural netsuke and show a wide range of subjects from mythical creatures, animals, day to day objects and people. Through various levels of research, it is usually possible to identify the meaning behind the carving and sometimes the type of person that would have owned or used the netsuke.
A fine example of this is shown here. This hand carved mid-late nineteenth century ivory netsuke shows two Sennins. A Sennin is a Japanese hermit, known for living in isolation on mountaintops. There are over eight hundred different Sennins in Japanese mythology. The Sennin on the left is Gamma Sennin with his pet toad. He is recognized as a wise man who specialises in medicine. If someone was ill, a member of their family would trek to the top of the mountain to seek his advice. The one on the right is Chokaro Sennin. He is the only Sennin out of eight hundred who travels. He is always depicted with a staff and a gourd, in which he keeps a magical white horse, who will take him wherever he wishes to go.
This is a particularly rare netsuke as Sennins are normally never shown together, so why here? This is one of those rare occasions where it is possible to deduce the kind of person who owned and used the netsuke. He is most likely to have been a traveling Doctor – hence the two Sennins. Anyone who saw his netsuke would have instantly known his profession and would have been able to seek his advice.
Netsuke developed for over three hundred years in Japan and as their use died out at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, netsuke carvers pushed the boundaries of art and developed them as miniature sculptures. They are an endless source of fascination and delight, but as with all valuable and rare works of art, fakes and forgeries abound and if you wish to build a collection it is always worth buying from a reputable dealer, willing to guarantee authenticity.