In The Art Of Netsuke, Tiny Toggles Tell Delightful Stories Of Japan


Komada holds a netsuke that is about two-thirds of the way finished. It takes up to two months to create one carving.

Maia Stern/NPR


In the hands of Japanese netsuke carvers like Ryushi Komada, something quite mundane becomes sublime. From a simple block of wood emerges a delicate and expressive face, the sense of movement in the folds of a dress, the fine strings on an ancient instrument.

A third-generation carver, Komada is a master creator of these charm-like pieces that are the perfect embodiment of “necessity is the mother of invention” — and, in this instance, artistry. They look like miniature sculptures, just an inch or two tall. But they serve a specific purpose.

Netsuke emerged in the late 17th century during Japan’s Edo period, when men wore kimonos every day. Those garments didn’t have pockets, so men stashed items such as pens, tobacco or medicines in pouches or pillboxes, called inro, which hung from their kimono sashes, or obi, by cords. The containers were attached to one end of the cord; a netsuke was attached to the other, and served as an anchor, hooking over the obi.

(L) A demonstration of how netsuke, tiny carved pieces, were used in traditional dress. (R) Netsuke were worn as part of an ensemble that included inro, or containers, and ojime, or sliding beads that allow inro to be opened and closed.

(L) Maia Stern/NPR and (R) Will Kirk/ Collection


What could have been purely functional — like a toggle, button or zipper — became tiny works of art, eventually coveted by collectors in the U.S. and Europe after Japan opened up to the wider world in the late 1800s.

Netsuke designs and motifs reflected nature and the seasons, myths and mythical creatures, theatrical masks, the animals of the zodiac, scenes of everyday life — in short, the themes of Japanese art writ small. Some were humorous; others erotic. They were made of ivory, ebony, wood, ceramics, and could be inlaid with metals, painted or lacquered.

In the Edo period’s rigid social order — with the warrior class atop the hierarchy, followed by farmers, artisans and merchants — netsuke were an acceptable way for those who weren’t necessarily of high social class — but had money or aspirations of urbanity — to express themselves.

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