Netsuke (Japanese:根付) are miniature sculptures that were invented in 17th century Japan to serve a practical function (the two Japanese characters ne+tsuke mean "root" and "to attach"). Traditional Japanese garment—robes called kosode and kimono—had no pockets, however men who wore them needed a place to store their personal belongings such as pipes, tobacco, money, seals, or medicines.
Their solution was to place such objects in containers (called sagemono) hung by cords from the robes' sash (obi). The containers may be a pouch or a small woven basket, but the most popular were beautifully crafted boxes (inro), which were held shut by an ojime, which were sliding beads on cords. Whatever the form of the container, the fastener that secured the cord at the top of the sash was a carved, button-like toggle called a netsuke.
Netsuke, like the inro and ojime, evolved over time from being strictly utilitarian into objects of great artistic merit and an expression of extraordinary craftsmanship. Such objects have a long history reflecting the important aspects of Japanese folklore and life. Netsuke production was most popular during the Edo period in Japan, around 1615-1868. Today, the art lives on and some modern works can command high prices (US$10,000 or more) in the UK, Europe, the USA, Japan and elsewhere. Prices at auctions in the USA for collectible netsuke typically range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. Inexpensive yet faithful reproductions are available in museum and souvenir shops for $30 or less.
Umimatsu: A species of black coral with dense texture, concentric growth rings, and amber [and redish] colored inclusions in the black material. According to Michael Birch “The literal translation of umimatsu is ‘sea pine,’ and it is also popularly described as ‘black coral.’ True coral, however, is a hard calcareous substance secreted by marine polyps for habitation. Umimatsu, on the other hand is a colony of keratinous antipatharian marine organisms.
According to Bushell (13/ 2:6), “The literal translation . . . is seapine. . . . Whether literal or figurative the translation is a misnomer, as the material is, in actuality, a coral formed by skeletons of living organisms. . . . In color, umimatsu, black coral, is black or blackish brown, sometimes showing streaks of light brown or dirty yellow.” Bushell goes on: “As material, umimatsu is more acceptable to collectors than carvers. Leading carvers naturally avoided the material. It was prone to crack, crumble or chip. Carvers find that it is risky for carving details and subtle effects. Perfect pieces of black coral were difficult to obtain.”
Umoregi: There are several definitions, some contradictory: According to Bushell, “Umoregi is a partially fossilized wood, having the general appearance of ebony but showing no grain.” Often called fossilized wood, Umoregi is not properly a wood, but a "jet" (a variety of lignite), that is often confused with ebony. It is a shiny material that takes an excellent polish but it has a tendency to split. Umoregi-zaiku is petrified wood formed when cedar and pine trees from the Tertiary Age (5 million years ago) were buried underground and then carbonized. The layers of earth where umoregi-zaiku can be found extend under the Aobayama and Yagiyama sections of Sendai, [Japan]. Pieces made from this material are generally dark brown with a beautiful wood grain and the soft luster of lacquer.
Walrus tusk: Walrus have two large tusks (elongated canine teeth) projecting downward from the upper jaw. These tusks, often reaching two feet in length, have been extensively carved as ivory for centuries in many countries and especially in Japan. Walrus tusk carvings are usually easy to identify, because much of the interior of the tooth is filled with a mottled, almost translucent substance that is harder and more resistant to carving than the rest of the tooth. Manju, especially ryusa manju, invariably show this translucent material at opposite edges of the netsuke.
Whale's tooth: The sperm whale has teeth running the whole length of its enormous lower jaw. Those in the middle tend to be the largest often obtaining a length of more than six to eight inches. These larger ones are often used by carvers of scrimshaw. Drexler: "I have a smaller whale's tooth that is just about the size that each of several of my netsuke might have been carved from."
Whale bone: All bones are hollow, the cavity being filled with a spongy material. Cuts across some bone show a pattern of minute holes looking like dark dots. Lengthwise, such bone displays many narrow channels which appear to be dark lines of varying lengths. Polished, bone is more opaque and less shiny than ivory.
Tagua nut: The nut from the ivory palm(Phytelephas aequatorialis), often referred to as vegetable ivory. Part of the nut’s shell sometimes remains on netsuke carvings. Though often mistaken for or deceptively sold as elephant ivory, items made from the two-to-three-inch nut have none of the striations common to animal ivory, and sometimes the ivory-like nut flesh has a light yellow cast under a rough coconut-shell-like external covering. The nut is very hard when dry, but easily worked into artistic items when wet.
Walnut (or kurumi - natural walnut shell): In this rare example of the kataborinetsuke (形彫根付) style, the meat from the nut was removed by various means, one being the insertion of a small worm in a hole in the nut to consume the meat. Following that, elaborate designs were carved and the string inserted. The carver often removed all of the nut's normal surface features and carved through the surface in places to create a latticed effect. Once carved, the resulting netsuke was polished and shellaced.
Bamboo: “Bamboo (Iyo bamboo) is used for netsuke. Bamboo netsuke are either a piece of the stem or the root with carving on it.” According to Bernard Rosett (14/2 :40-44): “Carvings in the round are usually made from the underground stem of the plant, that small almost solid zone that connects to the creeping rhizome below the ground. Bamboo netsuke are not commonly encountered. Occasionally, one comes across a netsuke fashioned from bamboo root and can revel in the wonderful texture and patina of the material.”
Agate: A mineral, streaked with many colors, and which can be given a high polish.
Ivorine: A material made from the dust created when carving legally obtained new ivory, Mammoth ivory, tusks, and teeth, which is then mixed with a clear resin and compressed as it hardens. This was one of the many solutions to the demand of the tourist market trade for Netsuke carvings after trade in new ivory became illegal. Once hard and dry, ivorine can be carved in exactly the same way as ivory. Though often deceptively sold to the modern tourist trade as elephant ivory, items made from ivorine have none of the striations common to animal ivory, though sometimes the carving is artificially aged to have the yellowed appearance common to true old ivory carvings.
Like many other art forms, netsuke reflect the nature of the society that produced them. This is particularly true of Netsuke. The reasons why this is so include long periods of isolation imposed both by geography and internal politics and limited avenues of self-expression for Japanese citizens due to custom and law . As a result, netsuke display every aspect of Japan culture including its rich folklore and religion, every craft, trade, and profession, all types of people and creatures, both real and imagined, and every kind of object. As in other aspects of Japanese culture, the subjects portrayed by netsuke trend, over the long term, away from an initial emphasis on motifs of Chinese derivation toward a focus on objects of more strictly national interest.
Some netsuke represent single, simple, objects, and some depict entire scenes from history, mythology, or literature.