Netsuke: delicate treats for the dandies of Edo

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Until modern times, Japan seems to have been almost unique in having no tradition of jewelry, apart from the stone beads and gold accessories found in burial mounds from the last few centuries of the prehistoric period until circa seventh century. Elaborate necklaces, bracelets and diadems could be seen on images of Buddhist deities, but these were modeled after works from mainland Korea and China that in turn reflected those of the Indian subcontinent, and so were not born of native culture.

Still, dressing up is very much a part of social nature, and thus through the Edo Period (1603-1867), the military elite, court nobles and high-ranking clerics displayed their prestige by wearing elaborate silk costumes or fancy armor (ordinary people were limited to homespun fabrics). Costume accessories, apart from the panoply of warriors — such as sword guards or helmet decoration — were rather rare at the time, though, as the craftsmen of Japan concentrated their talents instead on designing and decorating objects that could be used.

The early Edo Period saw the rise of rich merchants and a new urban culture revolving around the pursuit of amusements such as sumo, kabuki and the flourishing licensed pleasure quarters. Perhaps to subvert official restrictions on ostentation, sagemono — “hanging things,” such as small tobacco pouches and inro containers for medicines — together with the netsuke toggles from which these objects were suspended from a man’s obi by a silk cord, evolved as essential accessories for the city dandy. The miniature works of art are carved from wood, ivory, stag-antler, lacquer and other materials that, as with watches today, furnished hints about the wearer’s level of wealth and taste.

Excellent examples of traditional netsuke can be seen year-round in the Tokyo National Museum, while contemporary netsuke have been exhibited in 2007 at the Tobacco and Salt Museum in Shibuya. That same year, the Kyoto Seishu Netsuke Art Museum was established in the Mibu area of the ancient capital — an area famous for the residences of Edo Period samurai who, having no wars left to fight nor regional lords to support, made their living by farming.

The museum, which is holding a spring exhibition of netsuke till April 30, is housed in a handsome mansion surrounded by a classical Japanese garden that dates from the early 19th century and was formerly the residence of the Kanzaki family. Recently refurbished and adapted by the museum director Muneaki Kinoshita, the house provides an exhibition space where netsuke can be viewed in intimate surroundings. Being small, three- dimensional objects made, like so many good things, to be held for their beauty to be fully appreciated, netsuke are not so easy to display behind glass, but a compromise has been reached by maintaining the rooms in semi-darkness and having the objects arranged in illuminated cases so that their details can be studied closely.

There are fine examples of antique netsuke dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, each with the slight wear and smoothing of features — the beauty born of use — proving that they have been well-handled through the years. Typical of the early netsuke are the figures carved from ivory that depict characters from Chinese and Japanese legends, commoners engaged in everyday work such as sandal-makers or shellfish divers, or the exotic foreigners with luxurious beards.

Many reveal a strong sense of humor and sometimes a rather colored symbolism: Otafuku, the folk-goddess of mirth, clutching a giant radish or mushroom with evident delight, is a common example; as is a naked diving-girl being embraced by an amorous octopus. Some netsuke can look innocent from the outside but reveal more explicit carvings when opened or turned over — a useful tool no doubt for those moments when conversation falters in the course of seduction.

The works of contemporary carvers seem to show no limits of imagination. The special exhibition currently at the museum is showing the works of Kiho Takagi (b. 1957), a star of the netsuke-carving renaissance who is known for his rich imagination and superb skill, as well as his choice of materials. Kiho’s ivory netsuke, “Soulful Pitch,” brings the classical and the modern together with a fanged demon peering through the burst stitching of a baseball, the surface treated and colored to replicate worn leather. Another, “Small Elephant Learning Prayers,” is carved from a stag antler, the eyes inlaid with black coral, and portrays the creature playing with the wooden drum used in temples to set the tempo in the recital of Buddhist devotions. According to Kiho, the carving echoes the proverb, “A child before the temple gate can recite a sutra without learning.”

The late Prince Takamado was an enthusiastic netsuke collector, but until recent years, Japanese art connoisseurs and collectors focused on the elite culture of courtiers and warlords while tending to sniff at that of the merchant classes. Visiting foreigners recognized the artistic merits of netsuke, though, so along with ukiyo-e (genre painting) prints and later Edo paintings that were locally overlooked, many of the best collections have ended up in Europe and America.

Even though they are as anachronistic as swords and shields, netsuke are still being made for an enthusiastic clientele by master carvers, such as Kiho, in Japan and Western countries today. Last week at the museum, the late Prince’s wife, Princess Takamado, was in attendance at a ceremony held by the Kinsey International Art Foundation. The foundation, which was established by Robert O. Kinsey in 1960, gave their Golden Dragon Awards to two other contemporary netsuke artists, Susan Wright from the U.K. and Ryushi Komada.

“The Spring Exhibition and Netsuke Art by Kiho Takagi” show till April 30 at the Kyoto Seishu Netsuke Art Museum (46-1 Mibukayougosho-cho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto); admission ¥1,200; open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. The museum is open for limited seasonal exhibitions from April 1-30, July 1-14, Nov. 1-30 and Feb. 1-14. For more information, call (075) 802-7000 or visit www.netsukekan.jp