Hunting ivory netsuke carvers is like a big game

by Julian Littler

Special To The Japan Times

Netsuke are the diminutive works of art that dangled from cords attaching purses or other pouches to a kimono’s obi sash before Western garb ousted traditional dress after the modernizing Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Particularly in the political capital of Edo (present-day Tokyo), these woggles whittled from wood, horn, ivory, deer antler, mother of pearl or other materials would be talking points among wearers who’d compare their handiwork or fondle, caress and contemplate their tiny treasures in the centuries before clothes had pockets.

On the whole, netsuke were the realm of men, says netsuke carver Akira Kuroiwa, and smart types in Edo often had dozens. Now, though, according to no less an authority that the British Museum’s website, “there are numbers of netsuke carvers working in all materials, except of course ivory.”

But as is obvious to anyone in Japan, there are carvers still using ivory today. Last year, for instance, Kageo Takaichi, head of Japan’s biggest ivory dealer, Takaichi Co., and a former chairman of the Japan Ivory Association, received a two-year suspended sentence from Tokyo District Court for buying unregistered ivory, while the same court handed the same sentence to an ivory craftsman named Masakatsu Kobari for trading unregistered ivory.

Although prices are shrouded in secrecy, Japan received its last import of 39 tons of ivory allowed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 2009. The last major smuggling bust was in Osaka in 2006, when 2.8 tons of non-CITES ivory was seized.

With all my efforts to contact Kobari blocked, I began telephoning others in the Tokyo ivory community I’d heard about in search of a netsuke shoku-nin (specialist artisan) who might lift the veil over this fascinating world. However, all my cold calls met with nervously frosty responses.

Then I called the chairman of the Tokyo Association for Ivory Crafts in his Tokyo hanko (personal seal) store, who told me in an anxious voice that he didn’t own any netsuke and didn’t know anyone crafting the bibelots.

I could only think those court proceedings had made the community nervous — even despite the fact I’d been assured that all those I contacted opposed having anything to do with black-market ivory. Each time I called anyone, however, I was unfailingly asked if I was the one writing a book or an article about ivory or netsuke. Word had clearly spread like wildfire.

By now I was getting desperate, so I again phoned the Tokyo Association for Ivory Crafts and pleaded for help in researching about netsuke. My reward was a suggestion to contact the International Netsuke Carvers Association. When I did so, and explained that my introduction to the wonderful world of these mini figurines was through Edmund de Waal’s marvelous 2010 book, “The Hare with the Amber Eyes” — and that my focus was not ivory, nor attacking netsuke, but simply introducing contemporary netsuke — I was asked to call back in 30 minutes.

Hoping for the best, but fearing more of the same, I did as I’d been told — whereupon I had my status as the writer who kept calling the Tokyo Association for Ivory Crafts confirmed. Only then did the speaker reveal that he was himself a netsuke carver, and (oh great joy) was happy to meet me that very same afternoon in his studio. He introduced himself as Akira Kuroiwa, current chairman of the 70-member-strong association — though he stressed he would be talking to me in a personal capacity.

Walking through suburban Suginami Ward in Tokyo’s west, I finally found his house conveniently marked by a makeshift netsuke information stand bordering the narrow street.

The tone of my last phone conversation with Kuroiwa had shifted abruptly from caution to warmth when he realized my genuine liking for the art form. So, welcoming me into his house and gesturing me to sit, the craftsman began to talk.

“I think ivory is a gift from god,” he declared. “Elephants are born, then they grow up and die. If the ivory is merely thrown away it is a big waste for artistic endeavors,” he explained with the reasoned authority of a man who knows right from wrong. Indeed, Kuroiwa is at pains to make his position on ivory clear: He doesn’t condone or agree with illegal trading, though he believes ivory is heaven-sent for artisans to use responsibly and respectfully. Now we can talk.

“What are these things and what is this world,” was how he described his thoughts the first time he saw a netsuke in a Tokyo department store exhibition in the mid-’70s.

Back then Kuroiwa was a jeweler, and it would be another 16 years before he started to work on netsuke alongside his trade in precious stones and metals. Soon, though, the netsuke took over as he found it was the individual stories of each miniature piece that enthralled him. So for the last 20 years this 63-year-old family man has been carving and crafting proverbs, animals, people and wordplay. Now, too, a sizeable collection of his work is in Kyoto Seishu Netsuke Art Museum — perhaps the only museum in the world entirely devoted to netsuke.

Kuroiwa says that about half his netsuke are fashioned from elephant or mammoth ivory — both of which can really stink during carving, he confides — while about 40 percent are wooden, with the rest made from a variety of other materials.

However, he apologized for not having any pieces in his studio at the time of my visit — though he pulls out his mobile phone with an assortment of miniature netsuke dangling from it on cords, including two manju netsuke named after the similarly shaped traditional sweet-bean buns.

And as Kuroiwa points out, nearly all Japanese people have figurines, anime or cartoon characters hanging from their mobile phones — for the most part without realizing they are in their mass-produced, contemporary way keeping alive the nation’s netsuke tradition.

In contrast, those netsuke on Kuroiwa’s phone are the real deal — small, delicate, uniquely crafted sculptures in ivory and an assortment of woods. Of the two oblong manju netsuke, the one I’m allowed to photograph is adorned with a dragon rising out of the ocean toward a cloud-enshrouded crescent moon hanging high in the sky. Meanwhile, the other manju netsuke — which I can’t photograph because it will shortly feature in an exhibition — is a more complex piece consisting of ivory, wood and mother of pearl. It comprises an ivory polar bear and a penguin sat huddled on an iceberg gazing up together at the mother-of-pearl aurora blanketing the heavens.

As for the art form’s financial dimensions, Kuroiwa said that last year he sold 15 netsuke, and that the manju one with a dragon took roughly a month to carve and would fetch around ¥600,000. Meanwhile, he said that the other exquisite mini-netsuke took a mere day each to carve and sold for between ¥10,000 and ¥50,000.

Clearly thrilled to have a netsuke newcomer to talk to, this former jeweler then explained, “The exciting thing about netsuke is that they have to be beautifully designed and crafted to be seen from every angle as they are suspended, swinging and spinning, from the kimono sash” — adding that they are unlike other sculptures that have a static presence or single viewing point.

Then, calling me over to his workbench, he shows me countless clawlike carving tools. Altogether, he has more than 60 implements, each with a blade of a different shape, angle or length to enable carving inside holes of different depths to create layers and variations of shape and texture. He pulls out a piece of old, recycled ivory and shows me how the tools work, then demonstrates with other materials, too, what is clearly a painstakingly slow art.

Just then Kuroiwa’s son, Yuho, comes in to join us, and soon father and son are working side by side. However, Yuuho has not branched out into netsuke yet, but is — like his father at the same age — a jeweler.

Surprisingly, though, both are confident the number of carvers will rise from now on, with Kuroiwa himself leading two classes a month comprising 36 students at one of the Asahi Cultural centers in Tokyo.

So, with the old master reporting that many younger people are taking up netsuke carving, the future looks bright for the decorations so prized by Edo’s dandies.