Netsuke artist carves a niche in Electric Town


Walking into the Matsuzaka Ivory Shop is almost like disembarking from a time machine. One minute you’re among the futuristic 21st-century gizmos spilling out into Chuo Dori, the main drag of Tokyo’s Akihabara electronics district; the next, you’re back in the realm of a craftsman whose tools and techniques have changed little for hundreds of years.

There, as likely as not, Junichi Matsuzaka — legs crossed beneath a small workbench set on a raised platform behind his display counter — will be in the process of intricately incising a chunk of ivory or bone, transforming it, before your eyes, into a timelessly ornate masterwork in miniature. Perhaps this will take the form of a Buddhist icon to be placed in a family shrine; a hanko (personal seal); or a traditional figurine, such one of the seven lucky gods or 12 animals of the Asian zodiac — possibly, just now, one representing the coming Year of the Monkey.

Using quite ordinary looking tools, 59-year-old Matsuzaka crafts his material with surprising deftness, rounding corners, smoothing edges and boring holes with a traditional rokuro (spinner drill). Within minutes it begins to take shape.

Explaining that he is the third generation of his family working in the same cramped premises, Matsuzaka, 59, smiles as he says: “My grandfather opened the shop here in 1912, after he completed his military service following the Russo-Japanese War. My father took over and continued working until he was 90.”

Of all the items to come out of the shop, the most traditional are almost certainly the netsuke miniature sculptures that developed in Japan during the Edo Period (1603-1867).

Netsuke were the keyholders of their time — part of a tradition of attaching ornaments to utilitarian items that lives on in the colorful baubles many people dangle from their cellular phones. In days gone by, people hung their tobacco pouches, coin purses and other implements on a silk cord from the obi sash of their pocketless kimono. To prevent the cord from slipping out, a netsuke was fastened to the end of it. Over the years, netsuke became quite elaborate and, when their original function went the way of widespread kimono-wearing, they evolved into an art form in their own right that continues to be highly collectable.

Matsuzaka says it takes “maybe a week” for him to turn out a finished netsuke — explaining that not all this time is spent working, because “you get interrupted.” Nonetheless, his display case and shop windows contain a remarkable selection of items ranging in price from a mimikaki-bo (ear pick) at 500 yen to a hanko at 18,000 yen and a netsuke figurine of two grappling sumo wrestlers (bearing the artist’s signature) for 485,000 yen.

However, Matsuzaka, who is delighted to produce works to order, says he tends to be a bit conservative in his choice of designs.

“In the old days people would experiment with all kinds of exotic motifs, but now the market is more limited, so I stay with more orthodox types.”

Back then, too, netsuke-carvers, called netsuke-shi, also used a wide variety of materials. Because only artists in large cities had access to ivory, many others would instead rely on such materials as hard woods (especially cherry) which could be stained and polished, boar’s tusk, buffalo horn, deer antler and amber.

While Matsuzaka does sometimes use such materials, for its workability, density and remarkable durability, his first choice is ivory — when he can get hold of legal or recycled supplies.

“If properly cared for, a set of ivory chopsticks will last a lifetime,” he enthuses, adding that “after 30 years, they might begin to show wear, but the customer can bring them back and I’ll recondition them. Then they’ll be good for another 30 years.”

However, with no heir seeming likely to continue the family tradition — Matsuzaka has a son and a daughter, but they both work in insurance — this vestige of old Japan amid the hurly-burly of Electric Town may sadly be heading the same way as the world’s once-plentiful pachyderms whose tusks were for so long this trade’s raw material of choice.