In the 19th century, ukiyo-e wood block prints and ornamental toggles for pouches — netsuke — were greatly prized in the West. But to most Japanese, in the whirl of modernization, they were simply old-fashioned aspects of a fading way of life.

Countless curios were exported, and as Prince Takamado, a first cousin of the Emperor, said last week, many of the best are still abroad. Nevertheless, “it was only because netsuke and ukiyo-e found their second home outside Japan that they were saved and studied. If they had stayed in Japan, I think the majority would have been discarded or destroyed.”

Prince Takamado, a noted netsuke collector, and honorary patron of the Asiatic Society of Japan, was giving an enthusiast’s insight on these “treasured miniatures” to members at the first gathering of the year at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo.

There were several surprises. Did you know, for example, that superb netsuke are still being made, both in Japan and overseas? Or that ancient mammoths have a role in this?

Another surprise was romantic: Prince Takamado discovered netsuke when choosing an engagement present. The future Princess Takamado had become fascinated with them after seeing them for the first time in the British Museum. He recalled that, despite being shocked at the price, “I was still thinking it was the only netsuke I would ever buy. That was in 1984. Now I have 500!”

The opening illustration was stunning: a contemporary, voluptuous figure, half woman half cat. In its playfulness, sinuous movement and tactile quality, it embodied the traditional mystery of the art.

Giving a brief history of netsuke, Prince Takamado explained that, since kimono have no pockets, they were used as a kind of toggle and counterweight for suspending purses, tobacco pouches and so on from a cord attached to the kimono sash.

There were many different types, but basically a smooth, strong shape was ideal for passing the netsuke under the sash and hanging gracefully over the top.

The earliest were probably pieces of root (ne), threaded with twine to which country folk attached their tools (tsuke: attached). The idea evolved into a typical ensemble of inro (medicine case), ojime (bead to keep the case closed) and netsuke, and the art blossomed in the Bunka/Bunsei eras of the early 19th century.

This was a time of peace and growing prosperity. Kabuki actors and courtesans set the fashions and wealthy merchants pursued the art of living. To people with an eye for luxury and appreciation of detail, elegant accessories, including fan, pipe, and the combination of inro, ojime and netsuke were a sign of the wearer’s taste.

Craftsmen developed these intricate treasures, and the prince described many materials including boxwood, sandalwood, and black persimmon as well as lacquer, amber, ivory and coral.

Among the 90 works on display from his collection was a charming quail chick, which was carved from a walnut shell over 200 years ago. Another was a glossy white rabbit, curled up to show every pad on its paws carved in exquisite detail. They beautifully illustrated the lecturer’s point that, unlike sculptures, netsuke were meant to be handled, worn, and seen from all sides.

“As for subjects, anything was possible,” he said, “including the surreal.” Popular themes were masks, animals, and motifs from folklore, history and literature, which were often used in a witty or subtle way.

One was a small replica of a kettle belonging to the 16th century tea master, Sen no Rikyu. Outwardly simple and rustic, it opened to reveal tiny replicas of the famous pure gold tea utensils of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Rikyu’s tempestuous overlord. Hideyoshi eventually ordered him to commit suicide, but the netsuke — and the memory of the sage — survived.

Both modern and antique netsuke were mixed together in the display cabinets. The football and cowboy boots stood out, but others were difficult to distinguish from traditional works. Many designs, such as a mythical bird’s head by a New Zealand carver, successfully combined the imagery of one culture with the aesthetics of Japan.

The prince welcomed the cross-fertilization of ideas that is now taking place, as artists from countries such as the U.S., Britain and Canada learn from tradition, explore different materials and inspire Japanese artists anew. There are currently 30 netsuke artists working overseas, and 70 in Japan.

An acclaimed netsuke carver, Ryushi Komada, came to demonstrate his craft. His specialty is female figures, and he was working on the face of a woman just a few centimeters high. Seen through a magnifying glass, the features were very well modeled, even though they were half hidden by a charming sedge hat. Komada said he prefers to use his own ideas, rather than make figures to order, since “the lady of the customer’s imagination is never quite the same as my own!”

Prince Takamado explained that a skilled carver might make only two items a month. “And if the material cracks or chips, then he has lost all that work.” When the international ban on the ivory trade went into effect in 1999, it was a blow to many netsuke carvers and to sales in the U.S.

“Some people gave up,” the prince said. But some have found other materials, including fossilized mammoth tusks that are proving a good substitute for ivory.

Another change is the interest of younger craftspeople, who “are not from the traditional carving background, but are using their skills as lacquer, metal or jewelry artists. So the world of netsuke has become much wider than before, and there is more optimism for the future.”

As for actually using netsuke, he suggested that they could happily resurface in daily life, dangling from a mobile phone!

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