Explore our collection of wonderful miniature Japanese sculptures that served functional and aesthetic purposes.

Netsuke fact file

Country of origin: Japan.
Date: From 16th century onwards.
Size: Small enough to be held in the palm of the hand.
Made from: Various woods, ivories and sometimes precious metals.
Subject matter: Legends, folklore, history, animals, nature, mythical creatures and more.

What is a netsuke?

A netsuke is a small sculpture which developed as an art form in Japan over a period of more than three hundred years. Netsuke originally served both functional and aesthetic purposes, but in modern times they have become extremely collectable. 

What function did netsuke have and how were they worn?

An actor in the role of Tsuchiya Jiemon, colour woodblock print by Utagawa Kunisada, 1860The kimono, the traditional Japanese form of dress, had no pockets. Women would tuck small personal items into their sleeves but men suspended their tobacco pouches, pipes, purses or writing implements on a cord from their sash.

These hanging objects were called sagemono. To stop the cord from slipping through the sash, a small toggle was attached called a netsuke (pronounced net-skey). 

A sliding bead (ojime) was strung on the cord between the netsuke and the sagemono to tighten or loosen the arrangement. The entire ensemble was worn at the waist and functioned as a removable hip pocket or wallet.

What were netsuke made of?

All three objects - sagemono, netsuke and ojime - were beautifully decorated with elaborate carving, coats of lacquer, or inlays of various materials such as ivory, wood, precious metals, shell, coral and semi-precious stones. A new group of talented artists emerged during this period to create these fine objects.

What makes netsuke such an exciting art form?

Netsuke allowed the artist to portray an astonishing array of subject matter, including legends, folklore, history, animals, flowers, insects, mythological creatures and more. Styles range from the intensely realistic to the abstract and surreal.

What to consider when making a netsuke?

Because it was a functional object, the creation of a netsuke posed a tremendous challenge to the artist. Designs had to be compact, with no sharp or protruding edges, which would either snag a silk kimono or break off in use. There had to be openings (himotoshi) for the cord to pass through, carefully placed so that the netsuke would hang attractively when worn. The netsuke also had to balance when displayed as a piece of sculpture. They needed to feel good when handled, be carefully finished and be aesthetically pleasing from every angle, including upside-down!