Tue | Aug 11, 2020

Netsuke – traditional Japanese fashion statement

Published:Sunday | December 8, 2019 | 12:00 AM

The people of Japan are known for being punctual and polite, and the country is synonymous with its gorgeous cherry blossoms, food, and fashion. In popular culture, traditional Japanese fashion has become a mainstay, with many large fashion houses adopting and appropriating various aspects of traditional Japanese fashion, including hairstyles, adornments, and kimonos. Stylised versions of traditional Japanese fashion have been featured in movies such as Memories of a Geisha and numerous music videos, such as Major Lazer’s Come On To Me and Nicki Minaj’s Your Love.

While kimonos and their accessories have become a mainstay in the fashion world, there is a very small yet intricate component of these costumes that is overlooked. Netsuke, as they are called, are carved ornaments made of ivory or wood that served both aesthetic and functional purposes.

Conventional kimonos did not have pockets, and men had to figure out a way to carry around small items for daily use such as money, tobacco pouches, pipes, and writing paraphernalia. Netsuke became the answer to that problem as they allowed men to suspend items, especially small, beautifully decorated boxes or baskets (called sagemono), from the sash around their waist. The netsuke had holes in them that would allow them to be attached to the other end of the cord, preventing the cord from slipping through the sash around the waist. A sliding bead, referred to as an ojime was strung on to the cord between the netsuke and the sagemono to allow the opening and closing of the sagemono. The entire ensemble was then worn at the waist and functioned as a sort of removable external pocket.

Netsuke are made from a variety of materials, and they take many forms and portrayed a ­variety of subjects. Subjects portray in netsuke include ­naturally found objects, plants and animals, legends and ­legendary heroes, myths and mystical beasts, gods and religious symbols, daily activities, and myriad other themes. With regard to form, the most common type of netsuke is the katabori, or sculpture netsuke, which are compact three-dimensional figures carved in a round shape and are usually around one to three inches high. Another form of netsuke is the manjū, or a thick, flat, round ­netsuke with carving usually done in relief, sometimes made of two ivory halves. It is shaped like a manjū, a Japanese confection.

Works of art

Another form is the karakuri, or trick/mechanism netsuke, which is any netsuke that has moving parts or hidden surprises. Many netsuke are believed to have been talismans, and these items eventually developed into highly coveted and collectable art forms.

The National Collection at the Institute of Jamaica has several examples of these beautiful works of art, which were donated in March of 1940 by N.P. Fenwick. The first example is a netsuke that portrays Hotei, who is one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune. Legends of Hotei are based on the life of a Chinese Buddhist monk who lived in the 9th and 10th centuries. He eventually came to be regarded as an incarnation of the Maitreya, or the future Buddha. He is one of the revered figures who had entered Japanese folklore and was popularly celebrated during the Tokugawa period. In ­iconography, he is depicted as a fat monk with a grinning face, showing his big belly from his robes. He is usually carrying a sackcloth filled with an inexhaustible amount of material goods that he distributes to all.

Another example of a netsuke is the Ashinaga-tenaga, which translates to ‘long legs, long arms’ which is a pair of yōkai or supernatural monsters in Japanese folklore. One, Ashinaga-jin, has extremely long legs, while the other, Tenaga-jin, has extremely long arms. The pair is commonly described as people from two countries, the ‘Long-Legged Country’ and the ‘Long-Armed Country’. As the names suggest, the inhabitants of these two countries possess unusually lengthy arms and legs. The two work together as a team to catch fish by the seashore. In order to do this, the long-armed man, Tenaga, climbs on to the back of the long-legged man, Ashinaga. Ashinaga then wades out into the shore waters, staying above water with his long legs, while the Tenaga uses his long arms to grab fish from his partner’s back. The pair is said to symbolise the longevity of the emperors and the ­eternity of the Imperial Court. Tenaga and Ashinaga are ­frequently portrayed as a subject matter of netsuke as they symbolise prosperity and infinity.


Information compiled by Sharifa Balfour, assistant curator, National Museum Jamaica, Institute of Jamaica.