A netsuke is a type of miniature carving that originated in 17th century Japan. Originally, a netsuke was used to attach an onro, a decorative wooden carrying case, to a man's obi or sash. A netsuke is somewhat like a large button, often round and sometimes quite intricately carved. Though utilitarian, netsuke became an opportunity for artisans to showcase their skill and eventually became admired and collected simply for their own sake. Today, both antique and modern artisan netsuke can sell for thousands of US dollars (USD).
Netsuke may be made of a wide variety of materials. In the past, ivory was the most popular. Other animal horns, bones, or teeth may be used as well. Hippopotamus tooth is the modern day substitute for ivory. Netsuke may also be made of coral, bamboo, agate, porcelain, Tagua nut, woven cane, lacquer, and a number of hardwood varieties. Many netsuke include metal accents as well.
There are many different traditional shapes for netsuke as well. Katabori and Anabori, together the most common type, are round and carved all over. Anabori are hollowed out through the center. The second most common type of netsuke is made to look like a mask from the Japanese Noh style of drama.
Manju netsuke are round but flat, like a thick disk, and typically carved in relief on each side. Ryusa and Kagamibuta are the same basic shape, but ryusa are more intricately carved, allowing light to shine through, and kagamibuta feature a bowl of ivory or a similar material with a metal lid. Finally, netsuke may be shaped like long sticks. These models are known as either sashi or obi-hasami, the latter of which features curved ends that lie on either side of the obi. Some netsuke feature movable parts as well.
Netsuke may be abstract in design, or they can depict anything in the artist's imagination. Antique netsuke from the Edo period often offer an interesting glimpse into Japanese culture at the time. Some popular subjects for the netsuke carver include people, animals, sexual scenes, plants, mythical or religious figures, and literary or historical scenes.