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What is a Netsuke?

Niki Acker
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

Musical Expert is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Musical Expert editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By anon188422 — On Jun 20, 2011

My frog netsuke has a small like button embedded on the bottom of it with a signature. Where can I get information on the signature?

By BoatHugger — On Dec 29, 2010

There was an auction in Beverly Hills containing around 150 famous netsukes. Almost 100 of them came from a Texas collector by the name of Herb Brochstein. There was an ivory netsuke of a mythical figure (an oni) carrying a tobacco pouch and a pipe. It was signed by Mitsumasa before 1946 and sold for $6,900.

By christym — On Dec 28, 2010

There are some very valuable netsukes around. The most valuable are the older ones that were made in the 18th and early 19th century. Okatomo’s, Tomotada’s, and Kokusai’s are very valuable. Some will be signed and others unsigned. However, just because they are signed does not guarantee their origin because many students imitate their master’s signature.

There are still very valuable netsukes still being carved today. They still adhere to the standards of the original netsukes in regards to detail.

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Musical Expert editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range...
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