Explore miniature masterpieces from Japan

By Bristol Museums

A fox (kitsune) in disguise, Netsuke, signed Tomokazu, 1850/1900, From the collection of: Bristol Museums
Konoha tengu, Netsuke, unsigned, 1850/1900, From the collection of: Bristol Museums
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Bristol Museum & Art Gallery has a collection of over 200 Japanese netsuke, small carvings mainly used by men to attach items to their belts. Created in the 1700s and 1800s, each netsuke is unique and they depict a huge range of subjects from Japanese popular culture.

Kirin (1750/1800) by TomomitsuBristol Museums

Traditional Japanese clothing did not have pockets.

Men used pieces of carved wood or ivory called netsuke to hang small personal items from the sashes around their waists. Tobacco pipes, pouches and decorative containers called inrō were attached to netsuke with cords.

The earliest netsuke (‘root-fix’ in Japanese) were probably simple knobbly roots. Then craftsmen began to make intricate carvings from wood, ivory and other materials.

‘Chinese lion’ (1770/1800) by Netsuke, unsignedBristol Museums

During the Edo period (1603-1868) the military government passed strict laws governing what people wore. A wealthy merchant could show his taste in a subtle way by wearing a tiny, beautifully carved netsuke.

Demons pelted with beans (1875/1900) by Okimono, unsignedBristol Museums

In the Meiji period (1868-1912)

the Emperor encouraged men to wear western clothing and netsuke were less in demand. Craftsmen used their skills to make decorative carvings called okimono, often larger and more delicate than netsuke, for sale to the growing numbers of western tourists.

Ox (1830/1880) by TomotadaBristol Museums

Craftsmen carved many netsuke in the form of animals

many of which were linked with good fortune. Some creatures were admired for their natural qualities, for example the strength of oxen, or for appearing at times of good harvests such as rats. In Japan’s Shintō belief system animals such as deer and monkeys were thought to be messengers of the gods.

Baku (1800) by Netsuke, unsignedBristol Museums

Creatures from Japanese myths and legends

were popular subjects for netsuke. The baku could eat dreams whilst the ‘Chinese lions’ guarding temples could scare demons away. There were many stories of trickster creatures such as foxes and raccoon dogs (tanuki) could transform themselves and supernatural beings that lived in the woods or near water.

Hannya mask (1900) by Netsuke, unsignedBristol Museums

Gods and Demons were a popular theme for netsuke

Customers were keen on images of gods who might bring them long life, wealth or happiness. Many of these gods come from Buddhist and Daoist beliefs which were imported to Japan from China. Other popular figures such as Okame, the goddess of mirth.

Demons are a popular subject in netsuke too, perhaps to remind people of right and wrong or because their bad behaviour seemed amusing.

Jö and Uba (1800/1900) by Netsuke, inscribed TakasagoBristol Museums

Japanese culture is rich in stories

from folk tales which explore the natural world to legends based on historical events. Customers in Japan would enjoy choosing which tales to have carved on their netsuke. It is harder for people who haven’t grown up in Japan to identify the stories and to understand their original meanings.

Dentistry (1880/1900) by Netsuke, signed Toshikazu or JuichiBristol Museums

Netsuke and other carvings often depict daily life.

These might show people working or relaxing, sometimes there are symbolic meanings to these actions. For example cleaning was linked with spirituality.

Carved scenes of daily life were also very popular with foreign visitors who were fascinated with Japan.

Daruma, Netsuke, unsigned, 1800/1860, From the collection of: Bristol Museums
Sake drinker, Okimono, unsigned, 1900, From the collection of: Bristol Museums
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Credits: Story

To learn more about netsuke please visit our Online Exhibition

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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