Outsiders on Insider Track: The Gaijin Role in Netsuke Art
by Sarah Satton Weems
What is Netsuke?
Types of Netsuke Subjects and Themes in Netsuke
History of Netsuke Foreign Influences on the Art of Netsuke
Netsuke Carvers Contemporary Definition of Netsuke
Contemporary Subject Matter and Style Contemporary Materials
Contemporary Tools Collection and Appreciation
The Future of Netsuke Background to my Research Many Thanks
Printed resources Credits for Figures 1 to 12 Footnotes
Thumbing through an historic anthology of Asian art, one is not likely to find voluminous chapters devoted solely to the topic of Japanese netsuke. Indeed, in the fifth edition of Sherman E. Lee’s extensive and comprehensiveA History of Far Eastern Art, covering the artistic histories and traditions of India, China, Korea, and Japan, the mention of netsuke receives a minimal two-sentence definition on page 554 of a 556-page-book.1
Likewise, no discernable mention is made of netsuke in Smith’s Japan: A History in Art, a resource solely dedicated to the explication of historical periods in Japanese art.2
Such observations could easily mislead one to assume that netsuke must not hold a prominent role in the history of Japanese art. Or, perhaps one would be led to the assumption that netsuke is an art form of bygones past and holds no place in the modern world, thus deserving no mention in a current review of art history.
Much to the contrary, however, netsuke are alive and thriving in a period when netsuke collections are being amassed actively, carvers are still devoting themselves tirelessly to their craft, and today’s market is demanding exorbitant prices for the purchase of the miniature carvings called netsuke. Even more to one’s surprise may be the fact that much of this activity is taking place on foreign shores — outside of Japan. Participation in the realm of netsuke carving, collecting, and dealing is no longer confined within the boundary of the Japanese archipelago, as it was three or four hundred years ago. Rather, it has become an international passion, spurred by interest from the West, and revived by Japanese and non-Japanese alike, who appreciate the skill and the history incorporated in the carving of these kimono toggles.
In Ueda’s netsuke handbook3, he describes the netsuke as a ‘diminutive’ carving that is representative of the Japanese race. The Japanese love for the miniature is a contributing factor to the development of the netsuke art. Combined with that fascination is the fact that for a period of its history, Japan was closed off to foreigners and their influences. Thus, the art form of netsuke, which had been adapted from Chinese models, was able to develop and flourish without influences from the outside, allowing netsuke to become an artistic expression unique to Japan alone. In time, practical uses of netsuke began to diminish, taking with them the popularity of netsuke. The role of the foreigner again became significant, as Japan reopened to the outside world, and Western interest in the miniature carvings spawned a collecting frenzy. Netsuke were again in high demand, the pace of carving increased, and netsuke again became a desired commodity.
It is the aim of this paper to express that it was indeed the role of the foreigners that revived the art of netsuke, prompting the initial spark, which propelled it to the level it has reached presently. Today, Japanese and gaijin connoisseurs of netsuke can share their passion for netsuke together, due in large part to foreigners, who did not allow the netsuke tradition perish. Now participating alongside active Japanese in carving, collecting, dealing, and appreciating netsuke, it is the “outsiders on the inside” of the contemporary netsuke world who have prompted the vibrant energy in netsuke art today.
Like many other words in the Japanese language, the meaning of the term ‘netsuke’ can be surmised from the kanji characters, which represent it. The first character is, (ne), meaning ‘root’, and the second is, (tsuke), from the verb ‘tsukeru’ meaning, “to attach or connect”. The netsuke is a toggle, which literally connected a man’s tobacco pouch or other small carrying case to his hip by rooting it to a cord that was thrust through the kimono obi to hold it in place. (See Figure 1) Such a method was necessary because the male kimono afforded no pockets for carrying such small items as hanko (signature stamp), tobacco and pipe, or kinchaku (purse).
The netsuke serves as a toggle by way of two small holes, which allow passage of a cord to connect the netsuke, on one end, to its accoutrement on the other. These two holes are termed, himotoshi, and are significant in their own right, as they are a defining factor in what determines a netsuke. (See Figure 2) Sometimes, no himotoshi are cut for the cord. Rather, the design of the netsuke is made such that part of the sculpture acts as an opening, through which the cord could be passed naturally. As Ueda explains, there may be a space between a limb and the body of an animal depicted in a netsuke, which would allow for the cord, and would eliminate the need for cutting himotoshi into the netsuke itself.4
Other common subject matter for netsuke without himotoshi include human figures, mythological creatures, and occasionally, subjects of nature. Figure 3 depicts a netsuke of a dragon, changing form. The circular motion creates a hole, which is ideal for passing a cord. The himotoshi are usually approximately the same size, however, sometimes one is made larger than the other. This is to accommodate the knot that would have been tied in the cord. A larger himotoshi would allow the knot to rest comfortably without protruding, which would be less attractive.
Netsuke and inro shown as worn in typical 19th century style. From: masterpieces of netsuke art, 1973.
Another special aspect of himotoshi includes that sometimes, the holes are decorated around the rim. If the netsuke is made of wood, the himotoshi may even be lined with another material as an accent.
Back of netsuke demonstrating the location of himotoshi. Demon mask of Shoki, late 18th C. ivory. From : International netsuke Society Journal, vol.21, no.4
Example of netsuke without himotoshi. Changes, A Dragon Changing Form, Leigh Sloggett, Boxwood. From: International netsuke Society Journal, vol.21, no.4
Materials for creating netsuke are many and varied, including varieties of wood, horn, plants, and even metals. Today, netsuke are often associated as being carvings made of ivory, however, it is a misconception to think that the majority of netsuke are ivory. The most common material through the 1700’s and early 1800’s was wood.5
This is likely due in part to the extensive variety of woods available in Japan. Wood is still a popular material for netsuke carvers, and is more so now because of the ban on international trade of elephant ivory. In addition, wood tends to be softer, thus it is easier to carve than ivory. Other examples of materials used for carving netsuke include: black persimmon, mulberry tree, tea shrub, bamboo, Chinese ebony, camphor wood, imported woods, small gourds, walnuts, ivory nuts, seeds, woven wisteria and rattan, metal, and porcelain. Lacquer netsuke exist, as well.
Since ivory is not native to Japan, it is difficult to determine exactly when it was first introduced. During the mid to late 1800’s however, the use of ivory increased as a number of ivory sculptors, whose families had carved in ivory for generations, began to carve netsuke. Thus, in their carryover, they brought with them the material with which they were familiar. An 1889 book, Treatise on the Method of Carving Ivory, explains how the different parts of the ivory tusk were used for carving. Generally speaking, the main section of husk was reserved for making the plectrum for the Japanese stringed instrument, the samisen. Netsuke were made from the leftover triangular piece at the end of the husk(See Figure 4). For this reason, netsuke made from the end pieces were called ‘sankaku bori’ or ‘triangular carvings.’
Diagram of the uses of elephant husk for ivory carving. From: The Art of Netsuke Carving by Masatoshi as told to Raymond Bushell, 1981.
Just as various materials exist for carving netsuke, there are several styles of netsuke, as well. Likely one of the oldest types of netsuke is the ‘sashi’, which Kinsey describes as ‘an elongated netsuke, simple in design…with a cord hole in one end.’6
Sashi could have likely been some of the earliest netsuke due to the fact that initially, netsuke were purely functional. As such, it is believed that a simple stone or stick could have served as one of the first netsuke. It wasn ’t until later years that netsuke became decorative pieces to collect. Figure 5 demonstrates the simplest of sashi netsuke, of very narrow form with a hook on the end allowing it to grasp onto the obi, while Figure 8 shows a sashi netsuke of much more decorative form. It still, however, is of a simple, elongated shape.
Sashinetsuke. Artist unknown. C. stag bone. From the collection of the Appleton Museum of Art, Ocala, Florida.
Sashi netsuke by Hideyuki, Mahogany with inlays of mammoth tusk, mother-of-pearl, gold, silver, and coral. From: Internatinal Netsuke Society journal, vol.14, no.2
The manju netsuke is another type, which is described as resembling the ‘manju’ rice cake after which it was named. Manju netsuke are usually flat and round, but may also be rectangular or oval in shape. A manju netsuke may be one piece, or it may be two pieces, divided in half, that fit together. A manju of two pieces will sometimes even have an additional image carved inside.
A third type of netsuke is the ryusa netsuke. Ryusa netsuke are carved with pierced designs, and usually have hollow spaces in the center. This type of netsuke is named for the artist of the 18th century, who invented it. In carving, a couple of the netsuke types may be combined, as evidenced by Figure 6 of the ryusa manju netsuke of a serpent in waves.
Double gourd ryusa netsuke with kinchaku. Artist unknown. 19th C. Bone and silk. From the collection of the Appleton Museum of Art, Ocala, Florida.
Ryusa manju netsuke. Artist unknown. 19th C. ivory. From the collection of the Appleton Museum of art, Ocala, Florida.
Kagami-buta, which literally translates as “mirror lid” is a type of netsuke, which resembles the manju netsuke in shape. However, the top half of a kagami-buta is made of a metal piece, which resembles a mirror.
Finally, the most common type of netsuke are those that fit in the category, katabori. Katabori netsuke are three-dimensional netsuke of varying shapes which depict a variety of subject matter in natural objects, such as insects, people, or animals, or subject matter in man-made objects, like instruments, boats, pipes, etc. Depiction of a variety of subject matter is achievable through this type of netsuke.
A quail. Signed Issan. Walnut. From: International netsuke society journal vol.14, no.2
As mentioned previously, the purely functional nature of the earliest netsuke made them less decorative than utilitarian. Fashioned crudely from stones, gourds, sticks, or other materials found freely in nature, they most likely were utilized in their natural state, with little to no carving to alter their original form.
As use of netsuke increased, so did their variety — both in form and in decoration. Chinese subject matter greatly influenced the carving of early netsuke, as the very inspiration for netsuke had come from Japan’s Asian neighbor. Chinese legends and legendary characters were borrowed and adapted for depiction in Japanese netsuke. From this practice, stemmed that of incorporating mythology into netsuke, including both mythological humans, and also mythological creatures, such as dragons, kirin, baku, oni, tengu, and kappa. Religious figures and gods also played prominently in netsuke subject matter, including the common theme of Shichifukujin, or the Seven Gods of Good Fortune. Finally, everyday life was depicted in netsuke through scenes like pipe smoking, drinking tea, playing games, or performing daily tasks. As will be discussed later, even in contemporary netsuke carving, these themes are common. Foreign carvers, too, have contributed their skills to the depictions of these subjects. Foreigners, though, have affected the subject matter of netsuke in another manner, as well. With Japan’s early exposure to Europeans in the mid-16th century, the Japanese adopted from the Chinese the term ‘namban’, literally ‘southern barbarian’ to refer to the Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian missionaries and traders who made their way to Japan at this time.7
While originally a negatively charged term, in its use by the Chinese to refer to the peoples of southeast Asia, ‘namban’ in its use by the Japanese was not intended to be derogatory. Nevertheless, namban subjects saturated one corner of the netsuke art market, their depictions often taking the form of men of European style dress, often accompanied by a dog or fowl.
The exact date of initial netsuke use is unknown, but as netsuke are associated with the carrying of inro 8, which was popular during the Tensho Period (1573-1592), netsuke are often attributed to this time frame. An additional consideration is that netsuke may have been used with the carrying of keys at the waist, which dates to the Ashikaga Period (1394-1574). So, in theory, netsuke could be as old as the 14th century.
Older examples of netsuke were called ‘karamono’ literally meaning “Chinese things”, because of their adaptation from Chinese seals. This reference, then, reinforces the early impact of foreigners on the art of netsuke — foreign influence was present even in the incipient phases of the art form. Jonas notes that the small carvings, which often accompanied Chinese seals, appealed to the Japanese as ‘foreign objects.’ 9
Thus they grew in popularity amongst the Japanese, who often times would transform the Chinese seals into functional toggles by carving himotoshi into them, thus creating the first netsuke with himotoshi. In addition, early Japanese-originated netsuke were sometimes designed to look like the Chinese seals, which had captured the interest of the small island nation.
Ueda describes the early development of netsuke, and the foreign influence upon the art form, in great detail. Foreigners, namely the Chinese, dominated Japanese sculpture during the Nara and Kamakura periods. Even the sculptures that were created by the Japanese mimicked those of their Chinese counterparts, utilizing both techniques and repeating subject matter. However, the Tokugawa Period saw the exclusion of foreigners and foreign influence in Japan, allowing the Japanese to express themselves and develop their art forms free of outside coercion. Of this period, Ueda explains that Japanese art objects ‘developed strong national characteristics, free from foreign influence.’10
Furthermore, Ueda expounds:
“from ancient times, the Japanese have been blessed with a nimbleness of finger, and their art crafts are characterized by an exceptional delicacy, preciseness, and exquisiteness. …. The skill of the Japanese in the production of delicate and exquisite handwork is attributed to their partiality for the diminutive and to the digital skill that they acquire from infancy in the manipulation of chopsticks.”11
Ueda attributes the development of skillful artistry in the areas of sword furnishings, woodblock prints, inro, and netsuke, to his countrymen’s affinity toward miniature pieces of art.
“Such works of art are the essence of Japanese taste….they represent the native artistic tradition of Japan….although we occasionally find handicrafts vaguely similar to our netsuke in other countries, we practically never find the delicate and precise carving characteristic of netsuke.”…”it is quite evident that no other country has so fostered the development of miniature carving as has Japan. Hence, netsuke represent the pure, the absolute, the characteristic, the traditional and the unique in Japanese art.”
Analysis of such an opinion is essential as we discuss the role of foreigners in the development of netsuke carving. One topic of constant debate within the contemporary netsuke world is that of what defines a netsuke, and whether or not netsuke carved by non-Japanese hands are indeed netsuke at all. This topic will be addressed later. Significant at this juncture is to note that netsuke were adopted from a foreign source, adapted by the Japanese, and further developed to a level equaled nowhere else in the world, making netsuke an art form of foreign origin, yet characteristic of Japanese culture alone.
There are various approaches to the breakdown of netsuke development into periods. Miriam Kinsey gives an exquisitely detailed synopsis of netsuke creation, growth, decline, and resurgence into six distinct periods.13
However, I will introduce here, a breakdown into three basic periods, as presented by Ueda.14
The Early Period of netsuke development included the introduction of foreign objects into Japan by China, as mentioned above. Objects such as seals, dress ornaments, and sword handles greatly impacted initial designs and forms of netsuke. Netsuke carving at this time was a pastime, and as such, design was one of the most important aspects of carving.
The Middle Period is designated as being the Kyowa Period through the Meiji Restoration, spanning roughly 70 years, the height of which were the Bunka and Bunsei periods. This time in netsuke creation is often referred to as the ‘Golden Age’, at which point netsukeshi (netsuke carvers) began to emerge as craftsmen, and various subjects and materials were utilized. Netsuke carving as a hobby continued, but there were definite changes in the art form. Real life subject matter began to be incorporated into netsuke, which was a significant change from the ‘fantastic’ themes that had been common before.
The period spanning from the Meiji Restoration to the present is termed the Late Period in netsuke art. The early Meiji period saw a decline in art, as a result of the changing political situation. An effect of that was the decline in creation and consumption of netsuke within Japan. Netsuke, which had previously been an every day accessory, had now become miniature carvings simply tucked away and forgotten. Added to this self-inflicted decline was the 1853 landing of Commodore Perry and his black ships on the shores of Japan. The reopening to the West introduced the Japanese to cigarettes, which further omitted netsuke from everyday society, as tobacco pouches were no longer a necessity. At this point, it is quite possible that the art of netsuke could have tragically diminished and disappeared without any certain comeback. However, foreigners who had arrived on Japanese shores were smitten with the tiny carvings. Among some of the first objects exported to the West were netsuke.15
Foreign interest spurred the mass production of netsuke, which again increased in their production rate. Japanese carvers of wood and metal, who had barely been surviving as craftsmen during the tumultuous return to imperial rule, turned to producing netsuke, and ivory became a popular material for the carvings. It is this particular role played by foreigners, in reviving the art of netsuke through creating demand, which arguably could be termed the most significant.
So, in the Late Period, netsuke became collectors’ items, losing their utilitarian purpose. Both Japanese and foreigners began collecting netsuke, although the initial interest in collecting was borne by the gaijin.16
Netsuke of this period were not restricted by their form, since they were no longer used regularly with everyday clothing. Thus, creative and innovative designs developed and artists were free to explore various styles and materials. Carvers also began developing their skills in different ways, during this period, some following the traditional apprentice system, some being instructed at new art schools, and still others developing their talent in a self-taught manner.
Ueda summarizes the current state of netsuke as being that of a collector’s art form, since the utilitarian use has since disappeared. He notes that netsuke are “greatly appreciated by foreigners, who are completely removed from any connection with their practical use.”
This stance, written roughly 40 years ago now, is outdated. While netsuke are still a collector’s item, not created for practical use, there is indeed interest in both Japan and abroad in the art form. Furthermore, foreigners who are involved in the world of netsuke are actively participating in learning about the history of this art form that they treasure so.
In his 1978 catalog highlighting contemporary netsuke carver, George Weil, Douglas Wright wrote,
“I am certain that if the mode of dress which necessitated the use of a netsuke existed today, we would see a continuation of artists producing them. Unfortunately, this is not so and they are now only produced by a select group of artists and sculptors who are interested in preserving the tradition of netsuke carving.”18
Undoubtedly the art of contemporary netsuke carving thrives today both in Japan and abroad. While foreigners helped to revive the art, by inspiring mass production of netsuke in the 19th century for the purpose of collecting, that is by no means the only role they have played. Today, according to John Hawley, current president of the International Netsuke Society, there are 103 contemporary netsuke carvers.19
Of those, 64 are Japanese, and the remaining 39 represent the USA, England, Australia, Ireland, Germany, Canada, New Zealand, China, and Austria. Thus, the production of netsuke, as well, is dependent in some part upon the participation of gaijin. Furthermore, in addition to the Nihon Netsuke Kenkyukai (Japanese Netsuke Studying Society), the International Netsuke Society, based in the US, and the International Netsuke Carvers’ Association, based in Japan, work to promote appreciation of netsuke throughout the world. The INCA holds regular quarterly meetings, as well as sponsoring conventions. The International Netsuke Society (INS) has chapters in six US cities, as well as in Tokyo and Europe. The annual INS convention draws hundreds of people from all over the globe to study and fellowship, all under the premise of netsuke. What developments have emerged in the world of netsuke to promote such an active participation in the art of contemporary netsuke? Furthermore, what role have foreigners played in the development?
Miriam Kinsey's tireless efforts have contributed greatly to the current information available on contemporary netsuke carvers.20 When Western collectors became interested in netsuke, more books on the subject became available. However, few of them emphasized the personal aspects of the carvers themselves. Her efforts to make such information available has aided greatly in the understanding of contemporary netsuke and the contribution of artists to the tradition of netsuke carving.
While the netsuke carving of old was characterized by a carver, sitting calmly in traditional style on the floor of his small Japanese tatami room, focusing intently on the carving of his netsuke from dawn to dusk, contemporary carvers must address contemporary disturbances of the modern day. The contemporary Japanese carvers tend to concentrate themselves in or near Tokyo21, and attempting to block out the distracting sounds emanating from the city streets, they aim to carve for eight or nine hours a day, resting one day a week. Traditionally, carvers of old averaged ten to twelve hours a day, carving seven days a week. The difference spent in carving time, however, does not take its toll on the quality of the young carvers’ work. Kinsey assures that “the feeling of a traditional netsuke has been maintained, but the designs are completely fresh and innovative.”22
Each artist, devoted to his craft, has executed subject matter creatively, with great refinement. Kaigyokusai’s most famous netsuke, that of a crane, was executed with the same care and precision as was Weil’s ‘Baku’ (Figure 10). Greatly admired in his day, and yet still in high demand today, Kaigyokusai is one traditional carver to whom contemporary carvers look for inspiration. In their own work, contemporary carvers strive to yield the same integrity to the craft that Kaigyokusai was able to accomplish. There is a drive amongst contemporary carvers, Japanese and non-Japanese alike, to incorporate creativity into their carving, yet maintain the form of the netsuke such that it is fitting with the traditional use. Regardless of their background, whether they descend from a line of carvers, like Japan’s Bishu Saito, who learned carving from his father (See Figure 11); or whether like Michael Webb, a retired Sotheby’s auctioneer (See Figure 12), they are self-taught carvers, today’s netsuke carvers imbue their art with vibrancy and energy, whilst they do their part to maintain the tradition of netsuke carving and enhance it with their own personal insight.
Seated baku, signed Weil. Grained teak, eyes ivory and black jade, gold tusks. From: Douglas J. K. Wright, Ltd. Catalog, 1978.
Horse. Signed Bishu III. Mahogany, stained horn, inlaid eyes. From: Michael Spindel catalog, 1993.
Tree frog on a Leaf. Stained boxwood, inlaid eyes. Sighed Michael Webb. From: Michael Spindel Catalog, 1993.
Regarding the question, “What determines a netsuke?”, contemporary carvers have consistently been surrounded by contradicting opinions of their work. Japanese carvers, as well as gaijin, have been under the microscope, their works critiqued endlessly to determine whether or not they fit within the parameters of what defines a netsuke. To their merit, many foreign carvers, while aiming to incorporate as much freedom of expression and subject matter into their netsuke as possible, still maintain as a priority, the goal of keeping their netsuke within the parameters of its originally intended use.
Neil K. Davey said of the work of George Weil:
“In view of the original use of the netsuke, many people, conversant with the subject prefer to call the modern examples, ‘miniature carvings in netsuke form’. It must be agreed that many of them are; George Weil’s works, however, are so close to the original conception of the netsuke that they may safely be termed thus.” 25
Of netsuke’s function, Ueda stresses its importance as ‘a unit in an ensemble.’26 Netsuke should conform to the guidelines associated with its utilitarian purpose as a toggle. By conforming to such limitations, yet still producing masterpieces in style, contemporary artists can further accelerate the appreciation of netsuke as a miniature art form.
Kehoe admits that she herself had been a victim of what she terms ‘cultural or artistic racism’27 in which before her attendance at the 1991 Netsuke Kenkyukai Convention in Los Angeles, her view of netsuke was “entrenched in Edo Japan,” believing that netsuke were functional objects, created by the social contexts of the Edo Period, and thus should remain a product of those same contexts.28
However, she came to reverse her opinion after her exposure at the convention. She states:
“The vehemence of the argument against the validity of contemporary netsuke, particularly those by non-Japanese carvers, is surprising. No other art or craft form denied validity because of its historical, cultural, or social origins, comes readily to mind.”29
Apparently, some traditional netsuke carvers in Australia have rejected the work of contemporary Australian carvers, contending that while the works themselves are of high quality, they are not Japanese – and as such, they are not netsuke.30
However, from the other end of the spectrum, there are Japanese carvers who recognize that indeed, the foreign artists are committed to carving within the parameters of the traditional netsuke. Bishu, in his position as president of the International Netsuke Carvers Association, says of Western carvers,
“I am deeply impressed with their excellent quality and uniqueness of design. While keeping true to the old traditions, they have developed a new and fresh style of their own. In these netsuke the Western carvers’ passionate desire for creation and their genuine love for all beautiful objects can be clearly seen.”31
The support of gaijin for the traditional art of netsuke has been further propagated by the efforts of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Kinsey, whom, Bishu has said, visited Japan often and greatly encouraged the netsuke carvers ‘to continue to develop the art form, not as reproductions based on the past, but as original contemporary statements. They also encouraged us to always respect the historic and functional basis of the art form.32
Contemporary Western carvers views regarding the debate over the definition of a netsuke and their commitment to carving, seem to be well summed by George Weil, who states:
“with the appearance of contemporary netsuke, produced from a non-Japanese environment, there has arisen a discussion centered around the question as to what is a true netsuke. I resolved the issue in my own mind with the conclusions that if a carving has the potential of functioning as a netsuke, and therefore is carved subject to all the limitations and dimensions of a netsuke, then it is one. ”
Of course, there are contemporary netsuke, both by Japanese and foreign artists, that conform in no manner to the functional form of the netsuke, carving intricate details and protrusions that would in no way survive on a netsuke of everyday use in the 19 century. Examples of such pieces are examined in the Winter 2001 International Netsuke Society Journal review of Fallen Leaves netsuke by contemporary artists. Guy Shaw’s “This Busy Life”, and “Fallen Leaf” shown on the front cover of this paper, are examples of such netsuke. However, the variation in form by no means detracts from the beauty of each piece, and while they may not have been practical in Edo period Japan, these netsuke represent fresh spirit and energy introduced to netsuke from the foreign artists.
Weil summarized the topic well in saying, “Netsuke are art, and art is international.”33
Foreign carvers have also played a significant role in the matter of subject and style in contemporary netsuke. Prince Takamado of Japan, who until his shocking, sudden death last week had been actively involved with his wife in promoting the appreciation of contemporary netsuke, was impressed with the work of the carvers from outside of Japan. He spoke of the foreign carvers’ “advanced techniques and lively imaginations” and referred to them at the San Francisco Netsuke Kenkyukai Convention of 1991, saying that their works certainly delivered a stimulating shock to all Japanese carvers who were present at the convention.34
Subject matter of contemporary netsuke varies from reinvented designs of subjects past, to entirely new imaginings from the minds of the carvers. While mythology, nature, and everyday life continue to persist as popular subjects, foreign carvers have also introduced fresh angles. Japanese carvers have accepted the introduction of variant subject matter with a welcoming attitude, and as a result contemporary netsuke can be described as both beautiful and imaginative. The Pinocchio netsuke by Kiho, on the front cover of this paper, is an excellent example of such new-age creativity.
Miriam Kinsey describes the carving of contemporary artists as follows:
“The living carvers, old and young, are now fashioning beautiful netsuke for a worldwide collectors’ market rather than for Japanese attire. But they are working with the same warm creativeness, the skill, the patience, the fanatical attention to detail, and the almost religious dedication to their art that characterized the master carvers of the earlier centuries. Their netsuke represent a fusion of the traditional art of old Japan with the vitality of new Japan and their own skill and originality.”35
Pinocchio, by Kiho. Collection of Robert O. Kinsey: Busy Life, by Shaw: Fallen Leaf (netsuke and ojime), by Shaw. From: International Netsuke Society Journal, Vol.21, no.4
The materials used in contemporary carving have been affected not only by the introduction of foreigners into the world of netsuke, but also by world events. The 1989 ban on ivory trade presented a quandary for Japanese carvers who for generations had been carving netsuke from ivory. However, with their ingenuity, and the consistent support of foreign carvers who have been eager to experiment with various materials, the carvers have introduced to the world exquisite craftsmanship in many previously unused mediums. Bishu leads by example in volunteering with Conservation International to promote the use of tagua, ecologically sound vegetable ivory, for the production of many everyday items in Japan for which ivory was traditionally used. In regard to the netsuke carvers’ obstacle, he states that the ban on the international trade in elephant ivory:
“greatly challenged the carvers, many of whose families had been carving ivory for generations. To any netsuke carver the change in materials was a bitter road to pursue and mastering the new materials was a difficult goal to achieve….Happily, the problems facing contemporary netsuke carvers have been overcome due to their incessant efforts to create great netsuke an the sustained encouragement of appreciative collectors worldwide.”36
The impact of foreigners on netsuke carving tools has been as substantial, if not more so, than on other aspects of the art of netsuke. In a 1993 article about the work of Swedish-descent American carver Lee Younggren, Washburn states that Younggren uses an electric dental drill in certain stages of his carving, while the ‘Asian experts’ with ‘intense devotion to their craft’ still make their own hand tools to use for carving. Throughout my research, I tended to encounter the same summary regarding the use of tools in contemporary carving. The general consensus seemed to be that contemporary Western carvers incorporate some type of power tools into some level of their carving, whereas their Japanese counterparts remain within the strict boundaries of the traditional craft by creating and using their own hand tools, a time consuming process. Miriam Kinsey’s Contemporary Netsuke states:
“A few first-rank carvers today own dental drills which they use very sparingly on less than ten percent of their total work. A few also make limited use of an electric polisher. The majority of living carvers use no power tools, they carve with self-made tools and hand-polish their netsuke.”37
However, through my recent interview with Robert Kinsey, I learned that this aspect of netsuke carving has changed immensely, primarily because of the foreign influence. At conventions held by the International Netsuke Society, Japanese carvers have been invited to meet with Western carvers. The artists have been encouraged to share techniques and information pertinent to their work. In so doing, Western carvers have since introduced the Japanese carvers to power tools, including various types of lighting, drills, files, and saws. Kinsey reflected:
“I don’t know of any carver that doesn’t use more modern tools now. In fact, Japanese have outpaced Westerners in that respect.”38
Despite the use of more modern technology for carving, there is still an element of secrecy incorporated into the world of netsuke carving. Various mechanical and technical processes are incorporated to allow for the creation of trick and surprise netsuke. An example of such a netsuke would be a lotus pod, in which the loose seeds will rattle around but will never fall out. The processes used for such carvings ‘are jealously guarded and executed in secrecy’39, just as they were in centuries past.
Kinsey recounted a modern day example of such secrecy in his story of leading 20 century carver Masatoshi. Despite the fact that Masatoshi was an accomplished artist, his father, from whom he was learning his craft, heavily guarded the family and trade secrets for carving. It wasn’t until Masatoshi was 40 years old that his father revealed to him the secrets, which he had kept hidden for so long. To this day, Kinsey regards Masatoshi’s himotoshi as magnificently carved.40
Ueda’s 1961 review of the state of netsuke carving reveals that while the Japanese take little interest in the study or appreciation of netsuke, “foreigners value netsuke and are studying them and making expansive collections. Through netsuke, foreigners are learning about Japan, and introducing Japan abroad”.41 For years, it seems that the reigning theme has been, Westerners care about netsuke, Japanese don’t.
The foreign interest in netsuke, while overshadowing Japanese interest for so long, seems, in recent years, to have prompted more interest on the part of the Japanese. The late Prince Takamado and Princess Takamado have been very active both with the International Netsuke Society in America, and with promoting knowledge and appreciation of netsuke in Japan. Just last fall, HIH Prince Takamado cooperated with Robert Kinsey in organizing an exhibition of netsuke for the Japanese public. The exhibition boasted a tremendous turnout, and according to Kinsey, the Japanese artists were ‘dumfounded with the skill emerging in the West’42, the awareness of which placed a challenge on Japanese artists, who now are working diligently to put out better work.
While Prince Takamado first encountered netsuke when seeing a collection that his wife had amassed from an aunt, his encounter with the netsuke world introduced to him by the International Netsuke Society was a primary contributor to his enthusiasm for the art form. He promoted netsuke TV shows in Japan, and even incorporated them into his dealings with diplomatic ambassadors to Japan. Once a year, he and the Princess hosted a netsuke evening for the diplomats, who then would return to their home countries and continue to spread the word. This process contributed greatly to the expanded knowledge about netsuke both in Japan and abroad. 43
Opinions that netsuke are more popular in the West than in Japan, however, still exist. Artist Younggren stated, I think one reason why I got on so well with the Japanese carvers is that we share something. The Japanese don’t buy our work. In my case, it&rsqo;s like trying to sell an American car to the Japanese”.44
In Kinseyrsquo;s review of Netsuke: Modern Masterpieces by Masayoshi, she identifies his concern for ‘the lack of widespread knowledge and appreciation by the Japanese people of netsuke as an art form, basically and uniquely their own.’
While Japanese carvers seem to be infinitely grateful for the role that gaijin have played in promoting understanding and appreciation of netsuke, they also tend to be troubled that their Japanese countrymen don’t share the same enthusiasm.
Kinsey states about her dialogue with carver, Meigyokusai:
“Meigyokusai once said to me, I understand foreign collectors’ appreciation of contemporary netsuke and am grateful for their support but I wish Japanese collectors would have the same interest so that some of the fine netsuke being carved today would stay in Japan. Like the Japanese, foreigners appreciate the beauty of netsuke, but their response is on a different level or wave length. Only a Japanese can appreciate fully certain spiritual qualities which go into netsuke from the carver.”46
The constant efforts of individuals like Prince and Princess Takamado in Japan, Robert and Miriam Kinsey, and Michael Spindel in the United States, as well as all of the contemporary carvers and collectors have expanded the world of netsuke in a manner unforeseen before. Through conventions, exhibitions, catalogs, and books, the word is spreading that netsuke are a permanent fixture on the Japanese art scene. Prince Takamado said in the 1993 Michael Spindel catalog, Nothing pleases me more than seeing that the art of netsuke carving is becoming more international.47
As Bishu alludes to, a lot has happened in the history of contemporary netsuke because of the role of foreign participants. From the initiation of the International Netsuke Society and its conventions, to the prominent collections that Westerners have amassed, there is no denying that the current state of netsuke art is due in large part to the active and dedicated participation of its gaijin enthusiasts. From the role of the foreigners who first collected netsuke in the 19th century and introduced the miniature sculpture to the world outside Japan, to those who have become hands on participants in creating netsuke of their own, non–Japanese have played an integral role in the sustaining and betterment of the state of netsuke art.
Where will we go from here? What role will gaijin play in the future cultivation and development of netsuke art? Will the Japanese be receptive to further foreign participation? It is due to the devotion of both Japanese and non-Japanese carvers and collectors that the art of netsuke has been able to flourish in the last century as it has. While my personal assertion is that netsuke would not have reached their current level of national renown were it not for the role played by foreigners, the truth remains that were it not for concerted efforts by both foreigners and Japanese, no progress would have ensued. I argue that gaijin will continue to participate in various aspects of netsuke art, and as such appreciation of netsuke will continue to grow on a global scale. I also contend that while non-Japanese may currently be the prime audience for netsuke collecting, current trends in Japan toward reidentifying with cultural history will promote further interest in netsuke on the Eastern shores, as well. Simply put, the viability of netsuke art depends on the inside participation of both Japanese and gaijin. Contemporary Japanese carver, Bishu, summarizes the future of netsuke eloquently:
“Netsuke have been produced in Japan for over 300 years as a unique traditional art form. However, it is vitally important that the universal value and appeal be recognized by the worldwide public. Toward this goal, it is very fortunate that many talented netsuke carvers are working in the Western world…It has taken more than 20 years to reach this new level of netsuke creation. This trend is most desirable and I heartily hope it will continue in a broader scope, to be passed on to future generations. This new wave of Western carvers will inspire Japanese netsuke carvers to further the art form. Thus, the joining of the East and the West will carry netsuke fine arts into an even brighter future.”
My first introduction to netsuke came rather without much forward planning on my part. However, my enthusiasm grew rapidly, and I soon found myself fascinated with these miniature carvings. Working as Asian Specialist for the Appleton Museum of Art in Ocala, Florida, one of my initial projects was that of updating museum records by cataloging the entire netsuke collection for inclusion on the museum’s website. This project grew to be extensive, and before long I was consummately involved in the process of confirming accession numbers, taking digital photographs, uploading website data, and researching the history of netsuke. My initial research involved the study of legends and mythology represented in netsuke, and this information was incorporated into artifact descriptions, which would accompany the netsuke. I’m afraid that in the limited time I had, however, it was difficult to do more than scratch the surface of the netsuke world.
When considering topics for this paper, netsuke was one of the first ideas that came to mind – mainly because there is so much more to explore, so much more to be studied, and there are so many angles from which to approach the topic. In my initial efforts, though, I found that while netsuke are extremely popular amongst people who are familiar with them and are active in the fields of carving, collecting, or dealing, to the general public they are a rather unknown phenomenon. I found it difficult to locate books about netsuke in general libraries, for example. I turned my search to the internet, where a plethora of resources opened to me, however, due most likely to the fact that many a netsuke book incorporate hundreds of detailed color photographs, the books tend to be costly! The avenue of purchasing the number of books I would need to reference was not an option for me. To my advantage, however, was one key factor. I live in Northern California – the land of milk and honey, so to speak, in regards to the study of Asian culture. This factor, it would turn out, would be much to my benefit. So, I plugged away to explore what resources were at my fingertips. With the assistance of staff at both locations, I was able to secure appointments at the research libraries of both the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, and the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Each library offered to me a copious collection of netsuke resources – copious, at any rate, compared to any collection of netsuke books and journals I had seen thus far. Added to information I had collected in Florida, these resources now gave me a starting point from which to begin further researching the topic of netsuke.
Eventually, my search would lead me to ethnographic research as well, as I would have the opportunity to contact the current president of the International Netsuke Society, John D. Hawley, and renowned author and netsuke specialist, Robert Kinsey. Furthermore, I would be referred to a netsuke collector and a dealer in the Bay Area, both of whom I look forward to meeting soon. The personal contact gained through my research was an inspiration for me, and an exciting culmination to my current netsuke study. The netsuke world is one in which its proponents know their subject matter intimately and are anxious and willing to share information. There is a sense of camaraderie that connects netsuke collectors around the globe. This aspect of netsuke made my research much more interesting as I began to learn more about the people involved in this subculture of Japanese art. In the world of netsuke, the act of collecting netsuke is considered to become so all consuming that it is often described as being a disease one has contracted. My interest is now piqued, and while I’m not quite disease-stricken yet (I haven’t actually purchased my own miniature collectible!), I do believe I feel a fever coming on.
Although possibly a bit uncustomary for a term paper, I find it necessary to extend my gratitude to several kind and generous people, whose help without which the first thoughts of this paper could not have even been recorded. Thank you!
Many Thanks To:
Curatorial Staff at Appleton Museum of Art, Ocala, Florida
Joan Knudsen, Registrar, Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, UC Berkeley
Ira Jackniss, Hearst Museum of Anthropology, UC Berkeley
John Stucky, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
John Hawley, President, International Netsuke Society: 2002 Current President, International Netsuke Society. Email Interview, December 2002.
Robert Kinsey, Author and Netsuke Specialist: 2002 Author, The Poetry of Netsuke; Ojime; and Ojime, Magical Jewels of Japan; Co-Author, Contemporary Netsuke: Miniature Sculpture from Japan and Beyond; and Outstanding Netsuke by Contemporary Lacquer Artist; Regular Contributor to Netsuke Kenkyukai Journal; Netsuke Exhibition Coordinator; Liaison with Contemporary Netsuke Carvers. Phone Interview, December 2002.
1992 Kaigyokusai: An Appreciation. In Netsuke Kenkyukai Journal, vol. 12, no. 4, pp. 10-19. Marquand Books, Inc., Seattle.
1995 Learning at the Auctions: Where Have All the Good Netsuke Gone? In Netsuke Kenkyukai Journal, vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 17-19. Marquand Books, Inc., Seattle.
1995 Jack Coutu: A Quiet English Artist. In Netsuke Kenkyukai Journal, vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 26-34. Marquand Books, Inc., Seattle.
1981 The Art of Netsuke Carving by Masatoshi, as told to Raymond Bushell. Kondasha International, Ltd., Tokyo
1994 Treasured Miniatures: Contemporary Netsuke Japanese Exhibition at the British Museum. In Netsuke Kenkyukai Journal, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 10-23. Marquand Books, Inc., Seattle.
Davey, Neil K.
1978 Introduction, in Douglas J. K. Wright, Ltd. Catalog, The Hillingdon Press, Uxbridge, England.
Davey, Neil K.
1982 Netsuke: A Comprehensive Study Based on the M. T. Hindson Collection. Revised edition for Sotheby’s Publications by Philip Wilson Publishers Ltd., London.
1973 Masterpieces of Netsuke Art. John Weatherhill, Inc., New York.
1960 Netsuke. Charles E. Tuttle Company, Tokyo.
1991 Australian Netsuke. In Netsuke Kenkyukai Journal, vol. 11, no. 3, pp. 32-37. Marquand Books, Inc., Seattle.
Contemporary Netsuke. Charles E. Tuttle Company, Tokyo.
1983 Living Masters of Netsuke. Kondasha International, Ltd., Tokyo.
1990 Book Review of Netsuke: Modern Masterpieces by Masayoshi Yamada. In Netsuke Kenkyukai Journal, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 17-19. Marquand Books, Inc., Seattle.
Kinsey, Robert O.
1994 Mastering Matchless Materials. In Netsuke Kenkyukai Journal, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 6-17. Marquand Books, Inc., Seattle.
1994 A History of Far Eastern Art, Fifth Edition, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York.
1956 The Art of the Netsuke Carver. Routledge and Kegan Paul, Ltd., London.
Okada, Barbara T.
1980 Netsuke: The Small Sculptures of Japan. In Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
1958 The Netsuke of Japan, Legends, History, Folklore and Customs. Thomas Yoseloff Ltd., London.
1989 Evolution and Goals of Contemporary Netsuke – Remarks by Bishu Saito at Netsuke Kenkyukai Convention, Feb. 1, 1989. In Netsuke Kenkyukai Journal, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 34-35. Marquand Books, Inc., Seattle.
1993 In Contemporary Netsuke: Selected Ojime and Related Arts. Michael Spindel, Ltd., New York.
Schwarz, Karl M.
1992 Rare Subjects in Netsuke. In Netsuke Kenkyukai Journal, vol. 13, no. 4, pp. 28-31. Marquand Books, Inc., Seattle.
1990 Guy Shaw On His Netsuke. In Netsuke Kenkyukai Journal, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 8-16. Marquand Books, Inc., Seattle.
1993 The Magic of Japan. In Netsuke Kenkyukai Journal, vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 11-14. Marquand Books, Inc., Seattle.
1991 Anthony Towne’s Wonderful World of Walnuts. In Netsuke Kenkyukai Journal, vol. 11, no. 4, pg. 44. Marquand Books, Inc., Seattle.
1993 In Contemporary Netsuke: Selected Ojime and Related Arts. Michael Spindel, Ltd., New York.
1993 Some Master Netsuke Carvers Working in the Meiji Period. In Netsuke Kenkyukai Journal, vol. 13, no. 4, pp. 16-27. Marquand Books, Inc., Seattle.
His Imperial Highness, Prince
1993 In Contemporary Netsuke: Selected Ojime and Related Arts. Michael Spindel, Ltd., New York.
Tollner, Madeline R.
1960 Netsuke: The Life and Legend of Japan in Miniature. Fearon Publishers, Inc., San Francisco.
1961 The Netsuke Handbook of Ueda Reikichi, adapted from Japanese by Raymond Bushell. Charles E. Tuttle Company, Tokyo.
Ulak, James T.
1993 Namban. In Netsuke Kenkyukai Journal, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 8-12. Marquand Books, Inc., Seattle.
1993 Lee Younggren: Carving a Niche in Netsuke Art. In Netsuke Kenkyukai Journal, vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 35-38. Marquand Books, Inc., Seattle.
1978 A Few Work 1978 Introduction, in Douglas J. K. Wright, Ltd. Catalog, The Hillingdon Press, Uxbridge, England.
Wright, Douglas J. K.
1978 George Weil Exhibition, in Douglas J. K. Wright, Ltd. Catalog, The Hillingdon Press, Uxbridge, England.
Figure 1 – Netsuke and inro shown as worn in typical 19th century style. From: Masterpieces of Netsuke Art, 1973.
Figure 2 - Back of netsuke demonstrating the location of himotoshi. Demon with mask of Shoki, late 18th C, ivory. From: International Netsuke Society Journal, vol. 21, no. 4
Figure 3 – Example of netsuke without himotoshi. Changes, A Dragon Changing Form, Leigh Sloggett, boxwood. From: International Netsuke Society Journal, vol. 21, no. 4
Figure 4 - Diagram of the uses of elephant husk for ivory carving. From: The Art of Netsuke Carving by Masatoshi as told to Raymond Bushell, 1981.
Figure 5 – Sashi netsuke. Artist unknown. 18th C, stag bone. From the collection of the Appleton Museum of Art, Ocala, Florida.
Figure 6 – Ryusa manju netsuke. Artist unknown. 19th C, ivory. From the collection of the Appleton Museum of Art, Ocala, Florida.
Figure 7 - Double gourd ryusa netsuke with kinchaku. Artist unknown. 19th C. bone and silk. From the collection of the Appleton Museum of Art, Ocala, Florida.
Figure 8 - Sashi netsuke by Hideyuki, Mahogany with inlays of mammoth tusk, mother-of-pearl, gold, silver, and coral.
From: International Netsuke Society Journal, vol. 14, no.2
Figure 9 - A quail. Signed Issan. Walnut.
From: International Netsuke Society Journal, vol. 14, no. 2
Figure 10 - Seated Baku, signed Weil. Grained teak, eyes ivory and black jade, gold tusks.
From: Douglas J. K. Wright, Ltd. Catalog, 1978.
Figure 11 - Horse. Signed Bishu III. Mahogany, stained, horn inlaid eyes.
From: Michael Spindel Catalog, 1993.
Figure 12 – Tree Frog on a Leaf. Stained boxwood, inlaid eyes. Signed Michael Webb.
From: Michael Spindel Catalog, 1993.
1 Sherman Lee, A History of Far Eastern Art, Fifth Edition. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1994.
2Bradley Smith, Japan: A History in Art. Doubleday & Company, Inc., New York, 1964.
3Reikichi Ueda, The Netsuke Handbook of Ueda Reikichi. Charles E. Tuttle Company, Tokyo, 1961.
4Ueda, Chapter 10: The Appreciation of Netsuke.
5F.M. Jonas, Netsuke. Charles E. Tuttle Company, Tokyo, 1960.
6Miriam Kinsey, Contemporary Netsuke. Charles E. Tuttle Company, Tokyo, 1977.
7James Ulak, Namban. In Netsuke Kenkyukai Journal, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 8-12. Marquand Books, Inc., Seattle, 1993.
8Inro are sectioned cases, usually of five to seven compartments, used for carrying the hanko (signature stamp) and seal, or for carrying medicine or other small items.
9F.M. Jonas, Netsuke. Charles E. Tuttle Company, Tokyo, 1960.
10Reikichi Ueda, Chapter 1: Netsuke as Related to the History of Sculpture.
11 Reikichi Ueda, Chapter 1.
12 Reikichi Ueda, Chapter 1.
13 Miriam Kinsey, Chapter 1: Background. In Contemporary Netsuke. Charles E. Tuttle Company, Tokyo, 1977.
14 Reikichi Ueda, Chapter 13: Observations on Netsuke by Periods.
15 Reikichi Ueda, Chapter 12: The Export of Netsuke.
16 Used in this paper simply to denote the term ‘foreigner’, the Japanese word ‘gaijin’ is the truncated version of ‘gaikokujin’, literally ‘outside country person.’ As ‘gaijin’, the term can be translated in short as ‘outsider’, which is significant in discussion of the role of foreigners in netsuke because of their intimate ‘inside’ relationship with the art form.
17 Reikichi Ueda, Chapter 11: The Decline of the Netsuke.
18 Douglas Wright, George Weil Exhibition, In Douglas J.K. Wright, Ltd. Catalog, The Hillingdon Press, Uxbridge, England, 1978.
19 Contemporary refers to artists born in the 20 century. John Hawley, President, International Netsuke Society, email interview, December 2002.
20Miriam Kinsey, Contemporary Netsuke.
21Miriam Kinsey, Contemporary Netsuke.
22Miriam Kinsey, Contemporary Netsuke.
23 Virginia Atchley, Kaigyokusai: An Appreciation. In Netsuke Kenkyukai Journal, vol. 12, no. 4, p 10-19. Marquand Books, Inc., Seattle, 1992.
24 Douglas J.K. Wright, George Weil Exhibition.
25Neil K. Davey, Introduction, In Douglas J.K. Wright Catalog, The Hillingdon Press, Uxbridge, England, 1978.
26 Reikichi Ueda, Netsuke Handbook.
27 Leslie Kehoe, Australian Netsuke. In Netsuke Kenkyukai Journal, vol. 11, no. 3, pp. 32-37, Maquand Books, Inc., Seattle.
29 Leslie Kehoe, Australian Netsuke.
30Leslie Kehoe, Australian Netsuke.
31Bishu Saito, In Contemporary Netsuke: Selected Ojime and Related Arts. Michael Spindel, Ltd., New York, 1993.
32Bishu Saito, Michael Spindel, Ltd.
33George Weil, Douglas Wright Catalog.
34HIH Prince Takamado, In Contemporary Netsuke: Selected Ojime and Related Arts, Michael Spindel, Ltd., New York, 1993.
35Miriam Kinsey, Contemporary Netsuke.
36Bishu Saito, Miriam Kinsey, Contemporary Netsuke.
38Robert Kinsey, December 2002 interview.
39Reikichi Ueda, Netsuke Handbook.
40Robert Kinsey, 2002 interview.
41 Reikichi Ueda, Netsuke Handbook.
42Robert Kinsey, 2002 interview.
43Robert Kinsey, 2002 interview.
44Jim Washburn, “Lee Younggren..”
45Miriam Kinsey, Book Review.
46 Miriam Kinsey, Living Masters of Netsuke.
47 HIH Prince Takamado, Michael Spindel catalog.
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