21th Century Netsuke

by Robert O. Kinsey

At International Netsuke society Honolulu, Hawaii, 1/28/04

Good Morning Ohayo Gozaimasu, and Aloha: Perhaps it is also appropriate to wish you a Happy New Year.

According to the lunar calendar, the arrival of the year of the Monkey was celebrated on January 22nd, with ceremonies continuing through the right of the full moon on February 6th.

This slide is a boxwood netsuke carved by Kiho, one of the younger generation of highly talented Japanese artists. It portrays a monkey intently weaving a shimenawa in preparation for the New Year celebration. A shimenawa is sacred rope, woven of straw, that is used to denote a sacred space in Shinto shrines. In order to welcome the god of the New Year and to ward off evil spirits, Japanese also use shimenawa ropes to decorate gateways and doors of their homes.

Before starting my report on the status of 21st century netsuke, I must point out that when Tusha Buntin introduced me, he neglected to mention that in addition to my being named Kinsey, I also have a doctor’s degree. Because of my doctorate and my name, I always claim to have written the famous Kinsey Reports. I am now writing the final volume of those reports which will be titled “Sex after Death, or How to Get Laid in a Coffin.” When I recently mentioned this last volume to a supremely talented Western netsuke artist, who is in this audience, she excitedly exclaimed: “This gives me a whole new concept of the after-life. Coitus in the crypt! Now I realize why the earth is supposed to shake…” I have lived a very sheltered life, and I was shocked by her comments.

Turning now to the subject of this Kinsey Report, I am pleased to state that the art of netsuke in the 21st century is alive and well-and that it is thriving with creativity, ingenuity, and remarkable achievement. Some of you may have heard me express a few of these thoughts before, but please don’t interrupt because I would like to hear them again.

Currently there are more than 150 highly talented netsuke artists, plus a sizable number of very promising trainees on the horizon. Of course, the artists of Japan constitute the largest group, but there are many Western professionals residing in nine other countries: Australia, Austria, Canada, England, Germany, Israel, New Zealand, Ukraine, and the United States. In Japan both Ryushi and Akira are devoting a great deal of their time to teaching trainees who show interest and talent for the netsuke art. Their classes at Asahi Culture Center in Tokyo started four years ago, and the enrollment now includes about 20 enthusiastic students. In a moment I will introduce you to some of these artists.

But first, I would like to invite your attention to a monumental 21st century achievement in the world of netsuke.

It was the publication in 2003 of this magnificent book titled: “The Raymond and Frances Bushell Collection of Netsuke-A legacy at the Los Angels County Museum of art.” Without question, it is one of the most important and beautiful netsuke books ever created. Frances Bushell, Hollis Goodall, Jeffrey Moy, and other distinguished participants richly deserve our thanks and congratulations.

I would also like to mention that my new book titled “The Poetry of Netsuke” was published two weeks ago.

I will not discuss it this morning because a complete description of it was included in your registration kit.

There are eleven distinguished netsuke artists attending our convention. In random order I would like to identify them and display slides of a netsuke that each has created. If there are any other netsuke artists at this convention whose names I don’t mention, perhaps it’s because they haven’t helped pay for this commercial.

Between six and eight o’clock this evening you will have an opportunity to meet the netsuke artists in person and to view many other items of their work, and of course the dealers and Carvers Room will be open throughout the convention. You will also have an opportunity to view and discuss the works of some of these artists in Richard Silverman’s netsuke workshop, scheduled for later this morning.

This netsuke was created by Michael Birch, a famous English artist. It is a mobius strip carved in mammoth tusk to suggest Daruma, the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism. The netsuke is now in the Prince Takamado collection. Michael birch was the first Western professional artist of such caliber to specialize in netsuke, and he continues in the 21st century to occupy a preeminent position in this field of art. I can’t recall whether it was Michael Birch or Prince Takamado who first pointed out to me that our frequent classification of netsuke, as either antique or contemporary, is a completely false dichotomy. Both Michael and the Prince insisted that all netsuke, and indeed all works of art, were contemporary when they were created, regardless of which century that was. A full chapter about the genius of Michael Birch was published in “Living Masters of Netsuke,” and there have been numerous articles by him and about him in issues of the INS Journal. His are the only netsuke of nay living artist in the entire Bushell Collection at LACMA.

This is a beautiful boxwood netsuke carved by Janel Jacobson, an American artist. On the front she has portrayed a damselfly in flight over water, and on the back a frog.

This netsuke was carved by Doug Marsden, a New Zealand artist. It beautifully portrays a most interesting eel that also resides in New Zealand.

Masami, a Japanese artist, created this boxwood carving of a frog perched on a snowshoe. Masami is an artist of the fifth generation of Masanao lineage. Her father, Shinzan, learned to carve from his father, whose master, Masakatsu, was a son of Masanao the First.

This porcelain netsuke by Lynn Richardson, an American artist, portrays a bad dog chewing on its owner’s Nike shoe. I believe Lynn is now the only living artist who specializes in porcelain netsuke. In earlier centuries porcelain netsuke were commonly worn, and some of them, like Lynn’s were of excellent quality.

This superb ivory netsuke by Ryushi portrays a geisha whispering to an apprentice geisha. Ryushi has allowed the viewer’s imagination to decide what they are looking at and what the geisha is whispering, which seems to amuse the apprentice. Conceivably they are looking at an unseen geisha, off-stage, who is drinking saketinis with her patron. Possibly the geisha in the carving is explaining “The Saketini Kanpai Poem.”(I should explain that a saketini is an gin cocktail, similar to a martini but flavored with sake rather than with vermouth. Kanpai is the Japanese equivalent of “cheers,” “to your health,” and similar toast expressions). The saketini kanpai Poem reads;”here is to a saketini/One or two at the most/tree, I am under the table and/ four I am under the host.” Ryushi-san is distinguished president of International netsuke carvers’ Association and perhaps has never heard of this poem.

Another of my many favorite netsuke by Ryushi is his seated nude who wears nothing but her hat. It brings to mind the old saying: “No nudes is good nudes.”

I would appreciate it if the audience would not groan during my lecture.

Seriously, I have known and admired my good friend Ryushi-san for more than 30 years. He has achieved a unique place in netsuke history with his fabulous carving of beautiful women, and his genius is reported in full chapter of “Living Masters of Netsuke.” But beyond that he has served tirelessly for many years as chief executive officer of the International netsuke Carver’s Association, and he has guided that organization to new heights of achievement. I addition, he is devoting unlimited time and effort to sharing his vast knowledge of netsuke skills with promising students. The entire world of netsuke is deeply indebted to Ryushi-san for his many contributions.

This netsuke was created by Leigh Sloggett, an Australian artist. It is titled “Soul Jar.” The jar lies in breaking waves on a sandy coastline, waiting to be found. The materials are Australian acacia, stag antler, and lacquer. A twist of carving releases a central column inscribed with a poem composed by Leigh. It reads: “If I put my soul into a jar/And it traveled from my body far/With my body gone, would my soul live on/To sing the world my little song?” An excellent profile about Leigh, written by Jeffrey Klotz and Phyllis Lieberman, appeared in the spring 2003 issue of the INS Journal.

This netsuke and companion ojime were created by Susan Wraight, a well-known English artist now residing in Australia. The ojime portrays a hapless mouse starting up into the night sky. The kagamibuta netsuke portrays an owl highlighted by a silvery full moon on which the moon’s craters have been engraved. The owl is making its death swoop. This dramatic sculptural moment inspired Susan to compose her own haiku that reads; “Listen…quivering/Wings moon-sheened, unheard, unseen/Talon-feathered: Death!”

This netsuke was carved by Unshu, who lives in Tokyo. His favorite subjects are animals and human figures. This ivory carving portrays a cat with thoughts of love.

Ataru, a Japanese artist who lives in Chiba, created this excellent netsuke portraying a beetle exploring the meat in a cracked walnut.

The beautiful heron portrayed in this mammoth tusk netsuke was carved by Clive Hallam, an English artist.

There have been great beauty and achievement in the netsuke world at down of the 21st century, but there has also been great sadness, attending the loss of five very distinguished netsuke artists.

Armin Muller, a most outstanding American artist died in may of 2000 after a career that reached new heights of excellence and ingenuity in the creation of porcelain netsuke, inro, and ojime. This is his superb porcelain netsuke of a basket of fish. A very moving tribute to Armin, written by David Carlin, was printed in the 2000 Fall Issue of the INS Journal.

Masatoshi, whom many regard as greatest netsuke artist of the past century, died in January of 2001. His talent and works are immortalized in his book “The Art of Netsuke Carving.” This ivory netsuke of Masatoshi portrays a kirin fawn. This tortoise shell netsuke of Masatoshi celebrates the beauty of Mt. Fuji as viewed from a famous grove of pine trees of Suruga Bay. On it Masatoshi engraved a haiku that he himself composed, echoing two of Japan’s “Hundred Famous Poems.” It reads: “From Tago’s seashore/Fujisan’s towering peak/ Glows in morning sun.”

Tamiko Nakamura-Masatoshi’s talented netsuke artist daughter-died in November of 2001. This is Tami’s excellent netsuke, carved in mammoth tusk, portraying the Year of Rabbit.

Seiho died in October of 2003 after a most distinguished career as netsuke artist in the finest traditions of the So school. He also served as an officer of the Japan Ivory Sculptors’ Association. This is Sheiho’s boxwood netsuke titled “Harvest.” It was directly inspired by a famous painting of Jakuchu, one of Japan’s foremost Edo period artists whose bicentennial anniversary was celebrated in 2000.

Guy Shaw, a tremendously gifted, well-know English netsuke artist, died in October of 2003. Guy’s stag antler netsuke and companion ojime portray fallen leaves and bring to mind dozens of exquisite poems. Guy’s engaging personality and unique talents endeared him to a host of friends and admirers in Japan and in many Western nations. An eloquent tribute to Guy, written by Michael Birch, will appear in the next issue of the INS Journal.

The whole nation of Japan, as well as the entire international diplomatic community and the world of netsuke, was shocked and saddened in November of 2002 to learn of the untimely passing of his Imperial Highness and his wife, Princess Hisako, are two of the most ardent and knowledgeable netsuke enthusiasts I have ever known. They derived great interest and pleasure from personal meetings with netsuke artists and fellow collectors in Japan and throughout the world. Much about Their Highness has been published in issues of INS Journal, and I will not attempt to summarize these articles this morning.

Instead, I would like to invite your attention to a number of beautiful, touching netsuke that have been created as a tribute to the memory of His highness. You will have an opportunity to view them tomorrow evening at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. In addition to the memorial netsuke, the academy’s exhibition will feature a great many of other carvings from the Takamado Collection that Princess Hisako has made available, supplemented by a few from the Kinsey collection.

This is a Sachio’s Boxwood netsuke, titled “A Lonely Acorn.” She carved it with great admiration and infinite sadness in memory of Prince Takamado. Oak is a sacred tree in Japan, admired for its strength and beauty and venerated in Shinto god offerings. Its acorn and leaves have been featured in the insignia of countless powerful lords.

This is Toun’s memorial netsuke titled “A lonely Dragonfly.” Carved in ebony, it portrays a dragonfly, in gold lacquer, resting on a wreath of black bamboo. The dragonfly is a traditional emblem of victory and of the power and culture of Japan’s Yamato court of the 4th to 8th centuries.

This is Susan Wraight’s memorial netsuke titled “The Gift.” She created it as a token of gratitude for all that Prince Takamado had done for netsuke artists both in Japan and overseas. Susan explains, and I quote: “The wonderful gift is wrapped in a furoshiki cloth. It isn’t obvious what is inside the parcel, but it is round because round forms are symbols of completeness and perfection, and the covering function of the cloth speaks of how the Prince is no hidden from us. The butterfly is a symbol of the Prince, reflecting something beautiful, light, and evanescent which, like his spirit, could fly away at any moment-and it is a Monarch butterfly that speaks of his imperial lineage. I hope the whole piece conveys sadness at his passing, joy at all that he did for netsuke and netsuke carvers, and hope that he may rest in peace surrounded by beauty.”

The Academy’s exhibition displays ten additional beautiful and very touching memorial netsuke by Hosen, Yuko, Kozan, Kiho, Toun, Kinuyo, and Masayuki. Time will not permit me to display slides of all of these, but I would like to invite your attention to just one more memorial netsuke.

This is Kiho’s boxwood netsuke titled “Curtain Call.” The title of “Curtain Call” expresses Kiho’s wish that he could see prince Takamado one more time. The carving portrays a squirrel wearing a tuxedo jacket while playing his cello, and singing aloud while playing. This netsuke no doubt will bring smiles to the countless friends of His Highness who are well aware of his role as an accomplished cellist and who know that his prized cello was a gift from the Emperor and that Yo Yo Ma, the incomparable cellist, was his friend. Several other members of the Imperial family are also gifted musicians. Emperor Akihito plays the cello, Empress Michiko plays the harp, Crown Prince Hiro the viola, and Crown Princess Masako the flute. Prince Takamado also served as president of Japan’s Amateur Musicians’ Association. In 1998 he participated with 1012 cellists (a new Guiness Record) in a benefit concert to help Kobe after its devastating 1995 earthquake.

Tomorrow evening, while you are at the Honolulu Academy, I would like to invite your attention to this exquisite inro. Directly but subtly, it related to famous poems and to the illustrious Takamado and Mikasa names. Prince Kikasa, Emperor Hirohito’s youngest brother, is Prince Takamado’s father. This is the only inro ever commissioned by Prince Takamado. Its title, literally translated, is “Holly-Fan-Astronomical design.” His Highness asked for a design incorporating symbols that would relate to his family.

The inro shows the sun on one side and the moon on the other side, with holly and a fan depicted inside the circles portraying the sun and moon. Holly was Prince Takamado’s personal symbol, and the fan their personal symbol of Princess Takamado. Personal symbols differ from family crests. In the older families when there were many children, such symbols, rather than monograms, were used on items to indicate ownership.

The fan is open on the sun-side of the inro. Very subtly portrayed in gold lacquer on the open fan are the silhouetted peaks of mount Takamado and Mount Mikasa, located in a sacred area near Nara. When the Prince and Princess were married, the title conferred upon them was Takamado. Mount Takamado is immediately adjacent to Mount Mikasa from which the Prince’s birth family derives its name.

The fan is closed on the moon side of the inro, but on it is portrayed Japanese bush clover, an elegant flowering shrub for which Mount Takamado is famous. Flowering bush clover is renowned for the Tea Ceremony and is mentioned in dozens of famous poems. On both sides of the inro, at the lowest tier, are famous comic design segments that also are incredible masterpieces of inlay and lacquer art.

Unquestionably a “National Treasure,” this inro was created in the traditional way and involved the participation, at various stages, of eight different top-ranking specialists in a famous old lacquer establishment. These experts were very proud to have this imperial commission and obviously achieved the finest possible quality of lacquer art and inlay.

In conclusion, let me move on from thoughts of sadness to a few more examples of 21st century netsuke that clearly reveal superb qualities of creativity, ingenuity, and remarkable achievement.

This box-style, lacquered netsuke is the work of Akira. On the lid of the box he has portrayed a shooting star entering the earth’s atmosphere, with the Milky Way in the distant sky. Inside the box, in gold lacquer, is the full text of a famous seventh century Japanese poem written in blush-stroke calligraphy.

To celebrate the publication of my new book titled The Poetry of Netsuke, Kiho has designed a netsuke portraying Sushi-san, my remarkably talented, spoiled-rotten dachshund, composing a haiku of her own. The carving depicts Sushi-san kneeling in full kimono with a booklet of poem paper held in her right paw. Her blush is poised in her left paw as she thoughtfully composes her haiku. It reads: “The spring rain this year/Has grown our patio grass/Higher than my ass.” Her paw print crest is beautifully embroidered on the back of her kimono.

This superb netsuke by Kinuyo reminds me of Zeshin’s finest work. It features gold lacquer on wood with immaculate abalone shell inlay. It seems to suggest a 16th century poem that reads: ‘The blossom that fell/From the twig has just flown back/No- a butterfly!”

Kozan’s stag antler netsuke possibly portrays an anonymous haiku, titled A Frog’s Last Words, that reads: “Please offer your prayers/And blessings for my spirit/I am dying, he croaked.”

This lacquered, box-style netsuke by Masayuki captures the beauty and fascination of fireflies. During warm summer evenings the flickering lights of fireflies have always entranced humans throughout the world, and especially in Japan where firefly-viewing, cherry blossom-viewing, and moon viewing have always been important pastimes, first of the aristocracy and later of entire populace. Fireflies are featured in early Japanese legends, eighth century poetry, and tenth century novels. In Japanese folk legends fireflies were thought to be the spirits of living persons and perhaps the soul of dead. It would seem unfair to depart from the world of poetry and netsuke without recalling Ogden Nash’s firefly poem that reads: “The firefly’s flame/ Is something for which science has no name/ I can think of nothing eerier/ Than flying around with an unidentified glow on one’s post eerier.”

Teruo is one of the greatest master of lacquer and inlay of any century. This netsuke of Teruo magnificently portrays Saigyo’s death poem. Saigyo was twelfth century poet-monk who is revered as one of Japan’s foremost poets. Throughout his life Saigyo was entranced with the unfolding wonders of nature, especially cherry blossoms and the moon. His death poem reads: ‘I wish to die/ In spring, beneath/ The cherry blossoms/ While the springtime moon / Is full.” Saigyo’s wish was granted for he died during the night of a full moon when cherry blossoms were at their best.

This exquisite boxwood netsuke by Tetsuro portrays a beautiful, kimono-clad girl listening with fascination to the real and imaginary sounds of seashell that she holds to her ear, bringing to mind a host of Japanese and Western poems.

The lid of this amazing box-style netsuke by Toun, portraying cherry blossoms and the full moon, was directly inspired by a famous eleventh century poem. Inside the box are several amber and gold hair ornaments, plus a comp carved in mammoth, on which the calligraphy of the entire poem is engraved.

The spider is an insect that has often fascinated both poets and netsuke artists. This netsuke was created by Gernot Schluifer, an Austrian artist. It seems to be a remarkable companion for the spider poem of Michizane, the deified, ninth century poet of Japan who is venerated even today as patron saint of scholarship and poetry. The opening lines of Michizane’s poem read: “There is craft in this smallest insect/ With strands of web spinning out his thoughts…” The concluding lines of poem read: “For a moment on fence-top it lives through its life/ When you know that all beings are ever thus/ You will know what creation is made of.”

I think there is time to show you one more netsuke. It may interest and amuse you to be reminded that Japan’s poetry, like its netsuke was at times earthly and perhaps borderline obscene in the milder transitions of shunga netsuke. This carving, in my collection, is a classic example. It is signed Jogetsu, whose dates are unknown. A netsuke of very similar design, signed Sosui, is in the 1998 exhibition catalog of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, a superb catalog for which Sharen Chappell deserves highest commendation. There may also be a carving of almost identical design in Bushell Collection at LACMA. This netsuke portrays a scantily clad woman sea diver who has fallen asleep embracing the body of a huge fish. She appears to be having very erotic dreams. There is calligraphy engraved on her posterior. A well known netsuke collector, who understandably insists on anonymity, carefully examined this netsuke and observed that it reminded him of this limerick: “On the breast of a harlot named Gail/ Was tattooed the price of her tail/ And on her behind/ For the sake of the blind/ Was the same information in Braille. Japan’s vast heritage of poetry includes a type of poem called “Kyoka,” which literally translates as “mad verse.” It is a type of 31-syllable, waka-style of poetry, humorous and often parodic. The roots of comic Kyoka can be traced back for more than a thousand years, and it was extremely popular during the Edo period, until the end of 18th century when it was suppressed. It was the custom of feudal lords to keep literary scholars in their entourage, both poets and storytellers. Humorous poetry seems to have originated in salons of these daimyo. After long sessions of composing serious poetry, the poets often found relaxation late in the evening by concocting lighthearted verses to amuse the daimyo and themselves.

I have two final observations with which to conclude my remarks. First, I have mentioned the INS Journal several times. It is one of our Society’s most important assets. Its excellence reflects great credit on Linda Meredith for her superb performance as editor, and she richly deserves our congratulations and our deep debt of gratitude.

Second, for netsuke collectors there is most important, added dimension of interest and enjoyment in being able to meet living artists and to discuss their works with them. This convention provides the opportunity, especially during the session with the carvers scheduled for this evening.

Thank you very much.

TV News Coverage: Friday 1/30/2004, KHON2 A.M. (3:31);(2:16);(3:58) Japanese Netsuke Exhibit Robert Kinsey

Web-casting permitted by: KHON-TV (808) 591-4207 (808) 593-2418 (FAX)

Dateline Media, Inc. 614 South Street, Suite 203 Honolulu, HI 96813 Phone(808)524-7710 Fax(808)524-0301

Many Thanks to: Robert O. Kinsey International Netsuke Society Glenn Tokumaru, DATELINE MEDIA, INC. Norris Tanigawa, News Operations Manager of KHON-TV

Publication introduced in the lecture: Kinsey, Robert O., The Poetry of Netsuke. Santa Barbara, California: Perpetua Press, 2004.

Atchley, Virginia G, Neil K Davey, Christine Drosse, Hollis Goodall, Sebastian Izzard, , Odile Madden, and Robert T. Singer. The Ratmind and Frances Bushell Collection of Netsuke: A Legacy at the Los Angels County Museum of Art. Chicago, Illinois: Art Media Resources, Inc. and the Los Angels County Museum of Art, 2004

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