What is Netsuke?

The Origin of Netsuke Art

by Steve Strayer

Netsuke did not originate as art, but as a purely functional personal accessory. Until the 17th century, a netsuke, meaning “root which to attach,” was simply a small stone or piece of wood oriented over the obi, or belt, of a kimono with a cord attached from which hung a bag for carrying small possessions: usually tobacco and a pipe for men and medicine or coins for women. Netsuke emerged as an art form during the Edo era in Japan.

This era was ushered in by the victory of Tokugawa Ieyasu in the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, in which Ieyasu defeated his strongest rival warlords, and became Shogun over all Japan. Following his military success, Ieyasu consolidated power in Edo (modern Tokyo), and for 200 years no other faction seriously threatened this regime. The Edo era was a period of relative peace and prosperity in Japan after centuries of warfare and upheaval. This was a time of increasing commerce, literacy among the general populace, and the blossoming of theater, music, dance, and many other art forms.

The Edo prosperity brought rapidly increasing wealth to merchants, long considered inferior to all other social classes in Japan. Confucian attitudes toward morality and relative social status as enforced by the shogunate, however, prohibited the outward display of wealth by merchants. Since the enforcers seldom paid much attention to netsuke, this inconspicuous device gradually became the object of increasingly elaborate decorations. Eventually professional artisans took up the art of Netsuke carving from wood, ivory and other materials.