What Is a Netsuke?

WHEN a functional object loses its usefulness, it becomes either garbage or art. With Japanese netsuke there was often a vigorous and highly inventive ``art'' content already, because these small, carved toggles, though a part of dress during the Edo or Tokugawa period (1615-1868), were also an unostentatious form of personal decoration and luxury. The word netsuke means ``root-attach.'' They were attached to the upper end of a cord from which was suspended some kind of container. The cord was passed behind the wearer's belt or sash. The function of the netsuke was to stop the cord from slipping and the container from falling. All this because Japanese traditional dress had no pockets.

The most usual materials netsuke were carved from were ivory or wood. By the end of the 18th century there were groups of netsuke carvers working in various centers. When Western dress ``invaded'' Japan, the reason for netsuke vanished.

The Japanese themselves neglected these little works of sculpture, apparently considering them unworthy of either historical interest or of collecting. Westerners collected them, however, and still do. More recently the Japanese have started buying them back. The example of a late 18th-century ivory netsuke shown on this page was earlier this year auctioned in London by Sotheby's. Of a wild boar with her young, it is the work of a master from Kyoto, Masanao.

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