The miniature magic of Japanese netsuke

Netsuke, the small sculptural objects worn by men in Japan since the seventeenth century, first shot to fame in Europe with the publication of Edmund de Waal’s popular memoir, The Hare With Amber Eyes in 2010. As de Waal recounts his unusual story of inheritance, namely a collection of 264 netsuke from a great uncle, Iggie, these miniature artworks began to capture the imagination of readers all over the world.


An illustration with a netsuke in the form of a hare.

They already have, however, a long history as part of everyday life in Japan, and have been collected and traded all over the world for centuries.

Designed to endure, and utilitarian in function, netsuke became a way for men to demonstrate class, taste and wealth, with a desired effect little different to the glint of an expensive watch or the sheen of a silk tie. They were attached to cords to secure tobacco pouches or purses as you can see in the print below, necessary because kimono have no pockets. In this case, the man has one in the shape of a rat, representing the lucky god, Daikoku.

Parody of the gods Daikoku and Benten, Rijksmuseum

Each one, crafted from ivory, bone or finely grained wood, offers an exquisite depiction of a moment caught in time, with inspiration drawn from nature, daily life, religion and myth. Some netsuke can be incredibly elaborate, and depict a whole scene rather than just a single figure or animal, while others are enchanting in their simplicity.

You can explore hundreds of superb examples of these miniature masterpieces via Europeana. Which one would you choose to wear?

1. Rijksmuseum, Public Domain. 2. Rijksmuseum, Public Domain. 3. Rijksmuseum, Public Domain. 4. Rijksmuseum, Public Domain. 5. Etnografiska museet CC BY NC ND. 6. Rijksmuseum, Public Domain. 7. Rijksmuseum, Public Domain. 8. Östasiatiska museet, CC BY NC ND. 9. The Wellcome Library, CC BY. 10. Rijksmuseum, Public Domain.

3 thoughts on “The miniature magic of Japanese netsuke

  1. Thanks for the interesting text about Japanese netsukes. Some aspects remain obscure for the general reader in West: (a) The group picture does not show clearly the actual use of the object; (b) You comment “part of everyday life in Japan” but there’s no picture (photo) describing such a general usage; (c) You refer to “utilitarian function”, but there’s no explanation about that aspect, above all in today’s society.

    From the artistic and historical point of view a quite exciting theme, but there’s a flavour of luxury and old-time believer-excentricity that does not match our current times.

    Raul Guerreiro

  2. I quote Raul Guerreiro: in effects the primary characteristic of a Netsuke is to have HOLES, for the strings that closes.
    So, usually, images of Netsuke have to show the holes, otherwise they could be simple little sculptures, of which there are many.

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