Exquisitely carved from ivory, these miniature masterpieces helped Japanese men cling to their wallets in the Edo period.
In Japan, during the Edo period (1603-1868), the ruling class reserved the bling-bling and decreed that middle-class people dress modestly. One way to subtly show some flavor was with your choice of netsuke. It was a toggle attached to the other end of a purse or wallet string. It prevented the string from passing when it was under the obi (belt or sash) of a kimono. There’s no functional equivalent in the west today: the flair of the thong doesn’t come close. Netsuke was a bit like watches or belts, in that you can swap one out day-to-day, on special occasions, for something fancier.
A new show at Portland Japanese Garden (until April 17) features collectible netsuke (pronounced NET-scay, much like the web browser) from the collection donated by James R. Coonan, Denise C. Bates, and Lurline C. Menzies. Most of them are about the size of an AirPods case and are carved from elephant ivory, though some are hardwood and a few are ceramic.
The show is housed in the Pavilion Gallery, the one with fantastic views of Mount Hood, and is divided into themed sections, such as Mastery, Gods & Heroes, and Animals.
While the first netsuke were made of small dried gourds and interestingly shaped bamboo sticks, the Mastery section shows how far we have come in 200 years. Mounted under lights, on mirrors and some behind magnifying glasses, they are miniature masterpieces. One is a small peach with the sides cut off of two men playing the board game Go. Another is a barrel with a mouse on it, and another mouse that pops out when you shake it. There is a slightly opened clam shell that shows a palace scene inside, with people the size of grains of rice.
Another is a dog-lion, a shishi, with a movable jaw.
“It was used as a symbol to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck,” Sarah-Kate Nomura, assistant exhibitions director, told the Portland Tribune. “Because it has a movable jaw, you can change the fierceness of the shishi. It’s really rare for the netsuke to have moving parts like that.”
Netsuke had to be smooth so as not to cling to fabrics like silk. Ivory was a good medium because it could be polished, it could contain fine marks, and the grooves held dirt, creating a black-on-white pattern.
Under Folktales and Heroes are the equivalent of licensed characters from traditional stories. One shows a farmer with a large peach. This is from the story of the Peach Boy or Momotaro. “A couple unable to have a child find a peach that grows into their precious baby boy, who then becomes a brave warrior. then became like a known hero,” Nomura said.
People also loved traditional gods, which were absorbed into Zen Buddhism, such as the Seven Lucky Gods. In one sculpture, they are all crammed into a rowboat without oars. In another, they are bagged, going on an adventure to capture a demon.
They were a popular symbol of good luck. “These pieces tell a story, just in a one to two inch long sculpture. There’s a lot of action and character in this little piece,” Nomura said.
There is a netsuke by a Dutchman, which curiously shows Asian features. With Japan closed to foreigners, only a few traders showed their faces on nearby islands. This curiosity, of the man in a doublet and stockings as if he had just come from the Dutch colony of Manhattan in New York, would have been a topic of conversation. It also serves as a wax seal for documents. Other netsuke depict everyday workers, such as a woman hammering cloth, a man pressing cotton, and a carver with hammer and mallet.
They look like caricatures, with big heads and bodies curled in on themselves, but again, function dictates form – they needed to be rounded so they wouldn’t snag on things.
Nothing says “I’m single and looking for my soulmate” like wearing your zodiac sign on your hip, and the Edo Japanese loved to flex their year of birth’s tigers, pigs, and rats. Rats also meant something else: a netsuke shows a rat on a fish’s head, but it means plenty, not rot and disease.
Some look like heavy metal jewelry: a skull with a coiled snake in its eye sockets. “I even see Darth Vader in it now,” Nomura said. And there’s a wolf that looks just like the Simpsons, with a bump, sunken eyes and tiny years. He is leaning forward over a giant human skull.
The one with three birds sitting on a basket has eggs carved inside the basket, like tiny pebbles inside a natural sea sponge.
“I was lucky enough to be able to handle this piece as it unfolded in the exhibit. It just vibrates a little, it really is a special piece,” Nomura said.
Another is a mushroom with delicate gills below and a snail and chrysanthemum buds on top. The details are exquisite and the images slightly surreal.
“The chrysanthemum symbolizes longevity, but I’m curious to know more about mushrooms from the Edo period in Japan,” Nomura said.
Netsuke are always carved today, although they are often larger and aimed at the collectibles and art markets. It’s a chance to see the real deal.
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