Japanese carved figurines, called netsuke, weren't just cool works of art — they served a practical purpose as wardrobe accessories. A well-dressed Japanese man prior to the twentieth century could display his wealth and taste, with beautiful and intricate carvings of demons and cavorting spirits.
Traditional Japanese clothing lacked pockets but a man still needed to carry around his pipe, family seal and other necessities. The answer was to hang a pouch, sagemono, or carved box, inro, from the belt. The cord from the pouch was tucked under the belt, and a netsuke was attached to the other end of the cord and hung over the top of the belt to keep the entire thing from slipping away. These amazingly detailed and refined figures of demons and spirits are netsuke. Figural netsuke like these is known as katabori netsuke.
The amount of detail on a netsuke can be mind blowing. They tend to be only about two inches tall, and are carved completely in the round. Every detail is depicted, down to the underside of a badger monk’s sandals. The attention to detail breathes life into these fantastical subjects. While netsuke from the wealthy urban areas like Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo) tended to be ivory and those outside the cities tended to be boxwood, the figures could be made from anything, including amber and killer whale’s tooth.
Netsuke were carved to depict any imaginable creature or scene, from mundane animals to gods. But supernatural creatures were very popular as a subject. Depending on the creature, they brought legends to life, served as talismans, or were satirical. The beautiful and amusing pieces below are from the The Raymond and Frances Bushnell Collection of Netsuke at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Top image: Kappa are rather sinister river monsters that like to lure a passerby to the river bank to drown and eat them. They also have a lustful nature, and try to seduce women using transformation and other tricks. In this netsuke the clam is a symbol of female sexuality. The Kappa being trapped is a metaphor for being trapped by lust, according to The Raymond and Frances Bushell Collection of Netsuke.
Dancing Fox — According to Japanese legend, foxes have the ability to possess people or transform into human form. A power they used to either take over a young woman or to transform into a beautiful woman, in order to cause general mayhem and mischief. The playful fox depicted in this netsuke is in the process of transforming into a woman, thus the emphasis on the sensual curves of the body and coy gesture according to The Raymond and Frances Bushell Collection of Netsuke.
Songoku was the Monkey King, who learned Taoist magic and stole immortality and his miraculous staff from the gods. If this is all sounding slightly familiar, it’s because the Dragonball character Goku is loosely based on him. Journey to the West chronicles the Monkey King’s legend as he reluctantly escorts a Buddhist monk on a pilgrimage.
Baku, The Monster that Eats Nightmares — This netsuke was worn as a talisman to ward off evil. Originally from Chinese mythology the Baku was said to eat nightmares and help make the first dream of the new year auspicious. Baku is often carved under the eaves of temples to serve as wards.
Kirin — According to myth kirins only appeared in places of peace and goodness or served as companions to people with pure hearts. Their appearance also heralded the arrival or departure of a wise sage. Though they were peaceful by nature, they could take action to protect a pure hearted individual, and their horns were said to cure poison.
Tanuki Tea Kettle — Tanuki are Japanese raccoon dogs that figure prominently in mythology and art. They have a reputation of having a generous but mischievous nature. There are a couple stories about a tanuki transforming itself into a tea kettle. In both versions, the tanuki vexes a monk until he either gives it to a peasant or a temple. In each end, the tanuki brings luck and riches to the recipient with his playful antics.
Tanuki Disguised as a Priest — This netsuke depicts a tanuki dressed as a priest and sleeping on a Buddhist gong. Depictions of tanuki as Buddhist priests or wrapped in lotus leaves, the sacred Buddhist plant, were popular, because they were a cutting metaphor for someone who fakes the search for enlightenment by wrapping himself in holy apparel.
Fox Disguised as Priest, The fox disguised as a priest is a more complex symbol then the tanuki. While foxes were generally crafty sowers of chaos, they were also messengers of the god Inari, the cultivator of rice and prosperity. Also, if foxes lived to be 1,000 they became celestial beings. So while this could be a fox messing with the foolish, it could also be a call out to its divine nature, or both.
Tengu are mountain goblins. This one specifically is a karasu tengu (crow tengu) according to Bushnell’s. These monsters could shape change between bird and warrior form, and prowled the mountains hunting. They feed on false holy men, who have retreated to the mountains because they were repelled by true holiness.
Chinese Lion Guarding the Jewel of Buddha, Chinese lions were meant to repel evil and as netsuke might have been meant to guard the wearer against evil influences. Statues of Chinese lions are common in temples and any sacred place. This one in the netsuke is shown fiercely guarding its charge, the Jewel of Buddha. There are three “jewels” of Buddhism representing core beliefs. The Lion itself is a symbol of the Buddha nature “which is present equally in each hair on the beast as in its entire being” per Bushnell’s.
Earthquake Fish — In 1855 much of Edo was destroyed by and earthquake. It was believed an enormous fish or eel lived beneath the Japanese islands, and caused earthquakes when it moved its tail. This netsuke would have been worn as a protective talisman against earthquakes.
Coiled Dragon, The dragon is important for any number of cosmological reasons. It is one of the twelve signs of the zodiac and the symbol of yang energy. In traditional representations, a Japanese dragon can be differentiated from a Chinese dragon because it only has three toes.
Images are from The Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Goodall, Hollis, et al. The Raymond and Frances Bushell Collection of Netsuke: A Legacy at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Art Media Resources Inc. and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2003. Print.