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The art of the Japanese Netsuke

The netsuke is attached to an inro and is looped over the obi so the wearer can carry personal items
Netsuke come in various materials like the ceramic one of the 18th century from the Arita area and the wooden one in ebony
Modern netsuke are no longer carved from ivory but from vegetable ivory (tagua nut), like the duck, and wood
Ryusa, the rounded netsuke, are more unusual and can be pierced like the ivory dragon or wood like the family mon depiction
Many Westerners are familiar with the figural netsuke carved from ivory, typical of the Edo and Meiji periods
Netsuke were attached to the into by silk cord that passed through holes on the reverse
At the beginning of the 17th century, with the end of centuries of chaotic warfare, the country was unified and relatively peaceful, which gave rise to more cultural achievements. The main pursuit at all levels of society was pleasure in all forms of art. The warrior and merchant classes accumulated great wealth, and costume became very important. Japanese clothing had no pockets in which to carry such important objects such as medicines, tobacco, coins, etc. There were no buttons to fasten the luxurious garments, so people used sashes or OBI to keep them closed.  There are paintings prior to the 17th century showing something similar to a pouch tied to a stick or perhaps a piece of bone thrust through the obi, but most recorded use of NETSUKE did not occur until the beginning of the Edo period.

The word netsuke is a combination of two words, ne meaning root and tsuke meaning to attach.  The first were probably bits of wood, shell, stone or bone tied to a simple bag holding necessities.  Not fancy enough for the pleasure seeking Edo society, the delightful tiny pieces of sculpture gradually developed. The simple bag became an elaborate container called an INRO, a set of stacked boxes fitted together to form one unit. To this, the delicate sculptures were tied by means of a cord and acted as a toggle when thrust through the obi, keeping the inro from falling through.  In older netsuke the holes are of uneven sizes, the larger to hide the cord knot. 

Netsuke take on many different forms. 

·       The MANJU is a round cookie shaped item, and was likely the earliest form of netsuke.

·       Another round biscuit-shaped netsuke is called a RYUSA. 

·       The third biscuit shaped netsuke is called a KAGAMIBUTA.  The form of netsuke is usually two pieces, a round, hollowed out base with a decorated metal lid. The lid is attached by means of a ring in the interior through which the cord is threaded and passed through a single hole in the back.

·       The most popular form of netsuke is called KATABORI--the tiny detailed sculptures with which we are most familiar. 

·       MENN netsuke are in the form of masks. They are usually depictions of theater characters or portraits of gods.

·       Less common are HAKE, netsuke that are in the form of a box with a lid, and TRICK netsuke which feature hidden or movable parts that are meant to surprise.  Erotic scenes and subject matter may also be made but the scenes are usually hidden inside the netsuke.

Wood is the most favored material for netsuke in Japan. Always an expensive, imported substance, ivory is the most popular material for in Europe and America. Stag horn is probably the third most popular material but is difficult to carve due to its grainy texture.  Today several of these materials are banned through the endangered species act so that bone and wood are most used for the modern netsuke carved for tourists.  However, netsuke made from jade, amber, stone, vegetable ivory, coral, fruit pits, and walnuts are also collected. Especially beautiful netsuke could be made of wood coated with lacquer, perhaps inlaid with MOP, gemstones, and gold.  Desirable metalwork, including shakudo, shibuichi, iron, bronze or brass, are prized.   Bamboo can be carved or woven.  A very fragile material for netsuke is porcelain, most notably from the Hirado kiln in the same area where Arita kiln are found today. 


After Japan was forced to open its shores to the West in 1856, the charming little sculptures found their way to the West and were eagerly collected. When western clothing gained favor in Japan, the need for netsuke diminished, but carvers continued to make them for the collector and continue to do so today.  A resurgence of interest in netsuke came to the West with the returning veterans after World War II.  Netsuke are still being carved today for collectors and tourists in all materials including ivory. The ivory must come from prebanned caches of it.


Bushell, Raymond.  Collectors' Netsuke, 6th Ed.  John Weatherhill, Inc. New York and Tokyo.  1986

Bushell, Raymond, Ed.  The Netsuke Handbook of Ueda Reikichi. Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc.  Rutlan, VT and Tokyo. 1970

Ryerson, Egerton.  The Netsuke of Japan.  Castle Book.  New York. 1958

Symmes, Edwin C. Jr.  Netsuke, Japanese Life and Legend in Miniature. Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc.  Rutlan, VT and Tokyo. 1990

About the author

Mona Brown was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and attended the University of California, Davis, where she met and married fellow anthropology student, Walt Brown. They found their way to the Washington, D.C.. area where Walt ran a research laboratory for the Smithsonian Institution, Mona managed a Native American art gallery at the Department of the Interior, and they raised two boys. After retirement Mona was active in knitting and smocking guilds, garden clubs, and button collecting. Both Mona and Walt are retired and live in the historical city of Winchester, Virginia. She has been collecting buttons for about 12 years and is a member of the Martha Washington Button Club of Virginia and the Black Eyed Susan Button Club of Maryland, as well as the National Button Society.


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