Netsuke (miniature carving attached to the end of a cord hanging from a pouch) (根付)

Netsuke (also called "nezuke") is an attachment used in the Edo period when people carried tobacco pouches, yatate (brush holder), inro (a tiny box which contains medicine or one's seal and a small red ink pad) and leather bags (pouches for accessories including money, foods, writing utensils, medicines and tobaccos) by suspending from the obi sash by a cord. There are two main types of netsuke: historical netsuke made from the Edo Period to the modern era and contemporary netsuke made from the Showa Period to the Heisei Period. Netsuke is also famous for the fact that Imperial Prince Takamadonomiya Norihito was a renowned collector of it.

It is valued higher in abroad as the antique rather than in its manufacturing country, Japan.


Used to carry round things including pouches and inro when wearing pocketless men's kimono, netsuke helped prevent such items from falling: string attached to the pouches or inro was pulled under and over the the obi, and then the other end would be tied to the netsuke, which was too large to fall through the obi. The size varies from one centimeter to several centimeters. The material is usually hard woods (such as box, yew, and ebony) and ivory. Although netsuke in the early Edo period was usually simple, not only its practical utility but also its ornamentation became more highly valued over time, and it became explosively popular in the mid-Edo period. Around that time, netsuke got to be carved finely and netsuke itself became the target of collectable art objects. However, after the Meiji period netsuke became highly valued abroad and began to be produced mainly for export, losing its original function and coming to be no more than a pierced small elaborate carving. The popularity of netsuke temporarily declined after the Taisho and Showa periods, but technical experts from various fields, working with a wide variety of materials, entered the netsuke market in the Heisei period and a contemporary netsuke movement emerged.


In time for the end of the Muromachi period and the start of the reign of Ieyasu TOKUGAWA, Ieyasu recommended one thing in particular to Jikisan-hatamoto (warriors serves directly to Shogun) and Tozama daimyo (nonhereditary feudal lords). It was, even in peacetime, to carry basic medicines (for cuts, stomachache, headache, etc) when going out. At that time, Ieyasu was a frequent taker of medication, and he pointed out their importance not only for himself but also for higher-ranking samurai, and court nobles, etc. However, they were at a loss for the container to carry their medicines. They had an eye on an inro (a small box with a drawer contained their own seal and a vermilion inkpad) which they had in their house at that time.

They made their inro at home smaller, put their medicines instead of their seals and vermilion inkpad, and used it as their portable pill case. They continued, however, to use its original name "inro." The same phenomenon happened with "yakan,"(kettle) or 薬缶 in Chinese characters; it literally means 'medicine can' and was originally used for decocting medicines; however it was used for boiling water as well and people continued to use the original name "yakan" for it. When Samurai and their wives used these inro and hung them from their kimono sashes, it was a 'netsuke' that functioned as a 'catch'. In the early Edo period when inro became widespread, as netsuke, apparently itoin (copper seals imported from China around the 16th century) were often used.

'Itoin' was a receipt stamp for silken threads imported by trading ships from China, which was handed with the threads to consignee and stamped on the receipt issued by the consignee from the middle to the end of the Muromachi period. Used only once per transaction with different hand-carved or cast characters each time, itoin made deliveries safer. It was given to the consignee after use and never used as a receipt stamp again. At the end of the Muromachi period, there were a considerable number of used 'itoin' in Japan.

At that time, a famous collector of these 'itoin' was Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI. Following his lead, higher-ranking samurai competed to collect 'itoin'; and because there were quite a few 'itoin' in their residences, their itoin naturally played a role to hang inro from their obi. However, these 'itoin' tended to damage obi because of their angular shape, and from the 17th century they were polished to the smooth comfortable texture associated with the contemporary style. Also, from 17th and 18th centuries, a range of new designs - comfortable or funny, witty or elegant - contributed to the completion of the modern and advanced netsuke. The reason is considered that by the 17th century sets of 'inro' and 'netsuke' had spread not only among higher-ranking samurai and court nobles but also among people involved in tea ceremony culture, as well as merchants and townspeople, as an expression of style. Inro and netsuke for the wealthy classes came to be lacquered, with ivory, since these classes were interested in aesthetics without regard to cost.

It is 'netsuke' which has handed down the "spirit of true-born Japanese" at that time till now. The high aesthetics of 'netsuke' are now accepted by many people around the world as an example of sophisticated and unique Japanese culture.

Some people say that from this netsuke culture comes the present-day culture of using straps to attach things to mobile phones and other items.


Two kinds of classification are usually used for netsuke: shape and place of production. For shape, there are 輪車(環状)根付, Sashi netsuke (long, slender netsuke carved in three dimensions or with relief carving), Manju netsuke (round, flat netsuke), Hako netsuke (box-type netsuke), Katabori netsuke (figural, three-dimensional sculpture), Ryusa netsuke (manju-shaped netsuke with openwork design), Kagamibuta netsuke (mirror-lid netsuke), etc. As for places of production, Edo, Kyoto, Chukyo (Nagoya City, Ise Province, Gifu Prefecture) and Iwami Province are well-known.

[Original Japanese]