Ancient art on display in Tokyo

Ancient art on display in Tokyo

by Norio Muroi
Stripes Japan

What they lack in size, they can make up in value.

Netsuke, or miniature carvings from ivory, bone or wood, were a way to carry items while wearing a pocket-less kimono.

Nowadays, netsuke is highly sought after art and can be worth over six figures. Through March 20, many of these ancient and valuable works are on display at Mitaka City Gallery of Art in Tokyo.

Although netsuke was created in Japan, it became highly valued artwork in foreign countries. An example was a piece of 18th century netsuke in perfect condition, called “Standing Horse” by Tomotada, Kyoto, which sold for $260,000. Believe or not, 90% of netsuke produced locally in Japan went out to Europe and the United States and never returned.

Netsuke was invented to protect items that were hung and carried on a person, such as a pillbox or tobacco pouch from being lost or stolen. Items were often hung from kimonos, which had no pockets, and the netsuke acted as a stopper on the belt.

The rare exhibition features 300 netsuke from the Kyoto Seishu Netsuke Museum, and includes 60 ko-netsuke produced in Edo Period (1603-1868).

Unlike ordinary artwork, netsuke has limitations in its design because it has to be sturdy enough to withstand daily use. Netsuke must have a pair of holes to string a belt through. It must be rounded, carved on all sides, and around 4cm long (1.57 inches).
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the first netsuke was made in Japan, but they have been seen in paintings from the Azuci-Momoyama Period (1568-1598) and early Edo-period (1603-1868).

As times went on, the design and workmanship became more. Prices ranged from $10-$30 to much higher prices for custom orders. Most men were believed to own over a dozen for daily use, special occasions, as well as their collections.

They began fading away after the Meiji Period (1868-1912), as people began the shift from wearing kimonos to more Western-style dresses.

In 1971, Robert and Miranda Kinsey, avid netsuke collectors from Hawaii and board members of Netsuke Kenkyukai, encouraged Japanese netsuke carvers not to copy traditional, but create something original. Today, modern carvers still follow the advice and are creating new and unique netsuke.

Ivory is an ideal material for netsuke carvings because of its softness and color – white, which is easy to change. However, ivory can no longer be used due to a law set in 1989, which doesn’t allow for the import or export of ivory. Nestuke carvers tend to use bones, deer horns and wood instead.

Tips from a guided tour by Akira Kuroiwa (president of International Netsuke Association)
The first thing a carver does is choose their material, so check which material each piece of art is made from. Second, the title of the piece will help give you some insight into what the carver was trying to create. Finally, enjoy seeing the progression of netsuke carvings through the years.

You will be amazed by how perfectly carved and how many little details there are. If you take a close look with a monocular viewer or a hand glass, you will be surprised at some of things you find, like a “Fly on a Bowl” and “Cricket and Cucumbers.”

Times: Until March 20, 10 a.m.-8 p.m., closed on Mondays.
Price: 600 yen adult, 300 yen college, senior high school students and seniors (ages 65+).
Where: Mitaka City Gallery of Art
Directions: One-minute walk from JR Mitaka Station (South Exit) on Chuo Line (17 minute ride from Shinjuku) and Mitaka City Gallery of Art is located at Coral 5th floor.
Permanent Netsuke Display at
Kyoto Seishu Netsuke Museum (
Tokyo National Museum/Koryuen (
Free monocular and glass available at the box office, please bring a photo ID to rent.

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