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Netsuke, from Ne ‘root’ and Tsuke ‘attach to’, a Japanese art form that needs to be held

They bought them like we would buy cufflinks, with an eye on how they looked. Obviously, if they chose a shishi they must have been a bit superstitious, but the value lay in the shishi, not in the netsuke

Japan, 1600. General Tokugawa Leyasu triumphed in the battle of Sekigahara, and rid himself of the opposition by cutting off some forty thousand heads. In 1603, he was elected shōgun and moved the capital to Edo, today’s Tokyo. The country closed its doors to contact with foreigners and established strict class division: samurai, peasants, craftsmen and merchants. At the base of the social pyramid were craftsmen and merchants, with the latter at the bottom as they did not produce anything. They called them chōnin—citizens or bourgeois. They lived in the ukiyo, the floating world.

There was no cultural elite in Edo. There were no literati. Stories of the floating world—populated by courtesans, sumo wrestlers and actors—were narrated in images by craftsmen born in the ukiyo who had to work for a living. Illustrators were obviously not the only ones who had to make it to the end of the month. Leveraging the vanity of the merchants and their desire to flaunt their wealth, sculptors and engravers in the ukiyo specialized in the production of fine accessories that were, however, not so valuable to be banned by law. These were mainly small containers (sagemono) to be attached to an obi, the sash worn around the waist over the kimono; a drilled pearl, the ojime, holding the cords together counterbalanced, at the other end of the obi, by a miniature no bigger than the palm of a hand, called a netsuke—from ne, ‘root’, and tsuke, ‘attach to’.

There were a wide variety of subjects: men, animals, plants, mythological and fantastic beasts.

You need to imagine a merchant in the ukiyo choosing his accessories, almost like a dandy. It is easy to conceal sagemono and netsuke among the folds of a kimono, hiding them from curious eyes. If the eyes belong to a beautiful courtesan, however, they can even be swung quite coquettishly. Different sagemono have different purposes—a tobacco pouch, a coin purse, a small writing set, a medicine holder. These very fine cases are usually in lacquer or ivory, with animal or floral decorations.

Unless the set was commissioned, which was a rare occurrence, netsuke and sagemono told two different stories. They were bought separately and balanced each other according to the rules of Zen: on the one hand the nobility of the lacquer, on the other the irreverence of the button. The netsuke that have survived through to modern days are mainly of three kinds: round flat manjū, small round katabori sculptures, and sashi, elongated and fine. The most popular materials were ivory, wood and horn, but there are several exceptions—amber, for example, or coral, toucan beak and tortoiseshell. Much depended on the imagination of the netsukeshi, but above all on the availability of the material. There were a wide variety of subjects: men, animals, plants, mythological and fantastic beasts. Favorites included shishi, the Chinese guardian lion, shoki, the less than fearsome demon queller, and Okame the peasant, who danced to entice the sun goddess out of the cave where she was hiding. Then, in the mid-nineteenth century, it all unexpectedly ended. 

The Commodore of the United States, Matthew Perry sailed to Japan with four warships—their color and belching thick dark smoke earning them the name the Black Ships. The aim was to force trade relations with the West upon a Japan that, inevitably, had to agree. The twelfth shōgun of the Tokugawa dynasty died just a few days later—due to the pain, it is said. In 1854, the Treaty of Kanagawa sanctioned the reopening of the ports and western culture poured into Japan, marking the beginning of a phase of very rapid modernization. Western clothes, complete with pockets, replaced the less practical kimonos. Wallets, purses, cigar and lighter holders did away with the need for the sagemono and as a consequence also of their counterweights, the netsuke. Meanwhile, for the European and American high society it was love at first sight for these tiny statues and the craftsmen in the ukiyo were more than happy to get rid of them given that they were by now impossible to sell in their home country anyway.

The netsuke that have survived through to modern days are mainly of three kinds: round flat manjū, small round katabori sculptures, and sashi, elongated and fine.

Today the most important netsuke collections are therefore to be found in the West, with the British Museum owning a remarkable assortment of more than 2,100 pieces, bought and donated over the centuries. Giuseppe Piva has a Japanese art gallery in Milan. I meet him for an interview on two topics: the material and symbolic value of netsuke.

I had various preconceived ideas on the subject, it would appear. «The material value of a netsuke depends neither on how old it is nor on the material it is made from. Some producers are obviously more important than others, but what really counts is just the quality, the beauty in general of the netsuke». I try to point out the ones I consider to be the most beautiful in his collection. Epic fail. «Only experience can help you here. However, even collectors and their evaluations are often unexpectedly surprised by auction results. I remember an amazing one in Cologne, last year, when the selling price was double or triple the initial evaluations. I remember a netsuke in ivory, a foreigner with rabbit—a Dutch sailor in French Navy uniform, with trousers fastened on the diagonal by agate buttons; a truly unique piece. The starting price was 26,000/30,000 euros, but the bidders went mad and it finally went for over 200,000 euros. The netsuke sold for the highest amount at auction that I remember was an ivory deer by Okatomo, one of the best-loved creators. It went for 216,000 euros in 2011 in London».

Even my idea about the original symbolic value of the netsuke was all wrong. I was convinced they were like tokens, or amulets for their owners, whereas the Japanese in the Edo era would never have dreamt of lending this kind of value to their buttons. «They bought them like we would buy cufflinks, with an eye on how they looked. Obviously, if they chose a shishi they must have been a bit superstitious, but the value lay in the shishi, not in the netsuke». I admit that I am difficult to convince. I am almost disappointed. I ask Giuseppe Piva if I can at least hold his netsuke and he lets me. This is the real magic: holding one in your hand. Listening to their owner talk about the piece he had weighed in his hand the evening before, in a restaurant. «A subject I had never seen before, a demon on top of a hat, pointing to the tip of the sword of the shoki underneath the hat». He even has a small regret to share, that he missed a special appointment. «I am a member of the International Netsuke Society and they organize a day on which each of its members can touch a netsuke from the collection at the British Museum. I only discovered it was limited to a lucky few when I was already on the plane. I could have held a wonderful one in my hand: a sleeping mouse». He shows me it in the catalogue.

As I leave the gallery, one thing I do seem to have understood. I have this sort of illumination. I seek confirmation in The Hare with Amber Eyes. A Hidden Inheritance, the 2010 masterpiece by Edmund de Waal, writer, potter, art historian, and alchemist. In the middle of the book, a collection of 264 netsuke that belonged to Charles Ephrussi—a Jew, dandy, art patron and collector—and inherited by the author, who decided to reconstruct their story. The story of the objects, he stresses, not of the people who owned them or the sentimentalism still attached to them. «Melancholy is a sort of default vagueness, a get-out clause, a smothering lack of focus. And this netsuke is a small, tough explosion of exactitude. It deserves this kind of exactitude in return», writes de Waal. As the story of the collection slowly unfolds however, he discovers two things. The first: inheritances cannot be separated from their sentimental value. «The way in which objects are handed down is pure narration. I’m leaving you this because I love you. Or because someone else left it to me. Because I bought it in a special place. So that you can take care of it. So that it complicates your life. So that it will make so-and-so mad with envy».The second: objects hold inside them the ghosts of those who have loved them. It is vital that we who receive them, touch them in turn. We are westerners, therefore sentimental.
We will not fall in love with a netsuke until we hold it.


La Galliavola Arte Orientale

La Galliavola Arte Orientale gallery exhibits hundreds of ancient netsuke, as well as Chinese porcelains and lacquers, Chinese and Tibetan bronzes, paintings, jade and hard stones. The gallery first opened in the early 1980s with Patrizia Chignoli, a scholar of oriental art. Since 2001 it has been run by her husband, Roberto Gaggianesi, and daughter, Carla. Since April 2007, La Galliavola has been publishing the quarterly bulletin Netsuke.