What is netsuke?


Netsuke is a form of miniature sculpture that represents a Japanese tradition of intricate carving that is centuries old. It began as a practical item but over time developed into a real art form, created by established Japanese masters but now carved by sculptors around the world.

The kimono, the traditional form of Japanese dress, did not have pockets. While women would tuck small personal items into their sleeves, the men suspended their medicine bags, tobacco pouches, pipes, purses or writing tools on a silk cord from their obi (kimono sash).

The hanging objects that contain the personal items are called sagemono. In order to stop the silk cord from slipping through the obi, a small anchor was attached. This anchor is called a netsuke. (The most popular pronunciation is ‘net-ski’, while the actual Japanese is closer to “netskeh”). Ojime, a sliding bead, was strung on the silk cord between the netsuke and the sagemono to tighten or loosen the opening of the sagemono.

In the late 19th century the use of kimonos began to decline, and netsuke became prized miniature sculptures instead of just fashion accessories. Carvers adapted and began to experiment try new ideas and new materials.




Image by Rama

Forms of Netsuke

kataborinetsuke or "sculpture netsuke" - this is the most familiar style, a compact three-dimensional figure carved in the round, usually around one to three inches high


anaborinetsuke or "hollowed netsuke" - subset of katabori which is hollowed-out and carved within; the most common are scenes in clams

sashinetsuke - this is an elongated form of katabori, literally "stab" netsuke, similar in length to the sticks and gourds used as improvised netsuke before carved pieces were produced, about six inches long

obi-hasami - another elongated netsuke with curved top and bottom. It sits behind the obi with the curved ends visible above and below the obi.

mennetsuke or "mask netsuke" - the largest category after katabori, these were often imitations of full size noh masks, and share characteristics in common with both katabori and manju/kagamibuta

manjunetsuke or "manju netsuke"- a thick, flat, round type of netsuke, with carving usually done in relief, sometimes made of two ivory halves. Shaped like a manju.

ryusanetsuke - shaped like a manju, but carved like lace, so that light shines completely through

kagamibutanetsuke or "mirror lid netsuke" - shaped like a manju, but with a metal disc serving as lid to a shallow bowl, usually of ivory. The metal is often highly decorated with a wide variety of metallurgical techniques.

karakurinetsuke or "trick/mechanism netsuke" - any netsuke that does something, ones with moving parts or hidden surprises

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Materials Used To Create Netsuke
A variety of materials have been used to create netsuke. These include:
  • wood - the most common. Boxwood was especially popular.
  • ivory - a close second. Of course, ivory is no longer used anymore.
  • narwhal - a type of whale. The tusk and upper jawbone were used for carving.
  • horn
  • metal - mainly copper alloys
  • lacquer
  • bamboo - different parts of the bamboo plant were used: the root (chikkon), the stem, and woven split bamboo
  • natural and carved gourd
  • shell
  • rattan
  • walnut
  • agate
  • walrus tusk



    an exploded view of an inro with the names of the major features, from Raymond Bushell in his book The Inro Handbook


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