A netsuke ('root-fix) was attached to the end of a small decorative container called an inro, stopping the weight of the inro from slipping through the waist sash (obi). The cord was passed round the back of the sash, and the netsuke hooked over the edge.
Netsuke were often carved from ivory or wood, but there are examples of other materials, such as carved nuts. They were either drilled to take the inro cord or had carved channels incorporated into the design. They were made to be smooth, and not have any prominent protuberances as these would either break off or catch on the kimono. They were made in many shapes and showed a variety of subjects.
Netsuke were designed to delight those who took the time to examine their miniature detail. The figures represented are often magical or mystical beings from myths and legends, such as Raiden, god of wind, thunder and lightning; Daruma, the historical founder of Zen Buddhism who meditated for nine years; and the Shojo, a creature who lives at the bottom of the sea and is fond of drinking sake. Simple depictions of everyday objects carved in exquisite detail, such as a basket of fish, were also produced.
Netsuke of a basket of fish, Japan
Museum no. A.59-1952
Netsuke of a basket of fish, including an octopus.
Netsuke - Shojo sleeping, Japan
Museum no. A.894-1910
Figure of a sleeping Shojo, a mythical creature with a liking for drinking sake. A kindly creature from Japanese mythology, Shojos live on the bottom of the sea. They have red hair and a pink or red skin and are naked but for a skirt of green seaweed. The figure here is sleeping and leaning forward into its lap, therefore the nakedness is hidden. They brew a medicinal white wine called 'shiroi sake' and other medicines. If a good person drinks the sake, it will taste delicious and heals all ailments. If consumed by a wicked person it will kill them, unless the drinker repents at once.
Netsuke depicting Raiden, Japan
Museum no. A.741-1910
Netsuke depicting Raiden, god of wind, thunder and lightning, amongst clouds with another figure beating a drum. He is usually depicted as a red demon with sharp claws and carrying a large drum..
Netsuke of a daruma, Japan
Museum no. A.23-1919
Netsuke in the shape of a daruma. One of the most popular charms in Japan, representing a Buddhist priest called Bodhidharma (Japanese name, Bodai Daruma), who was born in India in the 5th century. He introduced Zen meditation to China. People who meditate fold their legs under them and hold their arms close to the body - this explains why the doll has no arms or legs. The daruma developed its present form about 200 years ago. one of its best loved features is the shape, which makes it bounce back to an upright position after it is pushed over..
Inro ('seal-basket’) are small decorative containers that hang from the waist. They originated at the end of the sixteenth century and were worn by men to hold seals and herbal and other medicines. They were considered a particularly good way of keeping the contents sealed and fresh. By the eighteenth century they had become decorative accessories and were commissioned by the merchant class, provincial rulers and their samurai, and those that could afford them.
Inro are made from very thin leather, wood or paper covered in decorated lacquer. They consist of separate sections stacked on top of each other, and are kept together by a cord loop that passes through a channel on each side and underneath the bottom section. The sections are held together when the cord is tightened by pulling it through a bead (ojime), rather like the toggles used in outdoor clothing. The cord is then passed behind the waist sash (obi) so that the inro hangs freely from the waist. To prevent the inro from slipping through the obi, a small and often decorative toggle (netsuke) is attached to the end of the cord.
There is no fixed form of decoration. As with other objects, surfaces are decorated with a variety of subjects: figures were popular, sometimes engaged in the performing arts; monkeys, lions and oxen can also be seen; the changing seasons occur frequently.
Inro dragon design, Japan
Laquered wood, abalone shell
Museum no. W.195-1922
Inro with a design of dragon in flight over water.
Inro with fish and sea creature design by Kakosai, Japan
Laquered wood, shell, horn, coloured ivory
Museum no. W.158-1922
Inro with a design of fish and sea creatures.
Inro silhouette design, Japan
Late 18th - 19th century
Wood, black and gold togiadashie lacquer
Museum no. W.159-1922
Inro showing performing figures seen through a shoji (paper sliding door).