Insight | Japanese Netsuke

Insight | Japanese Netsuke

February 22nd 2023

Welcome to another Insight, this time we are focusing on the little Japanese Netsuke. We are delving into the history of the charming Netsuke and what made this little carved object so known around the world. As always, sit back relax and enjoy the read with a good cuppa and learn all about Netsuke.

First, lets start with the basics, I’m sure some of you are familiar with Netsukes but for those who aren’t, what exactly is a Netsuke? (Pronounced nets-keh) A netsuke 根付, is a miniature carving/sculpture made in Japan as far back as the 17th century. Initially a netsuke was a basic carved button fastener on the cords of an inro box (a traditional Japanese case for holding small objects, suspended from the obi/sash worn around the waist when wearing a kimono). From a simply carved button fastener netsuke later developed into ornately sculpted objects of craftsmanship which have become highly desirable and collectable due to the various shapes, forms, and quality they come in along with the hundreds of different sculptors.


Japanese Netsuke late Edo signed Masayoshi from our Asian Art Collection available here

Netsuke History

The Kimono successor to the Kosode originally did not have pockets however the sleeves of the kimono could be used to store smaller, less breakable items. In the early years the men who wore kimono needed a larger and stronger container in which to store items such as pipes, tobacco, and money. As they were key objects carried upon a person during this time it resulted in the development of containers known as sagemono, which were hung by cords from obi.

Sagemono is term describing containers and pouches that could be suspended from an Obi accompanied by a fastener (ojime) and toggle (netsuke). These were often Inro’s which came in varying materials and held multiple compartments which were pulled apart on a robe to expose the contents amongst other pouches and small woven baskets. The container was matched with a fastener which secured the cord at the top of the sash, these were a carved button-like toggle called a netsuke. Netsuke production was most popular during the Edo period with many different forms from Buddhistic figures to animals (1603–1867).

Japanese carved boxwood Netsuke late Edo period available in our Asian Art Collection here

Netsuke and inro slowly declined during the latter stages of the Meiji period 1868-1912 as Japanese clothes were gradually westernised outlaying their practical use. Fortunately, Netsuke were and still are very popular amongst Western collectors and their works were exported heavily to both Europe and America. Obviously, prices were driven by both quality, particular makers, and subjects. Today Japanese Netsuke can be found all over the world with exceptional pieces residing in the world’s top museums and private collections.


Netsuke prices range dramatically from several pounds to tens of thousands and this can vary on multiple factors for example Netsuke production continues today with reproductions costing very little and they can be found in souvenir shops, tourists locations and museums. For the higher quality pieces, they can be found from reputable dealers and auction houses around the world however, it is crucial to have a good understanding of objects before you buy them. They were often reproduced with fake signatures and vary heavily on quality. Below we have included some images of high selling pieces so you can gain an understanding of market values at the top of the market. Whilst it is impossible to give a price guideline if particular pieces have particular provenance or they are rare it is key to gain an understanding of particular subjects and makers. Generally, the more common and affordable pieces range from £500 to £3000 the value jumps when you find rare subjects or makers. Whilst age can be a contributing factor it doesn’t necessarily impact the price always. Finding a balance between all these contributing factors will bag you a decent Netsuke worthy of any collection.

An ivory netsuke of a shaggy dog and pup signed Gechu

Sold at Bonhams auction house for £221’000

The Julius & Arlene Katchen Collection of Fine Netsuke Part I

Available to view here

An unusual Japanese wood Netsuke of a Snail signed Masanao

Sold at Woolley & Wallis Auction House for £7500

Japanese Works of Art Nov 2022

Available to view here

Japanese Netsuke of sea creatures Signed Kaigyoku

Sold at Sothebys Auction House for €21’150 (£18,596.33)

December 2012 available to view here

An Early Japanese lacquered wood Netsuke Signed in pottery seal Ogawa Haritsu, 1663-1747

Sold at Lempertz Auction House for €52’920 (£46,530.38)

June 2022 available to view here

So what materials are used in Japanese Netsuke?  

In the crafting of Netsuke there is no real preferable material and often it comes down to collector’s preferences however there are some types of netsuke in which the maker mainly used one particular material. For example, in the above images the Sea creature’s netsuke is thought to be the only one known in wood, the other examples known are in ivory increasing the price tenfold due to its rarity. Below we have compiled a list of various materials known to have been used in Netsuke carving, whilst it is a comprehensive list it is not limited to the below content.

  • Boxwood / wood
  • Ivory – (most commonly used before the modern-day ivory ban)
  • Lacquer
  • Metal
  • Hippopotamus Tooth
  • Boar Tush
  • Porcelain
  • Pottery
  • Cane
  • Hornbill
  • Agate
  • Walnut
  • Black Coral – Specifically a species named Umimatsu
  • Walrus Tusk
  • Baleen
  • Whale Bone
  • Tagua Nut
  • Bamboo

What Subjects are used in Netsuke Carvings?

We mentioned above that there are a range of subjects that the Japanese used in Netsukes. The subjects used came from a range of sources for example in the early years cultural subjects were used such as Deities and mythical creatures however in later years westerners influence often dictated subjects such as Dutch figures. We have compiled a small list of subjects that will give you an idea of Netsukes that are on the market but again as there is such a diverse range it is not limited to the list below.

  • Deities
  • Mythical Creatures
  • Animals
  • People
  • Professions, Trades and Craft figures such as merchants, fishermen
  • Novelty subjects such as figures riding giant fish.
  • Erotic
  • Abstract designs such as patterns
  • General Objects such as weapons and coins
  • Landscapes with multiple figures delicately carved

Different Types of Netsuke 

Whilst we mentioned there are different materials and different subjects there are also different types of Netsuke and by types, we mean how the object is carved for example if it is flat or hollowed out. Below we have compiled a list of the different types of Netsuke on the market. If you are a keen collector, you may collect a certain material, subject and type for example a 3-dimensional sculpted animal netsuke made of boxwood. As there are a huge amount on available it would make a considerable collection if you were to collect that type alone. Please see the list below.

  • Anabori-netsuke 穴彫根付 – A hollowed out netsuke often modelled as a clam with its centre hollowed out and carved with figures or landscapes. 

Anabori netsuke of a carved ivory clam shell

  • Kagamibuta-netsuke 鏡蓋根付 – Shaped like the Japanese confectionary Manju but with a metal disc to the centre serving as a lid to a shallow bowl beneath.

  • Manju-netsuke 饅頭根付 -Similar to the Kagamibuta without the pocket and lid. Being round in shape and thick to hold carved often in relief and sometimes in two halves.

  • Karakuri-netsuke からくり根付 – Often a novelty and humours Netsuke cleverly carved with moving parts or hidden surprises.

  • Katabori-netsuke 形彫根付 – The most common type of netsuke, compact and carved with three-dimensional figures of rounded shape. Usually around between one & three inches.

  • Sashi-netsuke 差根付 – Similar to the Katabori but in elongated form, literally translated as “stab” netsuke.  Approximately they measure about 150 mm (6 inches) long.

  • Obi-hasami – An elongated netsuke with a curved top and bottom like a clip which is allowed to slide up and down a belt or sash. It sits behind the obi with the curved ends visible.

  • Ryusa-netsuke 柳左根付 – Similar in form to the Kagamibuta and Manju netsuke but carved like lace. It is pierced throughout so that light is transmitted through the carving.

  • Men-netsuke 面根付 the largest category after Katabori, carved as masks. These were often imitations of full-size Nohmasks and share characteristics common with both katabori and manju/kagamibuta.

We hope that you have enjoyed the read and possibly picked up something from the Netsuke insight post. The best advice we can give to new collectors or academics looking to further your knowledge without cost would be to visit as many museums as possible. There are many museums across the country and around the world that house exceptional collections of Netsuke some of the main examples are the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) which is home to a permanent exhibition of 150 netsuke from the Raymond and Frances Bushell collection. There are a total of 600 netsuke in the collection, which are regularly rotated into the exhibition and, the British Museum in London has a permanent exhibition of netsuke from the A.H. Grundy collection. Besides these two exhibitions you will also find netsuke collections at the museum of Fine Arts in Boston, National Art Museum in Tokyo and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

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