The major significance of the Japanese netsuke lie in their practical beginnings and becomes solidified with their metamorphosis into a cultural art form. The netsuke originated in Japan around the late sixteen hundreds and became steadily popular amongst the male classes throughout the late 1800’s. This is considered the Edo period of Japan a time greatly focused on the morality of the people and war. The code of the Samurai greatly influenced the region during this time as well as the root of Zen Buddhism. Because of this latter influence care was taken to add simplicity to ones way of life and this was especially represented in the clothing of the time.
Men wore robes and tunics of simple materials with little to no adornment and minus pockets. Because of this it became necessary for them to find ways to store necessities on their person. Tobaccos, pipes, papers and even money were stored in containers or pockets that were hung around their neck and placed beneath their garments for safe keeping. These “purses” were held by rope or twine that was clasped at the base of the neck by the netsuke.
This netsuke evolved from simply clasps to a variety of styles and forms. The Kataborinesuke (sculpture netsuke) was and is the most popular group of these objects. They were often made of the more fancy materials and depicted animals and religious motifs. They were one to five inches long. Other sets of netsuke include the Anaborinetsuke (hollowed netsuke), Sashinetsuke, Obihasami, and the Mennetsuke or Mask Netsuke.
Often times the netsuke was the extent of adornment and jewelry worn by the men of the Edo period. These button like toggles were often crafted from materials such as ivory, box wood and hard wood. Whatever materials were present in the area were used for these clasps. As they gained popularity and became more of an art form and depiction of character raw materials such as metal, hippo tooth, boar tusk, and lacquer became the prime materials used in the creation of these little figurines.
As both a utilitarian form and art form the Japanese netsuke often depicted every day life of Edo Japan: people, places, things, sex, religion, and trade. Today these figurines have become a means for later generations to see a way of like long since extinct. Japan has always been rich in history and culture. Their art has always been one of great merit and influence among both the western and eastern cultures. The netsuke is just one of the many remaining remnants of proof to such claims.