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Art & Design

In The Art Of Netsuke, Tiny Toggles Tell Delightful Stories Of Japan

Maia Stern and Claire O'Neill / NPR via YouTube

In the hands of Japanese netsuke carvers like Ryushi Komada, something quite mundane becomes sublime. From a simple block of wood emerges a delicate and expressive face, the sense of movement in the folds of a dress, the fine strings on an ancient instrument.

A third-generation carver, Komada is a master creator of these charm-like pieces that are the perfect embodiment of "necessity is the mother of invention" — and, in this instance, artistry. They look like miniature sculptures, just an inch or two tall. But they serve a specific purpose.

Netsuke emerged in the late 17th century during Japan's Edo period, when men wore kimonos every day. Those garments didn't have pockets, so men stashed items such as pens, tobacco or medicines in pouches or pillboxes, called inro, which hung from their kimono sashes, or obi, by cords. The containers were attached to one end of the cord; a netsuke was attached to the other, and served as an anchor, hooking over the obi.

(L) A demonstration of how netsuke, tiny carved pieces, were used in traditional dress. (R) Netsuke were worn as part of an ensemble that included inro, or containers, and ojime, or sliding beads that allow inro to be opened and closed. (L) Maia Stern/NPR and (R) Will Kirk/homewoodphoto.jhu.edu/Evergreen Collection hide caption

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(L) Maia Stern/NPR and (R) Will Kirk/homewoodphoto.jhu.edu/Evergreen Collection

(L) A demonstration of how netsuke, tiny carved pieces, were used in traditional dress. (R) Netsuke were worn as part of an ensemble that included inro, or containers, and ojime, or sliding beads that allow inro to be opened and closed.

(L) Maia Stern/NPR and (R) Will Kirk/homewoodphoto.jhu.edu/Evergreen Collection

What could have been purely functional — like a toggle, button or zipper — became tiny works of art, eventually coveted by collectors in the U.S. and Europe after Japan opened up to the wider world in the late 1800s.

"They were portable, they were intriguing, they were often carefully worked," says James Ulak, senior curator of Japanese art at the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, D.C. "They were charming, the best of them told little stories about Japan that you could dig into forever. All of this was a collector's delight."

Netsuke designs and motifs reflected nature and the seasons, myths and mythical creatures, theatrical masks, the animals of the zodiac, scenes of everyday life — in short, the themes of Japanese art writ small. Some were humorous; others erotic. They were made of ivory, ebony, wood, ceramics, and could be inlaid with metals, painted or lacquered.

In the Edo period's rigid social order — with the warrior class atop the hierarchy, followed by farmers, artisans and merchants — netsuke were an acceptable way for those who weren't necessarily of high social class — but had money or aspirations of urbanity — to express themselves.

Netsuke can be made from materials such as ivory, wood and ceramics, and subjects, ranging from the humorous to mythical. (Top, L to R): The World's First One-man Band with Eight Arms; Zato (The Blind Musician); Horse. (Bottom, L to R): A Toad and Sandal (A Safe Return); Fukusuke (The Good Luck Doll); Oni Mask (A Vengeful Ghost). All photos by Andrew Wilds/Hopkins Collection, except bottom, left, by Will Kirk/homewoodphoto.jhu.edu hide caption

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All photos by Andrew Wilds/Hopkins Collection, except bottom, left, by Will Kirk/homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

They were small, delicate things that made a "tiny inflection statement in the overall fashion ensemble," says Ulak. "These were largely things worn by wealthy people ... and could be changed in and out depending on mood or season ... and showed a degree of wealth and a knowledge about cultural subtleties."

Komada is helping to keep the art of netsuke alive. The renowned artist and teacher has been carving netsuke for nearly 60 years. Komada and his daughter and interpreter, Makiko, were in Washington, D.C., recently to demonstrate the craft in conjunction with an exhibit of netsuke that's on display at the Japan Information & Culture Center, until May 15.

Born in 1934, Komada first learned to carve from his father, who himself learned from his father. When he was 15, Komada began to specialize in netsuke.

Netsuke carvers use a vast array of handmade tools, including different types of knives and files. These belong to contemporary master carver Ryushi Komada. Maia Stern/NPR hide caption

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Maia Stern/NPR

Netsuke carvers use a vast array of handmade tools, including different types of knives and files. These belong to contemporary master carver Ryushi Komada.

Maia Stern/NPR

These days, he works in a studio filled with more than 700 tools — he has 300 carving knives alone — many of which he made by hand. After the ban of the ivory trade, Komada switched to using materials such as wood, animal bone and antlers.

Carving a single netsuke can take up to two months. Komada cuts, carves and shaves, often using very fine blades, explains Makiko. He must work with the grain of the wood.

The work is precise and meticulous: He carves eyes, a nose and a mouth on a face that's less than half an inch big; out of wood he works details like the three strings of a Japanese shamisen, the texture of a straw hat and the string of the hat that ties under a woman's chin. It can take up to 10 days to carve a face.

"He is always tense when he does carving of the face," Makiko says. "It has to be carved in relation to other parts. He moves the carving knife really slowly. One stroke can make a huge difference. If he's careless, he can ruin it."

Even after all these years, the work still thrills Komada.

Ulak, the curator, recalls Komada speaking animatedly over dinner recently about his craft.

What I really enjoyed the most about him was this notion of he's accepted serendipity, that you can go in with a plan, and then things develop as you're carving. The wood tells you something else, or you slip here and there, and you say, well, where will this go? And so it's not a perfect plan.

And to see how that works out in a very tiny scale to me is amazing. I just love the way he talked about, the essential thing in a figural carving is the nose. Once you lay that out, everything falls into place.

Everyone thinks there are these secrets and ... ancient formula passed down through generations — and there is that to a degree. But the moment of taking up the carving utensils, even at 80 whatever, he described his nervousness at doing this. That's terribly engaging, at least for me, and how he loves it. He just loves it.

Komada carves only his own original designs — "He doesn't like to copy other people's designs," Makiko says — and his inspiration sometimes comes from unlikely quarters.

At that dinner, Ulak learned that Komada is a big fan of Western movies of the 1940s and '50s and of Hitchcock, Deborah Kerr, Jimmy Stewart and his glamorous, starlet leading ladies.

"He loves those faces, you get an idea of his tastes. I just had images of black and white glossies running through my head," Ulak says.

Top: Ryushi Komada uses handmade tools that each have a specific purpose. Bottom: Komada uses a magnifying glass to examine the fineness of a blade. Maia Stern/NPR hide caption

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Maia Stern/NPR

Whether contemporary or classic in inspiration, "holding a netsuke is, in some ways, like holding a miniature world in the palm of your hands," write the organizers of the D.C. netsuke exhibit.

These days, says Takaaki Nemoto, a diplomat at the Japanese embassy and co-organizer of the exhibit, many Japanese aren't familiar with netsuke.

But that is changing, thanks to masters such as Komada and the growing interest of young Japanese artists who are less tied to tradition and fans inside the country, such as the late Prince Takamado.

As for actually using netsuke in contemporary Japan, the prince had a suggestion: that they could adorn the indispensable tool for modern living, the cellphone.

Komada holds a netsuke that is about two-thirds of the way finished. It takes up to two months to create one carving. Maia Stern/NPR hide caption

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Maia Stern/NPR

Komada holds a netsuke that is about two-thirds of the way finished. It takes up to two months to create one carving.

Maia Stern/NPR
Correction April 3, 2017

A previous version of this story misspelled the late Prince Takamado's name as Prince Takamoda.