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  • blog imageToday we welcome author Noriko Tsuchiya to our blog to talk about her book Netsuke: 100 Miniature Masterpieces from Japan. Noriko is also the curator in the Japan gallery at The British Museum. She has five fascinating netsuke stories to share, so get ready and give her a warm welcome!

    In Japan netsuke were used to fasten a man's sash, an integral part of Japanese costume. Skilfully worked, these miniature carvings are of great artistic value, but they also provide a window into Japanese culture and society. The book brings together one hundred of the most beautiful and interesting netsuke and uncovers the stories behind them, featuring stunning photography.

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    Aubergine with Mount Fuji and a hawk


    Boxwood, partially lacquered, mid 1800s. H. 5.2 cm

    British Museum HG.215

    Given by Professor John and Mrs Anne Hull Grundy

    This clever, playful netsuke when closed represents a round Japanese aubergine, but once opened into two halves it reveals Mount Fuji and a hawk. The subject is based on a Japanese proverb about the first dream of the New Year, ‘One: Fuji, two: hawk, three: aubergine’ (ichi Fuji, ni taka, san nasubi). Traditionally, it is believed that the contents of the first dream will foretell the luck of the dreamer during the coming year. It is considered particularly good fortune to dream of (in order) Mount Fuji, a hawk and then an aubergine.

    blog imageDutchman holding a cockerel


    Ivory, about 1780. H. 11.8 cm

    British Museum F.558

    Given by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks

    During Most of the Edo period (1615-1868), Japan adopted a policy of relative national isolation. Dutch merchants were the only European permitted to live in Japan, and they were confined to Dejima, a small man-made island in Nagasaki Bay. It would have been rare for a Japanese person to see a foreigner, so the Dutch became the object of great curiosity and a perfect subject for netsuke carvers. Most Dutchmen were portrayed with set characteristics: a large nose, curly red hair, long buttoned-up coat and wide-brimmed hat. The ivory Dutchman pictured here holds a fighting cock; the sport was a popular entertainment at that time.

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    Meditating skeleton


    Silver set in stag antler, late 1800s. H. 4.2 cm; W. 4 cm

    British Museum HG.290

    Given by Professor John and Mrs Anne Hull Grundy

    This eccentric netsuke portrays a skeleton in a meditative pose with its hands clasped in prayer and feet placed together. The netsuke employs an unusual combination of materials, silver at the fron and stag antler at the back. The motif of meditating skeleton has been depicted in various artistic forms in Japan, evoking the fleetingness of life. Although there are many interpretations of the subject, it might simply be a humorous statement on the human fixation with earthly life and the transitory nature of existence.

    blog imageSleeping rat By Masanao of Kyoto

    Ivory, Kyoto, late 1700s. W. 5.7 cm

    British Museum F.782

    Given by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks

    This is one of star netsuke in the British Museum collection. It was carved by a great netsuke carver, Masanao, who was active in Kyoto in the late 18th century. It is so realistically carved that some people even say that it is not sleeping but it is dead! However, if we look at it closer, we can almost feel its fur and we can also see its paws clenched as if in the middle of a dream. This netsuke was probably worn by a man born in the year of the rat, or it may have served as a talisman for attracting prosperity, since the rats are associated with Daikoku, one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune.

    blog imageGoldfish By Masanao I of Ise (1815-1890)

    Boxwood, with eyes inlaid in light and dark horn, Ise, early 1800s

    W. 5.5 cm

    British Museum F.1074

    Given by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks

    This ugly – yet adorable – goldfish with puffy face is called the ‘lion-head goldfish’ or ranchū, and has been highly regarded and specially bred in Japan. Keeping goldfish as pets became popular among the general population from the later Edo period (1615-1868). At that time, a glass bowl would have been a luxury and quite expensive, so goldfish were usually kept in a wooden basin or a ceramic bowl. Therefore, they were viewed from above, and not from the side as they usually are today. Because the fish were viewed in this way, the most appreciated goldfish were ranchū, and they were referred to as the ‘king of goldfish’ mostly because they look like the shape of a koban or gold coin when viewed from above.

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