What are Netsuke?
Netsuke are toggles designed to suspend objects such as small bags and inro (lacquer boxes) from the obi (sash), which is worn with the kimono. They evolved in Japan over three hundred years ago, and have changed greatly over time. The original netsuke are thought to have evolved from the use of natural objects such as shells and roots and slowly developed into intricately carved sculptural objects.
Where netsuke differs from other miniature sculpture is that they are essentially functional objects and therefore have certain constraints placed on their design. These are: Firstly, they must be small enough to pass between the obi and the kimono. Secondly, they must be compact, without protrusions which could break, or catch on and damage the threads of the kimono. Thirdly, they must have an opening for a cord to pass through, to enable objects to be suspended from them. Finally, they must be made from a durable material so that they will not be easily damaged from the rigors of use.
Unlike most other sculpture, netsuke are carved on every surface, as every aspect is intended to be viewed.
These days netsuke are rarely used functionally, however their beauty and uniqueness is still largely attributed to the functional constraints. Therefore, contemporary netsuke artists continue to take this into consideration when approaching each design.
The study of netsuke is a vast and fascinating subject, and there are many publications on the subject if you are interested to learn more.