For about 300 years up to the early 20th century, Japanese men’s dress included a small box or pouch, called an inro, fastened to sash around his kimono by a toggle, called a netsuke.
The inro was originally a box to hold a seal. It was later divided into two compartments to hold ink as well. Around the early 17th century, they were divided again into as many as five or six compartments and were used to contain medicines and ointments. Inro were made in a wide variety of materials, including lacquer, ivory, wood, bone, porcelain and metal.
Netsuke were also made from a variety of material, including ivory, bone, wood, porcelain and metal. To be suitable for wearing, they had to be smaller than most forms of sculpture, generally about 4 cm long; they had to be rounded and smooth; and they had to have a passage through which the cord was passed. (Usually the passage has a larger hole at the end into which the cord is threaded and a smaller hole where it comes out.) With wear, netsuke acquire and additional smoothness and lustre, called “aji”, which is also valued.
The subject matter of netsuke is limitless: real and imaginary animals, gods and saints, goblins and ghosts and people in all sorts of situations are common. Less than half of all netsuke are signed, easily netsuke are hardly ever signed. Generally, very little is known of the history of individual pieces or of the various schools of carving.
With the opening up of Japan to the West from the last quarter of the 19th century, traditional dress began to give way to Western styles and netsuke carvers turned their attention to making ornaments, particularly “okimono” (standing things). In general, the quality of workmanship gradually declined.