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Q&A results - Netsuke and Inro: The Beginning, a presentation with examples from the British Museum by Max Rutherston

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Postby souldeep » Mon May 18, 2015 4:36 pm

Dear Member,

We hope you enjoyed this first instalment from a series of educational videos for the INS membership. Below you can find the questions submitted from the first session, along with Max's responses.

If you haven't yet watched the video, or would like to do so again then you can find the instructions on how to do so here -

Please note - this thread is locked to preserve the Q&A content. No replies will be possible to this specific thread.


Q1) My first question is actually related to the dearth of high quality lectures/ research resources for those interested in netsuke. As someone who would like to dig deeper, one of my biggest disappointments with netsuke collecting is how little deep research and historical analysis exists. There are gads of books with subjective judgements of merit, there are plenty of resources on signatures (and lots of opinions on "authenticity"), there are lots of materials on price. But there is almost nothing that approaches netsuke from the point of view of art history - tying together trends and carvers over time and location, tracing them back through contemporary materials, and reporting serious research. Am I right? Are we all doomed to conduct all our netsuke discourse using only the language of money and subjective taste? Your thoughts and recommendations will be appreciated! - Chip Lutton

A1) Dear Chip, One of the huge problems of netsuke research is how little original written material exists in the country of origin, Japan. The Japanese themselves did not take netsuke seriously for a very long time. If you accept my supposition that netsuke of some sort must have existed from as early as 1600, it takes until 1781 for the Soken Kisho to discuss them even cursorily. You allude to this in your next question. Add to that the complication that any newly discovered documentation would be in Japanese, a language which few netsuke enthusiasts read, and you can appreciate the scale of the problem. Those in the community who make interesting discoveries by observation and comparison share their insights in the International Netsuke Society Journal. – Max Rutherston


Q2) My second question asks you whether some of the 200+ year gap in netsuke records that you tease out in your lecture might be filled by the more rudimentary, utilitarian objects? I have dozens of pieces with chunked antler, uncarved umimatsu, simple bone, or polished shell, etc. Many people have shared their view that these are "very old" and "among the first" netsuke. Could it be that the netsuke of the 1500's and 1600's were just very utilitarian, and the earliest katobori netsuke were objects carved for another reason, to which the himotoshi were added later? That would mean the Soken kisho-era carvers were participating in their own little Renaissance (centered in Kyoto and Osaka, not Florence). In other words, netsuke were "new" in the mid-1700's, not because people had not earlier needed to secure their sagemono, but because the implement for doing so had been too pedestrian to require naming? This would be consistent with existence of all three of -- (1) a fairly large number of "early" netsuke made of simple unworked materials, (2) circa 1600 and early 1700 carvings with Chinese influence that appear to have been converted into netsuke later in life, and (3) a simultaneous explosion of creativity and burst of creativity in the mid-1700's that was worth documenting for the very first time. Thoughts? – Chip Lutton

A2) I can accept the theory, but what we don't have is the evidence to prove it once for all. For now this can but remain a hypothesis.Max Rutherston


Just a quick note to say how much I enjoyed the recent podcast by Max Rutherston on Netsuke that was offered to members of INS via your new educational podcasts on your website. A great new service, especially for folk like myself who due to where they reside (a small rural town in New South Wales, Australia), are largely unable to ever attend the beaut meetings and talks held for society members. Please keep them coming! Congratulations to all those responsible for the initiative. - Carl Petersen

A3) Dear Carl, I think it is very heartening to all of us who have been involved in this project to know that it has been appreciated. Thank you for your warm response.Max Rutherston


Q4) The first one is about the stated by Max dates of the first inro mentioning in the documents and therefore the about the potential dating of their appearance and use suggesting it coinsiding with the netsuke use at the same time. I wonder if he has just forgotten, or if he had a reason to ignore the info provided in the book on the Baron Go collection, where on pp.188-189 all occasions of inro being mentioned in the old Japanese historical documents are listed starting with the first one in the document dated 1363 and followed by a few from the 15th century and on. Otherwise, you may want to retape some of it, as it may jeopardize the credibility of the info overall, which will be a shame. – Vlad Bykoriz

Apologies, Vlad. I don't believe you are reading the pages you refer to attentively enough. Although the word inro is used to describe these objects, Arakawa concludes that the objects referred to are ones of decoration similar to jubako (stacking food boxes). His and my opinions concur. At the foot of page 188, having listed the references from the Nambokuchō and Muromachi periods, he writes: "Let us turn then to the historical records to see when inrō began to be suspended from the sash" and immediately produces a quote from 1625. None of this is in contradiction to my own sequence of events as outlined in the podcast.Max Rutherston


Q5) One other minor inconsistency, which may not be even important addressing, is the description of the way manju being carved out of the elephant tusk. As known to the serious collectors, a significant number of the really good and valuable manju are carved not from the cross sections of the tusk with the nerve canal in the middle, but from the longitudinal sections, so that the canal is not passing through them at all and the crossections of the Schreger lines do not interject with the design. I attach a few examples from my collection to illustrate my point. – Vlad Bykoriz

A5) As I write, I have not seen the illustrations from your collection, but I suspect that you and I may be talking at cross-purposes here. I did not mean to imply that all manju are carved from cross-sections of tusk, though I would suggest that most turned manju are. My guess would be that ivory is harder to turn if you are starting with a piece of material that is not circular. There are clearly manju which are square, rectangular or oval, which do not lend themselves to turning, and which may well be carved from a longitudinal section, as you rightly contend. – Max Rutherston


Q6) Enjoyed your video talk. Would be interested in knowing which of the 170 netsuke you and your colleagues originally selected did not make the final 100 illustrated in the latest British Museum book. Is there a list you could share? - Milton Stratos

A6) Dear Milton, I did not make notes at the time, but will see whether Noriko Tsuchiya kept hers. – Max Rutherston


Q7) you mention that in the Soken Kisho the term "netsuke" had to be defined, presumably because not everyone was familiar with the term (or the toggle?). But was this definition simply being given as it would be in any dictionary/encyclopedia as the introductory point for a topic? In other words, did Inaba Tsuryu also give definitions for many other things he describes in the SK, such as menuki, a standard part of most of his entries? If so, then it would be unlikely people were not familiar with netsuke in some areas so late in their evolution. (I cannot read Japanese and do not have a copy of the SK so I cannot answer this for myself) - Alan Fisher

A7) Dear Alan, I'm afraid I don't possess a copy of the Soken Kisho, so cannot give you a quick answer. Someone else reading this may be able to. But the point I was highlighting was that Inaba Tsuryu appears to feel it necessary to explain the word netsuke, implying that it is not one in widespread daily use. So Volume 7 of the book, as translated at the front of Lazarnick's signature book, opens with the words: "The toggle that is used with sagemono such as inro and kinchaku is called a netsuke." I suppose what he is saying is: you may have seen these things, but not know what they are called. As simple as that.Max Rutherston
Piglet: "Pooh?" Pooh: "Yes, Piglet?" Piglet: "I've been thinking..." Pooh: "That's a very good habit to get into to, Piglet." - A.A. Milne.

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