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Introduction to Subjects & Legends in Japanese Art

What subject or legend is depicted in your netsuke or sagemono?
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Introduction to Subjects & Legends in Japanese Art

Postby Oishii » Thu Apr 07, 2016 9:05 am

The purpose of this Introduction on Subjects & Legends is to present to the beginning collector some of the multitude of subjects and depictions in netsuke, by showcasing netsuke by subject.

Finding out what is depicted in a netsuke can be very appealing and we can but marvel at the original and delicate way the Japanese artist is capable of treating a Subject or Legend.
Sometimes the subject of a netsuke is obvious, but more often there is more going on than immediately meets the eye. There can be hidden meaning and symbolism in the piece that is steeped in the unique cultural history of Japan.

Henry Joly's early reference work "Legend in Japanese Art" covers a lot of ground. Its full title is : "A Description of Historical Episodes, Legendary Characters, Folklore, Myths, Religious Symbolism, Illustrated in the Arts of Old Japan". This substantial contribution can be found online as a downloadable document, for instance here:

But before we tackle intricate Legends of Heroes of Old Japan, let's start with some of the most common subjects : nature and animals.
Animals, zodiac or other
From ancient times to present, Japanese culture has celebrated nature and no wonder that the main inspiration for netsuke was the natural world. Animals, among which the zodiac animals were most popular, but also plants, like mushrooms, fruits etc.
Fascinating is the pairing of certain elements, like a toad sitting on a sandal or a water bucket ; or a tiger with bamboo. For the netsuke artist, it can be very rewarding to capture the surface texture of animals, the fur, skin, plumage.
Often there is a symbolic meaning in the representation of an animal : for instance the toad, in Japanese 'kaeru' has a meaning of to return as well and would be used with a meaning of "return safely" or "returning luck".

Mythical animals and creatures
Fascinating is the whole realm of mythical creatures found in netsuke : from mythical animals from ancient Chinese origin to semi-human creatures. Kirin, baku, kappa, shishi, shojo, tengu, etc.
The shishi or lion-dogs are one of the most common netsuke subjects. Shishi are regarded as defenders of the Buddhist faith and as protectors of temples. In general it is a symbol of strength and courage. Some of the mythical creatures like the Baku are composites of different animals.
Some of the mythical creatures may be benevolent to humans but others are said to cause much harm. Each can have various stories that go with it.
For instance a kappa is a creature the size of a child. It has a reptilian skin and a short, strong beak. It often has a mischievous and trickster character and as a most extraordinary feature a cavity on the middle of its head. Legend has it that when a kappa proves menacing to humans, the thing to do is to bow. As kappa are very polite it will do the same and by this gesture, it loses the fluid that is in its cavity will render the creature unoffensive and harmless.

The Seven Lucky Gods
In the Edo period, Japanese society tended to be more focused on the here and now, with the upsurge of trade and industry and the accompanying pursuit of richness and good life. Buddhism and Shintoism had a hard time and people turned more towards popular deities like the so called household gods of good luck (schichi-fukujin)
People prayed to them for health and wealth and the shrines were dedicated to one of the seven gods. Daikoku and Ebisu symbolized prosperity and were associated with food like rice and fish. Hotei, often depicted as a barefoot monk with shaven head and fleshy earlobes and a big bag of goodies, is quite a cheerful fellow and the epitome of contentment.
Jurojin is a dignitary in ceremonial dress. Although Fukurokuju looks a bit similar, he can be easily recognized by his very high bald head, which sometimes looks phallic.
Benten, protector of the Arts, is the only female of the lucky gods and often carries a musical instrument with her.
Bishamon is the last to mention ; he is rarely depicted on his own, but is with the rest of them when they are portrayed together, for instance in the treasure boat that gathers all seven lucky gods, the Takarabune.

Saints and spiritual figures
In netsuke we see a lot of saintly figures that are related to religion, be it Daoism, Buddhism or Zen.
Sennin are one of the earliest figural subjects of netsuke : they are the Daoist ascetics with supernatural powers who strive for immortality. We can recognize them as old and sometimes bearded men dressed only in mugwort leaves. Among the most depicted is Gama Sennin, always accompanied by a toad and Tekai Sennin, often leaning on a crutch, whose superpower is to let his soul travel by breathing out.
Seiobo is the legendary Daoist Queen Mother of the West, recognizable with sumptuous Tang-dynasty robes and wearing a beautiful crown. A peach branch or a tray with the ripe peaches of eternal life will are associated with Seiobo.

There are 16 Rakan, disciples of the Buddha. Their dress is typical in that the right shoulder is left uncovered. They are often bold and wear earrings. Each one has its attribute.

Bodhidarma, born in 520 from an Indian king, brought Zen from India to China. In Japan he is known as Daruma. Depictions in netsuke of Daruma can have a humorous element : for instance stretching and yawning or with atrophied legs, due to his after his 9-year-long meditation.

Demons and ghosts
In many cultures spirits are an integral part of the daily universe that people inhabit. The spirit world was close to the consciousness of most pre-modern Japanese. Many ghost stories exist and Japanese ghosts come in many forms.
The most generic word used for ghost is bakemono, and the meaning implies a transformed thing, for instance a fox that turns into a priest. Bakemono masks can be very original and caricatural.
The ghostly figure of Yurei is a female who suffered in live from love or jealousy and seeks revenge. Variations of these vengeful spirits are Kiyohime and Hannya.
Who doesn't like the subject of "Oni" in netsuke ? Originally the word oni referred to all that was hidden or harmful to man. From Buddhism evolved the notion of devilish creatures that served the Kings of Hell. They are depicted as muscular, ugly demons with short horns, a wide mouth and fangs. They have three claws on each hand and feet and are shown almost naked except for a loincloth. Setsubun Oni, the ceremony of throwing beans to scare off the oni, is often depicted in an original way. Shoki the demon queller can also be around hunting down oni.

Everyday life at home and on the street - occupations
Netsuke of the nineteenth century draw their subject on every conceivable aspect of daily life, even every day work activities like doing laundry, working in the field, serving at the temple, sumo wrestling, carrying a palanquin.
Entertainers like acrobats, sneezers and monkey trainers were active in the vibrant streets of Edo.

Okame and Shunga netsuke
The erotic is present in many netsuke, but never in an overt or explicit and pornographic way. In old netsuke the shunga element is more of a subtle nature ; so when one encounters a pornographic representation, it is almost always a modern tourist carving or NLO.
Okame, the incarnation of sensuality is depicted as a chubby woman with a large pear-shaped head and often full cheeks with dimples. She is often given outsize phallic objects and her gesture can be bashful, covering her mouth with a hand inside the sleeve.
You'll see also a few examples of an "Ama, a Diver Girl with Octopus" ; these are also considered shunga in a rather suggestive way, in contrast to the notorious woodblock print of the same subject by Hokusai.

When a Japanese Legend is depicted, the exact subject can be a bit harder to retrieve and often members seek help on the Forum to find out what it is.

A nice and unusual example was handled at the Baur Museum visit. It is a cylindric piece, by Toshimasa, showing the Legend of Munechika forging the sword. In the dynamic and intricate relief-carving, we see the Inari Fox Spirit helping Munechika.

The story of Munechika the swordsmith is the subject of a Noh-play : "At the command of Emperor Ichijo (980-1011), who received an oracle in a dream, Tachibana no Michinari visits and orders Sanjō no Kokaji Munechika, a renowned swordsmith, to forge a sword. Munechika insists that he cannot forge the sword because he does not have a partner swordsmith, who is as skilful as Munechika is. Michinari however refuses to accept his request. Munechika, who is caught between a rock and a hard place, visits Inari Shrine where he prays and requests the assistance of the guardian deity of his clan. At the shrine, a mysterious boy calls to him. The boy encourages Munechika by talking about the dignity of a sword in a Chinese legend and the story of Yamato Takeru-no-mikoto. He promises to become Munechika’s smithing partner and disappears in Mount Inari.

When Munechika goes home, dresses himself for smithing and prays on his platform, there appears before him the deity of Inari who transforms into the spirit of a fox. The deity announces that he will work as the partner of Munechika. The boy who appeared a moment earlier was the transformed Inari deity himself. Munechika, who gained the deity as the smithing partner, successfully forges a sword. Finally, the noted sword ‘Kogitsune-maru’ which is engraved with two names – “Kokaji Munechika” on the face and “Kogitsune (Little Fox)” on the back of the blade as a proof that the deity apprenticed himself to Munechika – is completed. After offering the sword to the imperial messenger, the deity rides on a cloud to return to the peak of Mount Inari."

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