Home > Arts & Crafts, Culture, Events, History, Reviews > Dressed to Impress – Netsuke And Japanese Men’s Fashion

Dressed to Impress – Netsuke And Japanese Men’s Fashion

An exhibition at the British Museum in Room 3 supported by The Asahi Shimbun. 19 June – 17 August 2014

Netsuke of a Chinese boy holding a mask for a lion dance. Unsigned, Japan, early 1800sTo coincide with the publication of the British Museum’s new book, ‘Netsuke: 100 miniature masterpieces from Japan’, by Noriko Tsuchiya, the museum is hosting a small exhibition, ‘Dressed to Impress: Netsuke and Japanese men’s Fashion’ sponsored by the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun.

As traditional Japanese men’s clothing had no pockets personal effects had to be carried in containers (inrō) hung from the belt (obi). To hang the inrō from the obi a long cord (himo) was threaded round the inrō and drawn through a bead (ojime) to keep the inrō shut and then threaded through the belt (obi) and attached to the netsuke which fastened the entire ensemble to the obi.

A kabuki actor with a tobacco pouch by utagawa kunisada 1859

A Kabuki actor with a tobacco pouch, woodblock print by Utagawa Kunisada, 1859 (British Musuem)

The exhibition uses Santō Kyōden and his tobacco shop as key examples to illustrate one man’s pivotal role in the proliferation of netsuke amongst the Edokko Chōnin (Edo men about town).

Santo kyoden

Santō Kyōden (1761-1816)

Poet, artist and writer Santō Kyōden was an unashamed self-publicist. He was known to, and was punished by, the authorities for his novels about life in the Yoshiwara Pleasure Quarters (sharebon). According to his biography in the spring of 1793 he opened a shop in the Kyōbashi District of the capital, Edo (now Tōkyō), selling paper tobacco pouches (tabakoire), pipes and smoking accessories which he promoted unashamedly by scattering ads and references to his tobacco shop through his own work, and through the work of his fellow artisans including the woodblock artist Kitagawa Utamaro and the writer Kyokutei Bakin. He also sold ‘literacy pills’, a tie in to raise the profile of his literary works. He considered himself the archetypal chic Edokko Chōnin spending many of his evenings in the Pleasure Quarters; both of his wives had been licensed workers in the Pleasure Quarters. As a consequence of his popular writing the Pleasure Quarters became associated with tobacco, making tobacco smoking very fashionable which in turn popularised the proliferation of netsuke. As the British Museum informs the visitor, the writer Kyokutei Bakin remarked that ‘Nowadays every single person in Edo has a tobacco pipe and container designed by the Kyōden shop’.

santo kyodens shop by kitao shigenobu

Santō Kyōden’s tobacco shop by by Kitao Shigenobu (Santō Kyōden), circa 1800

The exhibition goes on to explain that during the Edo Period (1603-1868) sumptuary laws were established by the ruling body, the Bakufu, to prescribe the appropriate level of ostentation in dress for each class of society (samurai, farmer, craftsmen and merchant) in order to visually define the limits of their wealth, prevent confusion between classes by the wearing of fashionable clothing, and to maintain morality. Ironically the merchants at the lower end of the class system were often the wealthiest. The sumptuary laws did not however apply to netsuke with which the merchant class, as a way of undermining the sumptuary laws, were able to indulge themselves to display their wealth. Consequently netsuke became more and more fashionable, elaborate and increasingly expensive. In many cases, through the visual art of the carver, the contemporary designs could be used to allude to and make socio-political statements which would otherwise have contravened the Bakufu’s imposed standards. 

With the advent of Western ideas and fashions into Japan, especially after the 1853 incursion of Commodore Perry’s ‘Black Ships’, the wearing of Western dress became fashionable and with the use of pockets netsuke lost their allure in Japan. This coincided with the advent of ‘Japonisme’ when the vogue for all things Japanese triggered an increase in popularity of Japanese art overseas at which point Westerners began to buy up, export and amass large collections of netsuke abroad. 

Though this is small exhibition the objects on display are exquisite and the information concise and educational. Five of the best netsuke from the main collection are on display two of which are shown here.

Natsuke Lion head goldfish & turtle

Lion headed Goldfish, or ranchū, by Masanao I of Ise, boxwood with inlaid eyes of light and dark horn, 1800s and Turtle, silver, by Kikugawa, late 1800s (photographs by kind permission of the British Museum)

The other three are an ivory sleeping rat, carved by Masanao of Kyōtō, a Chinese boy holding a mask for a lion dance, cast from a Hirado porcelain mould, which has a carved porcelain ball inside the mouth which would have moved inside the mouth with the wearer’s movements, and another carved from ivory of a Chinese couple playing a flute, one of the oldest netsuke in the collection from the 1700s. Also on display are three superb complete ensembles of netsuke, himo, ojime and inrō as well as a pipe and a sword.  

More of the British Museum’s netsuke collection is on display in the Mitsubishi Corporation galleries, Rooms 92-99. 

Author Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

Related Posts:

Netsuke: 100 Miniature Masterpieces From Japan

Netsuke Exhibitions In London And Budapest

Art Exhibition: Kabuki – Japanese Theatre Prints

Exhibition: Ryo Arai & ITARO – Essence Of Edo (Tokyo) ICN Gallery London


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