What are Netsuke?

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What are Netsuke?

Purchasing a netsuke for a collection may not be as easy as purchasing other collectables, since there isn't much consumer information about buying netsuke. This guide provides a complete overview of the netsuke, from the types of netsuke that are produced, to the factors that affect one's buying decision. It includes a brief history of the netsuke and provides a list of manufacturers that produce them.

History of the Netsuke

The netsuke is a Japanese creation that was used as an accessory to hold pouches containing personal items. It was used as early as the fifteenth century, along with the sagemono, which was a pouch connected to the netsuke by a silk cord. The cord and sagemono were held onto the sash surrounding the traditional kimono by the netsuke, which looped around the sash. The ensemble served the function of a pocket. Sculptors specialised in carving miniature objects produced pieces that were intricately-designed. The images depicted on netsuke were derived from many sources, including the daily life of the average Japanese and the mythology of Japanese religions. Eventually, the netsuke was no longer needed as a practical item, but it would be recognised as a masterful work of art centuries later. Today, there is a market for netsuke, especially among collectors.

Discover the Netsuke

Netsuke are considered Asian antiques that fit within the collectibles or art section of most museums and retailers. They are small enough to fit in one's palm. Many antique collectors appreciate the artists and sculptors that created these small pieces of art. The aesthetics of this collectible is the main reason many purchase it at antique stores and auctions.

There are three sources of netsuke today. Antique netsuke produced hundreds of years ago is one source. They are rare and considered a wonderful investment for collectors. Local artists and craftsmen who design, carve, and paint unique netsuke with meticulous detail is the second source. Although these are not necessarily antiques, they are valued on their own merit and can be a good way to round out a netsuke collection. Craft manufacturers that copy these netsuke, or create similar-looking ones in large quantity are the third source. While these are easier to find, they would not be considered a sound investment for a true collector, but can have decorative value.

Determining the age of the netsuke is the best way to identify antique netsuke. The appearance of the netsuke can confirm whether or not it is produced from a wholesale manufacturer. Mass produced netsuke are poorly-made and don't resemble the life-like characteristics of antique netsuke. Some manufactured netsuke are even made of plastic.

Types of Netsuke

There are several types of Netsuke. Some of the most popular types include Katabori netsuke, Anabori netsuke, and Manju netsuke.




Katabori, or sculpted, netsuke are up to three inches in height and look like animal figurines.


Anabori means hollowed. This type of netsuke is hollow and usually look like clams. The interior may feature intricate carvings or pictures.


This type of netsuke is named after the popular Japanese candy. It is flat, disc-shaped and features drawings or etchings on either side. It is usually comprised of two separate halves.


Ryusa is disc-shaped as well but not solid like the Manju. It has several holes which allow light to pass through it.


Kagamibuta, or mirror lid, features a shallow bowl covered by a metal disc. The lid is decorated with eccentric designs.


Sashi, or stab, netsuke is about six inches in length. It is the elongated form of the Katabori.


Another elongated netsuke is Obi-hasami. This one features curved tips at either end.


Mask netsuke are miniature versions of Bugaku, Noh or Kyogen masks.


Trick, or Karakuri netsuke feature moving parts or hidden compartments.

Materials Used in Making Netsuke




About half of all netsuke are made from ivory. Some sources of ivory include boar tusks, walrus tusks, whale tooth, hippopotamus teeth and rhinoceros horn.


Bones of several animals are used to make netsuke including whale bone. This material is hollow and features a less shiny surface than ivory.


Umimatsu, or seapine, is a type of coral. It is difficult to make netsuke from this material since it chips and cracks easily.


The walnut shell is carved to create netsuke. The interior of the nut is hollowed out by removing the fruit.


Woven netsuke are usually produced from cane fibre.


The stem or root of the bamboo is used to produce netsuke. The bamboo texture is the primary reason this material is used.


The bark from this shrub is carved to produce several types of netsuke including Katabori.

Clay, Porcelain

Porcelain or clay netsuke are painted and feature bright colours. They are moulded and heated to harden and may feature a glazed surface.


Metals are commonly used as the lid on Kagamibuta netsuke.

Factors to Consider When Buying Netsuke

There are a few things to consider when buying netsuke. The appearance of the netsuke, the material it is made from, and the price of netsuke are three factors to consider.

* Appearance - Netsuke carvers produce figurines of varying structure, colours and designs. The level of detail in some of these Japanese antiques is fine and intricate, while others are surprisingly simple. Some collectors prefer to create a collection that offers a variety of styles and materials, while others focus on a specific artist or period in history.

* Material - The material from which netsuke is carved is another factor to consider. The source material may cause some to not buy the netsuke on moral and possibly legal grounds. The material of concern here is ivory. It is important to verify the material that the netsuke is made of to ensure that the regulations of your country allow you to purchase and possess it.

* Price - Netsuke sculptures that are produced in large numbers are priced relatively low, while rare netsuke sculptures can be quite expensive, especially if it is sold at auction. The condition of the netsuke affects the price as well. Look for chips and cracks in the sculpture to negotiate a lower price. Do not hesitate to ask questions of the seller, as it can be difficult to assess the item thoroughly through photos. The more information you have, the easier it is to determine the true value of the netsuke.

Popular Netsuke Manufacturers

Antique netsuke can expensive and the authentic antique versions often fetch higher prices with dealers and at auction. When the do come up for auction, these antiques attract bids of hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds. Many antique netsuke feature the signature from the artist and as with many pieces of art, this is one of the identifying features that will determine the price. Some notable artists from the past include:

* Seventeenth- to early nineteenth-century artists: Masanao, Tomatada and Okatomo

* Mid-nineteenth century artists: Mitsuhiro, Masakazu, Kokusai and Kaigyokusai

* Late nineteenth and early twentieth century artists : Tokoku and Sosui

How to Care for Netsuke

Netsuke figurines are so detailed that even when it is covered in dust and dirt, it still looks good. To uncover the full beauty of this sculpture, use a paintbrush and cotton wool to clean it. Brush the surface back and forth to remove dust and dirt from the tiny crevices of the netsuke. Wet a piece of cotton wool in water and rub the dirty surface until it is clean. Quickly dry the surface to prevent water from seeping into the netsuke. If the stain is still there, try using a sponge dipped in water. Again, quickly dry the netsuke to avoid cracks.

Finding Netsuke on eBay

Once you determine the type of netsuke you want to purchase, visit the Antiques portal on eBay, click on ' Asian/Oriental', then 'Japanese' then 'Netsuke' and start searching item listings. The Categories list on the left-hand side of the eBay page helps to narrow the search.


If one is buying a netsuke, take a look at the different types that are available on eBay. Find one that is appealing and see if the price is reasonable. Contact the seller if the description in the product page isn't clear. Try to confirm whether or not the netsuke is truly an antique carved by the masters of this uniquely Japanese art. If not, consider whether or not a modern-day perspective or even a manufactured copy is worth the purchase. The most important aspect is the appearance and detail of the piece.

Once you have collected this information, you can buy a netsuke safely and securely on eBay.

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