Big sur­prises come in small pack­ages.

No pock­ets? No prob­lem. See how Ja­panese men car­ried per­sonal items on their ki­monos in a ‘net­suke’ ex­hibit at the JICC.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY CELIA WREN style@wash­ Meet Net­suke! Sto­ry­tellers of Ja­pan Wed­nes­day through May 15 at the Ja­pan In­for­ma­tion and Cul­ture Cen­ter, 1150 18th St. NW, Suite 100. Free. There will be demon­stra­tions by mas­ter net­suke artist Ryushi Ko­mada on Wed­nes­day

The gallery at the Ja­pan In­for­ma­tion and Cul­ture Cen­ter isn’t one of the city’s largest spa­ces. But scale your sights down to the pint-size ob­jects in a new ex­hi­bi­tion there, and the room may start to seem colos­sal.

“Meet Net­suke! Sto­ry­tellers of Ja­pan,” which opens Wed­nes­day, is a show­case of Ja­panese net­suke — tiny sculp­tures with a prac­ti­cal pur­pose. Net­suke, usu­ally carved from such ma­te­ri­als as wood, ivory or antler, were a fix­ture of Ja­pan’s Edo pe­riod (1603-1868) and served as tog­gles that se­cured per­sonal items to the obi, or sash, of a man’s ki­mono. Coin purses, tobacco pouches and sim­i­lar be­long­ings could be car­ried this way — a nec­es­sary ar­range­ment, since tra­di­tional ki­monos had no pock­ets. (Women’s ki­monos had sleeves in which per­sonal items could be stashed.) Some Ja­panese crafts­peo­ple turned net­suke into stun­ning, diminu­tive art­works, of­ten re­flect­ing na­ture or Ja­panese folk­lore and cul­ture.

Co-pre­sented by the Ja­panAmer­ica So­ci­ety of Wash­ing­ton, D.C., the ex­hi­bi­tion at the JICC (part of the Em­bassy of Ja­pan) fea­tures about 130 an­tique net­suke, drawn from the Ever­green Mu­seum & Li­brary in Bal­ti­more and the Bev­erly and Jay Hop­kins Col­lec­tion in Vir­ginia. Many of the items are no larger than a spool of thread but dis­play a metic­u­lous crafts­man­ship and idio­syn­cratic flair, as th­ese ex­am­ples demon­strate.

Toad atop a san­dal

“Meet Net­suke!” was or­ga­nized and cu­rated by Takaaki Ne­moto and Yoko Tsuge, diplo­mats in the Em­bassy of Ja­pan’s pub­lic af­fairs depart­ment. Both had their first glimpse of au­then­tic net­suke dur­ing a 2015 visit to the Smith­so­nian’s Mu­seum Sup­port Cen­ter in Suit­land, Md.; Ne­moto had never even heard of net­suke be­fore then. In gen­eral, the diplo­mats say, the art form is lit­tle known in con­tem­po­rary Ja­pan. In the wake of the rapid change that trans­formed Ja­pan start­ing in the mid-19th cen­tury, the mind­set be­came, Tsuge says, “Let’s catch up with the West. We should aban­don our old-fash­ioned things.”

Among other de­vel­op­ments, the Ja­panese be­gan wear­ing Western dress, and the once-es­sen­tial net­suke be­came relics of a by­gone time.

Ne­moto and Tsuge, how­ever, be­came con­vinced that net­suke could help tell the story of Ja­panese cul­ture, and after re­search and con­sul­ta­tion with ex­perts, they as­sem­bled the ex­hi­bi­tion, which is launch­ing in con­junc­tion with the 2017 Na­tional Cherry Blos­som Fes­ti­val.

They were par­tic­u­larly de­lighted by a 19th-cen­tury net­suke de­pict­ing a toad atop a san­dal (pic­tured at mid­dle left). Be­cause the Ja­panese word for “toad” is a ho­mo­phone for the phrase “re­turn home,” net­suke of toads on san­dals be­came a beloved sou­venir for trav­el­ers, in­clud­ing those vis­it­ing the im­por­tant Ise Jingu shrine.

Blue-lac­quer box, or ‘inro’

While Ja­pan was drift­ing away from net­suke, Western­ers were grav­i­tat­ing to­ward them. Par­tic­u­larly in the 1870s and ’80s, Western cul­ture was en­am­ored of Ja­panese ap­plied art, says James Archer Ab­bott, di­rec­tor and cu­ra­tor of the Ever­green Mu­seum & Li­brary. The ap­peal, he says, “was tied into the Aes­thetic move­ment of that pe­riod, that in it­self was a re­bel­lion against in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion” and cel­e­brated the hand­wrought.

As a re­sult, many pieces from the golden age of net­suke — the Edo pe­riod — were snapped up by Western col­lec­tors. Even as the form was ne­glected in Ja­pan, Tsuge says, “the tra­di­tion was main­tained by Western­ers.”

Two scions of Bal­ti­more’s Gar­rett fam­ily — T. Har­ri­son Gar­rett and his el­dest son, John — were among the Amer­i­cans cap­ti­vated by Ja­panese art in the late-19th cen­tury. Their ac­qui­si­tions are among the high­lights of the Ever­green col­lec­tion, once the fam­ily man­sion and now a Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity mu­seum. In ad­di­tion to net­suke, the col­lec­tion in­cludes inro — boxes held in place by a net­suke. The inro (pic­tured at mid­dle right) from Ever­green fea­tures rare blue-lac­quer work; the round net­suke, at the top of the cord, has a chrysan­the­mum de­sign.

Oc­to­pus mu­si­cian

In the 1970s, Amer­i­can or­tho­pe­dic sur­geon Jay Hop­kins was posted to Ja­pan by the U.S. Air Force. He be­came smit­ten with Ja­panese art, es­pe­cially net­suke, charmed by their whimsy and ir­rev­er­ence. “Net­suke artists just had fun,” he says.

Hop­kins, who now lives in Vir­ginia with his wife, Bev­erly, amassed a sig­nif­i­cant net­suke col­lec­tion and be­came an ex­pert on the form, at one point serv­ing as pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional Net­suke So­ci­ety. His­tor­i­cal fac­tors, Hop­kins says, in­flu­enced the play­ful­ness of net­suke: At times when Ja­panese author­i­ties strictly reg­u­lated per­sonal dress, net­suke were seen as too in­signif­i­cant to bother with, so the lit­tle tog­gles be­came a vi­brant av­enue for self-ex­pres­sion.

Whimsy and self-ex­pres­sion were cer­tainly fa­mil­iar to the artist who carved the 19th-cen­tury ivory net­suke of an oc­to­pus play­ing mul­ti­ple mu­si­cal in­stru­ments (pic­tured at mid­dle left). The raised ten­ta­cles, ap­par­ently pre­par­ing for an im­mi­nent drum roll, il­lus­trate an­other of Hop­kins’s ob­ser­va­tions about net­suke: that the pieces of­ten im­part a sense of drama, even move­ment. “The artists loved to de­pict the split sec­ond be­fore you step on a banana peel,” he says.

Wooden rats

In 2010, ce­ramic artist Ed­mund de Waal pub­lished “The Hare With Am­ber Eyes: A Hid­den In­her­i­tance,” a poignant book about his Euro­pean Jewish fam­ily’s net­suke col­lec­tion, which sur­vived in Holo­caust-era Vi­enna. An in­ter­na­tional best­seller, the book raised aware­ness of the net­suke tra­di­tion.

It was per­haps no ac­ci­dent that de Waal named his book after one of the fauna-chan­nel­ing net­suke he in­her­ited: Net­suke in an­i­mal shapes are among the most en­dear­ing ex­am­ples of the art form. “Peo­ple tend to be drawn to the an­i­mal fig­ures,” says Mar­sha Var­gas Han­d­ley, a long­time gallery owner and past pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional Net­suke So­ci­ety.

The wooden rats de­picted in the 19th-cen­tury piece (pic­tured at bot­tom), with ivory teeth and horn eyes, have an added layer of sig­nif­i­cance be­cause they are (like hares) among the 12 an­i­mals in the Ja­panese zo­diac.

The ex­hi­bi­tion also is full of more fan­tas­ti­cal crea­tures, such as tiny ren­der­ings of venge­ful ghosts — two ap­pear to be armwrestling — as well as dragons and the su­per­nat­u­ral baku, whose at­tributes in­clude tiger paws, an ele­phant’s trunk and the abil­ity to eat hu­man dreams.

“Let’s catch up with the West. We should aban­don our old­fash­ioned things.”

Yoko Tsuge, or­ga­nizer and cu­ra­tor of the ex­hibit “Meet Net­suke!,” on what the mind-set be­came in the wake of rapid change that trans­formed Ja­pan start­ing in the mid-19th cen­tury


“Dragon,” at­trib­uted to artist Mitsuharu, is a net­suke made of ivory and black horn from mid-18th cen­tury Ja­pan. Net­suke, or tiny sculp­tures that serve a prac­ti­cal pur­pose, were a fix­ture of Ja­pan’s Edo pe­riod (1603-1868).


“Rat,” by Ikkan, is a net­suke made of wood, dark horn and ivory from the 19th cen­tury. The Ja­panese art ex­hi­bi­tion “Meet Net­suke! Sto­ry­tellers of Ja­pan” is full of real and fan­tas­ti­cal crea­tures.


The Gar­retts were among the first Amer­i­cans to col­lect Ja­panese art, in­clud­ing this blue-lac­quer inro.


“The World's First One-Man Band With Eight Arms,” artist un­known. is a net­suke made from ivory.


“A Toad and San­dal,” by Masakatsu, is a net­suke made of wood and dark horn from the 19th cen­tury.

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