6 Popular Netsuke Designs and Their Meanings

Netsukes were part of fashion in Edo period Japan. From rabbits to religious statements, netsuke came in various materials and forms.

Feb 26, 2024By Hannah Lane, BA Painting, BA Art History
netsuke designs meanings

 

During the Edo period in Japan, which spanned from 1615 to 1868, fashion was vital in showing one’s status and intelligence. Netsukes and their counterpart inro were among the many pieces found in men’s closets that could reveal one’s status. These pieces, from obi and inro to netsuke and kimonos, would be carefully picked out. They functioned as a reference to the current season, a specific tale, or even a famous play. A mix-up of any of these, such as wearing pine trees during the summer, would show that someone had a terrible taste.

 

6. Ten Bulls Netsuke

netsuke ox bokudo
Netsuke of Ox with Bokudo by Tokoku, 19th Century. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

One of the more prevalent themes in netsuke is the one featuring the Ten Bulls. The Ten Bulls or Ten Ox Herding pictures are ten poems of the Zen idealogy. These poems tell the story of one’s journey to enlightenment. The bull/ox stands for the idea of Zen. The story starts with searching for the bull, finding it, catching it, taming it, and finally, riding it. In netsuke that feature this story, a boy is mostly shown riding the ox/bull back home and playing a flute. The poem states that whoever hears his tune will follow.

 

Having a netsuke with this subject showed others that the owner was an intellectual. The person wearing it was not only able to read but also understand the idealogy behind the piece. What makes the netsuke above so interesting is the fact that the boy is portrayed sitting beside the animal instead of sitting on top of it. Since the ox functions as a metaphorical symbol for Zen, when the boy is shown sitting on top of the ox playing the flute, the viewer gets the idea that one has conquered the idea of Zen and understands its ins and outs. When sitting beside the ox, the viewer might think that the person wearing this netsuke has not yet fully conquered the ideology. However, the fact that the boy is shown playing the flute shows that the wearer knows the statements of Zen.

 

5. Rabbits 

netsuke rabbit red eyes
Netsuke of Rabbit, 19th Century. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

The rabbit or hare netsuke piece might be the most popular netsuke topic. In Japan, the rabbit symbolizes prosperity, good luck, and longevity. There is also the folklore tale about the hare on the moon. For both the Japanese and Korean fables, the hare pounds sweet rice to make it into mochi. It is also a zodiac sign.

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In the rabbit netsuke shown above we see an albino rabbit with red eyes. The coloring refers to the table of the hare on the moon. This Buddhist story originally came from India. It was told around the Nara period (710 CE-794 CE) or during the Heian period (794 CE-1185 CE). These two periods are when tsukimi, or moon viewing, became popular. In general, the rabbit netsuke could have easily been worn during the zodiac year of the rabbit, the springtime, or the mid-autumn festival which is celebrated around the 15th day of the 8th lunar month.

 

4. Octopus and Monkey

netsuke monkey fighting octopus
Netsuke of Octopus Fighting a Monkey by Rantei, 19th Century. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

Another popular motif seen in many netsuke pieces features an octopus and a monkey. This particular topic stems from the legend of The Jellyfish and the Monkey. In this story, that was frequently told to children, the Queen of the Sea Dragon King Ryujin falls ill. Ryujin orders an octopus, commonly known to the Japanese as a healer, to heal the queen. The octopus tells Ryujin that a monkey’s liver is the only medicine that could save her. Ryujin then decides to send out a jellyfish to find one.

 

In the story, jellyfish are described as having a hard shell and being able to walk on land with their tentacles, like tortoises. The jellyfish goes to an island and finds a monkey. Monkeys were thought to be cunning creatures by the Japanese. The monkey hops on the back of the jellyfish but realizes why the Dragon King needs him. He tells the jellyfish that he left his liver back on the shore and that he could go and get it if the jellyfish turned around. They both go back to the beach, but the poor jellyfish loses the monkey and is unable to find another.

 

This scene shown in Netsuke of Octopus Fighting a Monkey occurs right after this story. The octopus is taking the matter of finding a monkey’s liver into its own hands. Because of the popularity of the story in Japan, this netsuke piece was something that people of any age or status could have connected with.

 

3. Foxes or Kitsune

netsuke fox woman
Netsuke (Fox Woman), late 18th Century. Source: Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minnesota

 

Foxes or kitsune are also a popular topic in netsuke. Some kitsune are good, while others are bad. In some stories, kitsune were portrayed as tricksters, but in others, they were seen as guardians, friends, parents, and lovers. Usually, the trickster types of kitsune were doing evil deeds to teach someone a lesson. The trickster kitsune looked for unruly samurai, materialistic merchants, or bullies. There were, in some crueler stories, kitsune that went after weaker people, but this was not common. Wearing a kitsune netsuke could remind a person not to commit acts that would make a kitsune trick them out of their wrong ways.

 

Netsuke seen in the photo above could be a nod to a famous kitsune in a kabuki play. Kuzunoha was a famous kitsune character featured in many kabuki plays and legends. The legend states that a nobleman named Abe no Yasuna wanted to visit a shrine. On his way, he encountered a hunter who was trying to hunt foxes for their livers. Yasuna battles with the hunter, gets injured, and wins. He then sets the white fox free. Kuzunoha, the white fox, turns into a beautiful young woman who helps Yasuna return to his home. She tends to his wounds and even falls in love with him, eventually giving birth to Yasuna’s child. Considering the story, the person wearing this netsuke could show their love for this legend. The netsuke could also demonstrate to others that the person wearing it knows about the popular culture of the Edo period.

 

2. Shoki, The Demon Queller

netsuke shoki demon queller
Netsuke of Shoki, the Demon-Queller, 19th Century. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

An oddly popular topic for netsuke carvings is one of Shoki, the Demon-Queller. The tale of Shoki, The Demon Queller, comes from Tang Dynasty China. The story had reached Japan by the Heian period (794 CE-1185 CE). During the Edo period, the popularity of Shoki’s story was at its height.

 

So, who is Shoki? Shoki wanted to become a physician in the imperial palace. He studied hard and passed all the exams that were needed. In fact, out of all the other applicants for the position of imperial doctor, he was the most qualified one. When the emperor saw how ugly Shoki was, he immediately rejected him for the job. Devastated Shoki then took his own life on the steps of the imperial palace. The emperor gave Shoki a royal burial after he found out about the suicide. He awarded Shoki the posthumous title of Doctor of Zhongnanshan.

 

But what did it mean when someone wore this netsuke? It was a symbol of protection. It was said that demons were scared of even seeing images of Shoki. Wearing one as a netsuke would ward off bad spirits. We could further connect this to the idea of protecting one’s money as the inro attached to the netsuke usually holds money. So Shoki on this netsuke could be protecting the wearer from demons that go after money or even the ones that make you want to spend too much yourself.

 

1. Rat Netsuke

netsuke seven rat group
Seven Rat Group, 19th Century. Source: Los Angeles County Museum of Art

 

While rats are considered symbols of disease and deception in the West, they are seen as symbols of good fortune in Japan. The rat is also associated with Daikoku, the god of wealth. The animal is also the first sign of the Chinese zodiac. Rats are commonly seen in Ukiyo-e prints. Along with wealth and prosperity, rats symbolize intelligence, charm, adaptability, and survival.

 

Together with inro, having rats on a netsuke would directly refer to the idea of wealth. Netsuke of the Seven Rat Group seen above features the number seven. In Japanese Buddhism, there is a belief that people reincarnate seven times. All of the rats on this netsuke are different. For example, some have spots, others do not. Wearing this netsuke could also allude to wanting to be prosperous in all seven reincarnations.

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By Hannah LaneBA Painting, BA Art HistoryHannah has a BA in Painting and Art History from Kansas City Art Institute. She was a Durwood Provenance Intern for the East Asian section at Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. Hannah is currently a practicing studio artist and lends her love of art history to anyone willing to listen.