An exhibition curated by Gawon Lee and Jiayi Hou, 2019-2020 Buchanan Library Fellows
The Buchanan Library Fellowship program, in conjunction with the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery, is proud to present Netsuke: Gucci of the Edo Period. Curated by students Gawon Lee and Jiayi Hou as the culmination of their 2019–2020 Library Buchanan Fellowship, this exhibition sheds light on a group of approximately forty netsukes, or ornamental toggles worn in pre-modern Japan.
These detailed and delicately carved and crafted objects, donated to Vanderbilt more than twenty years ago, will be displayed together for the first time, to highlight their significance in Edo Japan (1603–1868) where they were originally made and worn. Several of these netsuke represent overarching themes and narratives that the students uncovered during their year-long fellowship.
What are netsukes?
Netsukes are small, carved objects invented in seventeenth-century Japan to serve a practical purpose: Because the traditional Japanese garment (kimono) did not have pockets, men in pre-modern Japan needed to carry containers to store belongings, such as medicine or pipes and tobacco. These handcrafted pouches or boxes (inro) would be attached to a cord, which would loop through the kimono’s sash. A netsuke would be attached to the other end of the cord, like a toggle, to ensure that the apparatus could not slip free.
Much like handbags, jewelry and watches today, netsukes were worn to match different occasions and outfits. Japanese men started to collect these objects not only for their practicality, but also for their designs. As the market grew, netsuke carvers started to compete with each other, showing off their skills through sophisticated designs and meticulous details, using various materials.
Pre-modern Japanese society had a strict caste system which determined many aspects of citizens’ daily lives, including the titles they were given, the amount of land they could own and even the kinds of clothing that they could wear. Those in higher classes included royalty, samurais and daimyos, or feudal landowners. While merchants could earn large fortunes, they were in a lower class and therefore could not purchase estates. Instead they spent their money in other ways, including commissioning sophisticated miniatures made of expensive materials to show off their wealth, and demonstrate their tastes and personalities.
Netsukes depict a wide range of motifs, from mythological creatures and figures in folklore, to theatre masks and daily objects. Their imagery is inspired by Shinto deities, Chinese Taoist symbols and Buddhist stories, among other references. They embody a lightheartedness and joy in everyday living, which was an ideal of the merchant class in Edo Japan. Craftsmen therefore lent their humor as well as their skill when carving miniatures, which is why some netsukes seem to favor playfulness over elegance.
After tobacco was brought to Japan in the 1570s, netsukes were widely used to hold a pipe (kiseru) and a tobacco pouch on a Japanese kimono belt (obi). After the reopening of Japan to trades with western countries in 1854, western outfits gradually replaced kimonos in Japanese society. With suits, tobacco pouches could be directly put in pockets. Thus, the need for netsukes waned.
This exhibition was made possible by the Buchanan Library Fellows Program at the Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries, with advisement from Professor Gerald Figal, director of the Asian Studies Program at Vanderbilt University and research support from Yuh-Fen Benda, librarian for Asian Studies. Photography by Phil Nagy, Vanderbilt University Visual Resource Center.
Hear more about the making of this exhibition: