British Museum blog

Dressed to impress: netsuke and Japanese men’s fashion

carved netsuke in the form of a sleeping ratNoriko Tsuchiya, curator, British Museum

Distant view of Mount Tsukuba, depicting a merchant wearing a dark kimono in a restaurant in Shinagawa (Tokyo).

Distant view of Mount Tsukuba, depicting a merchant wearing a dark kimono in a restaurant in Shinagawa (Tokyo). Kitao Masanobu (Santō Kyōden’s pseudonym, 1761–1816). Colour woodblock print (1931,0513,0.12)

I have been working on a new Asahi Shimbun Display Dressed to impress: netsuke and Japanese men’s fashion that introduces the visitor to accessories that made men’s fashion a talking point during the Edo period (1615-1868). Although laws of the ruling samurai class strictly dictated garment choices for townsmen in Edo (now known as Tokyo), these plain garments could be offset with decorative additions, providing that they were worn discreetly or were hidden in the folds of their robes.

As there were no pockets in kimono, Japanese men instead used to hang personal belongings from a sash (obi). Netsuke (pronounced net-ské) were essentially a toggle or stopper to prevent these dangling items (sagemono) from falling to the ground. While fundamentally utilitarian in function, Japanese crafstmen turned them into miniature masterpieces of sculpture, made of materials such as wood, ivory and porcelain, intricately carved into human figures, animals, plants or everyday objects.

Japanese pond turtle

Japanese pond turtle. The intricate detail of the animal’s features demonstrates the skill of the artist and his close observation of nature. This netsuke in high quality Japanese silver feels weighty in the wearer’s hand. By Kikugawa, late 1800s, Japan (HG.291)


Goldfish. This ugly, yet adorable, goldfish is known as the lion-head goldfish or ranchū, and is highly regarded in Japan. Keeping goldfish as pets became popular from the 1800s onwards. By Masanao I of Ise (1815–90), Japan. Made of boxwood, inlaid with light and dark horn eyes (F.1074)

Sleeping rat

Sleeping rat. This ivory rat was carved by Masanao, one of the greatest netsuke artists. It may have been worn by a man born in the year of the rat. This netsuke might also have served as a talisman for attracting prosperity, since rats are associated with Daikoku, one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune. By Masanao of Kyoto, late 1700s, Japan. Made of ivory. (F.782)

Sleeping rat

Sleeping rat. By Masanao of Kyoto, late 1700s, Japan. Made of ivory. (F.782)

Because of this utilitarian purpose, netsuke were used by all classes of society. However, merchants notably used netsuke and other items to demonstrate their wealth, status and taste — with men often selecting and coordinating their outfits to fit the weather, season, occasion and their mood.

The exhibition also features a bespoke kimono, a sword, smoking implements and beautifully lacquered medicine- and seal-cases to demonstrate how Japanese men of the past dressed to impress.

Chinese couple playing a flute

Chinese couple playing a flute. This is one of the earliest netsuke in the British Museum made around 1700. The Chinese Tang emperor Xuanzong (AD 685–762) and his beautiful consort Yang Guifei (AD 719–756) sit together playing a flute. Unsigned, about 1700. Japan. Made of ivory. (1945,1017.595)

Chinese boy holding a mask for a lion dance.

Chinese boy holding a mask for a lion dance. Porcelain netsuke are less common than those made of ivory or wood. The Chinese lion (shishi) mask is used in a dance known as shishi-mai, performed at festivals throughout Japan, particularly around the New Year. Unsigned, early 1800s, Mikawachi kilns (Saga prefecture), Japan. Made of porcelain. (Franks.1462.+)

Netsuke and traditional Japanese accessories are not simply things of the past. Although such outfits and ornamentation fell out of fashion with the adaptation of Western styles of dress at the beginning of the twentieth century, kimono have recently started to make a comeback in Japan. Perhaps netsuke will be a must-have item for the fashion-conscious male not too soon into the future!

The Asahi Shimbun Displays
Dressed to impress: netsuke and Japanese men’s fashion is in Room 3, from 19 June to 17 August 2014
Supported by The Asahi Shimbun

We will be holding a free public event on Friday 27 June, 17.00-20.00 in Room 3. Experts will be on hand to show how traditional kimono are worn. Feel free to try on some cool kimono and take a #KimonoSelfie to share with the world!

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4 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. dorannrule says:

    I think I like the idea of Netsuke. Did they have them for women? I wouldn’t want to wear the rat of course.


  2. Have you read “The Hare With Amber Eyes?” I’ve been enthralled with netsuke since reading his remarkable book. Lovely, lovely post.


  3. Wendy Brydge says:

    The sleeping rat is so beautifully done!


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