Japanese Antiques Arts and Crafts: Netsuke, Woodblock Prints and Misc

The sophisticated designs produced by the Japanese for even simple items in daily use are admired throughout the world.

Available from department stores in Japan and antique shops around the world, these little collectables are to be treasured. Museums in the main cities like Tokyo are a good place to see old examples too.


Netsuke are very collectible. Pronounced nets’kee, these are a form of toggles used for suspending various kinds of containers known as sagemono (literally ‘hanging thing’) from the sash of a kimono. Kimonos have no pockets and all articles for personal use were tucked into sleeves or suspended from the sash.

Japanese Edo Period Ivory Netsuke

Netsuke are thought to have originated in the 16th century and were made of a piece of wood or bone of sufficient size to prevent the hanging items from slipping through the sash. In the 18th century netsuke became an art form and were carved from wood, ivory, lacquer, porcelain, metal and other materials. Ranging in size from about 3cm to as much as 12cm, they were made to represent legendary animals, ghosts and demons, everyday scenes and people. In fact the list of subject matter was as long as the imagination of the carver and as broad as the number of legends on which he could draw.

Japanese Dolls

Oiran Courtesan, Edo Period, 18th Century

Japanese dolls were not intended for play; instead they were displayed behind glass and only brought out for festivals. The custom of making dollsĀ for special occasions is thought to have begun during the Edo period (1603-1868) a time when the imperial court stayed in Kyoto while the shoguns, the de facto rulers of Japan established themselves at Edo, now known as Tokyo.

Dolls resembling samurai warriors, embodying courage, persistence, combat skills and chivalry, are displayed on the fifth day of the fifth month, a National Holiday known as Boy’s Day, when a festival is held to encourage young boys to adopt manly samurai virtues. Girl’s day is celebrated on the third day of the third month when sets of hina (small) dolls are displayed. The display may consist of two only – the Emperor and Empress – or as many as fifteen with ladies-in-waiting and musicians.

Early Meiji period (1868-1890) dolls of high quality have beautifully modelled heads and hands made of compressed sawdust bound with glue overlaid with layers of oyster shell paste, and bodies made of tightly bound straw. The armour is made of layered paper trimmed with fabric and metal, and the clothes made of silk brocade. Most dolls available today were made between 1830 and 1950.

Silk Fukusa

These are square or rectangular pieces of silk originally made as covers to protect gifts from the weather. Later the fukusa became a work of art in its own right. Often with tassels at each corner, they were painted by leading artists, embroidered in couched gold and silver thread onto silk, or woven using the tsuzure tapestry weave, or kesi as it is known in China. Popular motifs were the crane and tortoise, both emblems of longevity, or else scenes from the Japanese classics.


Hagoita are paddle-shaped bats made for the game of shuttlecock played especially at the New Year for nearly two hundred years. Not merely practical, they are elaborately decorated and take many forms. Some resemble favourite Kabuki actors, made up of padded and painted silk, decorated with flowers, fans or animals. They range in size from 15cm to 120cm, the larger ones being used by shopkeepers before New Year to draw attention to their shops.

Woodblock prints

Well known to the west are Japanese woodblock prints called Ukiyo-e, meaning `floating world’, a reference to the unstable life and shifting fashions of the subject matter. The earliest ones, dating from the late 17th century, portrayed actors, courtesans and others of the amusement area of Tokyo. By the 19th century landscapes were becoming popular with those painted by Utamaro and Hiroshige highly sought after.