Posted in Elephants, Nature

Ivory, Part Five

An Ivory Timeline: Netsuke

Popularized in the 17th century and still available today, netsuke (pronounced nets-keh) are small carved toggles used to attach pouches or boxes to the sashes of traditional Japanese robes worn by men, robes which had no pockets. Instead, “sagemono” (suspended objects) hung by cords from the belts of men’s kimono robes – the two holes in the netsuke at the end of the cords prevented them from slipping through the sash. Sagemono included cloth pouches, small woven baskets, or the most popular (and beautifully made) wooden boxes.   In this manner, Japanese men carried pipes, tobacco, writing implements, personal seals, medicine, or money. The combination of sagemona and netsuke were carefully considered before any well-dressed gentleman appeared in public.


Most popular during the Endo period (1615-1868), netsuke evolved from being strictly utilitarian objects made of shell and wood into intricately carved miniature sculptures with motifs inspired by animals, vegetables, fairy tales, daily life and mythological or religious figures. Most common are sculptural netsuke: compact three-dimensional figures carved into round shapes and one to three inches long. Other types include elongated carvings, hollow netsuke, masks, or trick netsuke with hidden or moving parts.

Materials used for carving netsuke include elephant and mammoth ivory, hardwoods, hippopotamus tusks, boar tusks, rhinoceros horn, antlers, and clay. Woven netsuke are made from cane. Other materials used are the casques (upper mandible) of the Helmeted hornbill; black coral; partially fossilized pine and cedar wood found under sections of Sendai, Japan; walrus tusks; sperm whale teeth; whale bone; bear’s teeth; tiger’s teeth; ivory palm nuts, walnuts; agate; the underground stems of bamboo; and ivorine – made from the dust created when carving ivory, which is mixed with clear resin and compressed.

Subjects portrayed by netsuke include nearly every aspect of Japanese culture, including people famous, anonymous, historical, fantastical, or real. Some netsuke depict entire scenes from mythology, literature, or history. Trades people were often carved in action – woodcutters cutting wood, fishermen catching fish. Other subjects included plants, especially beans and chestnuts, often carved in actual size; inanimate objects such as roof tiles, coins and tools; and abstract patterns. Shunga, or erotic netsuke, include humans or animals in acts of conjugation or contain subtle or symbolic sexual references. Animal subjects varied from zodiac signs to rats, from octopi to rabbits. One of my favorites is by Masatoshi: “Baku Monster Who Eats Nightmares.” It resembles a standing pregnant elephant with red eyes, dark curly hair, and biceps. A contemporary piece, it is made of ivory.Angry elephant

Nearly 50% of netsuke is ivory.

Netsuke: an art that requires death.

Between 1977 and 1987 Japan imported 2,832 tons of elephant ivory. Two-thirds of that amount was carved into Hankos, writing seals still required on official documents. One hundred and seventy tons of ivory went into the production of netsuke. In 1989, a ban was enacted on all ivory trade. Still, countries could apply for, and receive, ivory under special sales. In 2006, 2.8 tons of illegal ivory was seized in Osaka. Japan last received a legal import of ivory in 2009.In 2011, Japan’s biggest ivory dealer, Takaichi Co., was found to be trading in “unregistered” ivory. An estimated 572-1622 illegal tusks had been converted into hankos between 2005 and 2010 by the firm – 87% of their production.And nearly all Japanese people have figurines, anime or cartoon characters, many made from ivory, hanging from their mobile phones — a mass-produced, contemporary way keeping alive the nation’s netsuke tradition.

Netsuke. Small, beautiful sculptures made of calcium, made from the incisors of dead elephants.


Cheryl Merrill’s essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Pilgrimage, Brevity, Seems, South Loop Review, Ghoti, Alaska Quarterly Review, Adventum and Isotope. “Singing Like Yma Sumac” was selected for the Best of Brevity 2005 and Creative Nonfiction #27. It was also included in the anthology Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition, 10th Edition. Another essay, “Trunk,” was chosen for Special Mention in Pushcart 2008. She is currently working on a book about elephants: Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.

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