Netsuke were historically used to carry a pocketbook, tobacco pouch, pipe case, or anything else that could be hanging from the obi in addition to the inro. Someone cut the stick to make it more appealing, as they are creative and artistic. The single compartment basket was quickly divided into numerous smaller parts to facilitate access to the contents. The stick was thereafter referred to as a netsuke, and the basket as an inro. Each of these artifacts has evolved into a unique art form.

Netsuke used to carry a pocketbook, tobacco pouch, pipe case

It is worth noting that netsuke have grown in popularity to the point where modern netsuke carvers are kept busy creating their own masterpieces, despite the fact that the majority of Japanese people wear Western-style clothing with pockets. Connoisseurs collect modern netsuke as artworks; they are rarely used for practical purposes anymore.

As the inro and netsuke evolved, they began to be made from increasingly exquisite materials. Inro are typically created by coating a nest of wooden boxes with hundreds and dozens of coats of lacquer. The artistry is so impressive that when all of the boxes are assembled, the scene on the outside appears to be uninterrupted. However, it may actually cover 5 to 7 seams within the box’s 4-inch length. To connect each of these parts, a cord-holding groove was cut into the exterior borders of the boxes. This duct was ultimately enclosed so that the cord could pass through without disrupting the exterior’s lovely architecture.

When the cord emerges from the top edge of the inro, the two strands must be brought together to keep the box portions in place. The cables are threaded through a tiny bead that may be adjusted up and down to tighten or loosen the row of boxes. This bead is known as an ojime.
The ropes are then brought up to the netsuke. When the netsuke became more than just a natural thing, a technique of joining the cords was required.


Most netsuke contain a pair of holes joined by a tunnel, usually located at the back of the carving, through which the cord can be carried. Usually, one hole is larger than the other to conceal the knot within the netsuke. This pair of connected holes is known as the himotoshi. Some ingenious carvers came up with natural places to attach the rope, such as between the nuts of the ginkgo cluster seen in Plate.

The stick, now changed into a netsuke; the bead, or ojime; and the nest of boxes, or inro, form a set. Lacquer inro production requires quite different procedures and talents than netsuke carving. So, even if the subject matter is similar, the pieces are typically created by different artists. And this may be an intriguing pastime for the buyer: coordinating netsuke, ojime, and inro from other artists to create a set of their own.

Of course, some artists were able to create the full set, and such rare collections have always been highly valued. When putting together a set, one person may decide that all of the elements should depict the same subject, such as turtles, which represent long life. One turtle may be depicted floating on a log, completely lacquered on the inro. The ojime could be a single carved turtle, whereas the netsuke could be a complete pile of turtles with the string flowing between two of them. Another person may choose to pair the same turtle inro with an ojime of a pine cone and a netsuke of a crane. Why?

Because turtles, pines, and cranes are all traditional Japanese symbols of longevity. The significance of symbols is extremely important to the Japanese. Their written language was created using symbols symbolizing items. Symbols are fundamental to Japanese culture, and each symbol refers to some characteristic of the object with which it is associated. Cranes, for example, symbolize loyalty because they pair for life. An object embellished with cranes is said to be a wonderful wedding gift. Westerners would enjoy the gorgeous design, but the Japanese would also recognize the seriousness of the symbolism represented.

The symbols are fascinating to study. They’re fun. Not all are pleasant, but the majority are based on a compelling story, true or imagined, concerning the topic. And it is knowledge of these stories that we in the West frequently lack when we encounter lovely Japanese goods.

Netsuke are one of the most abundant sources of Japanese storytelling. Almost every carving has a story behind it. Sometimes the netsuke is inspired by a folklore or folktale. It can sometimes be due to the subject’s own traits. It could be about the material used or about the artist.