Small but Perfectly Formed

Small but Perfectly Formed

Set to speak at the Club this month, Princess Takamado discusses her love of netsuke craftsmanship and nature.

When British ceramicist Edmund de Waal published his acclaimed memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes in 2010, many readers around the world learned about netsuke for the first time.

But these Japanese miniature sculptures, hundreds of which de Waal’s Austrian Jewish family concealed from the Nazis in 1938, have long been celebrated by some of the most prominent figures in Japanese society, including the imperial family.

Last year, the Tokyo National Museum displayed an extraordinary collection of netsuke that were owned by Prince Takamado, a first cousin of the former emperor, Akihito. The exhibition completed the transfer of the prince’s entire 500-piece collection to the museum and marked the 20th anniversary of his untimely death at age 47.

“I think he would have been very pleased,” says his wife, Hisako, Princess Takamado, in her home directly across from the Canadian Embassy, where the prince collapsed during a squash game. “One reason why we donated the first half in 2012, on the 10th anniversary of his passing, was he’d said that he had wished it would be exhibited on a permanent basis at the museum. There’s now a natural flow of exhibits from the Edo to Meiji periods and into the netsuke room.”

The netsuke are displayed in the museum’s second-floor, purpose-built Prince Takamado Collection Room. While they are nearly all contemporary pieces, netsuke themselves are usually associated with the Edo period, a time when the arts flourished under the Tokugawa shogunate.

Netsuke originated in the 17th century as stoppers positioned above kimono sashes, or obi, from which small items such as tobacco pouches or medicine boxes could be suspended. They evolved into highly ornate artworks depicting real or imaginary animals, people and everyday objects.

Functional, beautiful and showcasing master craftsmanship, netsuke became prized by foreigners arriving in the late 19th century. Collectors included Russian jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé and Edward Chandler Moore, an American silversmith for Tiffany & Co.

As Western attire became fashionable among Japanese, undermining domestic demand for netsuke, the toggles found markets abroad. However, some carvers continued into the 20th century and beyond, and the industry even survived the 1989 trade ban on ivory, a traditional netsuke material.

Some works in the prince’s collection are strikingly unlike anything from the Edo period. For instance, a 2001 carving by Kiho Takagi, titled “Lone Journey,” depicts a backpack-wearing penguin chick staring at a compass. It’s one example of how netsuke continue to surprise, transcending their function to become storytelling devices.

“If you collect netsuke, you have the whole gamut of Japanese history, arts, stories, legends and more, literally, in the palm of your hand,” explains Princess Takamado, 69, who will discuss her long interest in netsuke at a TAC Talk on February 8. “It gives you the chance to enjoy a huge variety of traditional techniques and workmanship.”

Born Hisako Tottori in Tokyo, the princess grew up in New York, Tokyo and London, read anthropology and archeology at the University of Cambridge and saw her first netsuke at a museum in Britain. Being away from Japan during her formative years, she found netsuke, as microcosms of Japanese culture, charming and somewhat exotic. Like a 19th-century collector, she fell under the spell of netsuke and introduced them to the prince before they married in 1984. Her 1997 children’s book, Katie and the Dream-Eater, was inspired by a netsuke of a baku, a mythological creature that feasts on nightmares.

“I’d never realized that Japanese art could be so humorous,” she says. “The attraction they have is largely to do with the fact that netsuke are so small and adorable. And we ‘met’ at the right time, just as I was becoming interested in learning more about Japan.”

Another passion of the princess’ is watching and photographing birds. Because her maiden name contains the character for bird, she explains, she felt compelled to study just about everything with feathers. Armed with huge telephoto lenses, she regularly heads to the wilds of Nagano Prefecture and enters her best shots in photo contests.

Last year, the princess published a book in Japanese, Tori to Netsuke Shunju no Monogatari, featuring her photography of netsuke and birds alongside her articles for the women’s magazine Fujingaho. The appeal, she says, is that the subjects are so different and offer their own distinct challenges to photograph.

The book also highlights the princess’ commitment to conservation. She is the honorary president of BirdLife International, a global alliance of conservation groups, and she pursues a policy of never buying netsuke made of ivory or from parts of any other endangered species. She has also encouraged netsuke artists to use deer antlers, a sustainable resource in Japan.

Today, netsuke are made of many natural and artificial materials. Newer generations of carvers, both in Japan and abroad, and their patrons are helping evolve this centuries-old tradition.
“We are now getting a lot of artists originally from art school and coming in from different areas of design, who are very knowledgeable about form and materials, and they exchange techniques with other artists,” the princess explains.

The attraction of netsuke for contemporary artists, she says, is their small size and rounded shape.

“You are trying to create something within restrictions, which actually gives scope for more imagination than being told you can make whatever you want in whatever size you want.”

Club 95th Anniversary TAC Talk: Princess Takamado
February 8 | 7–8pm

Words: Tim Hornyak
Images: Kayo Yamawaki

February 2023