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Japanese netsuke

Traditional Japanese clothing was based on a simple wrap-over robe tied with a sash, the kimono ('thing for wearing') worn by both men and women. However, the kimono had no pockets. Women could carry things in their wide sleeves, while men used their obi sashes to hang various small accessories called sagemono ('hanging things'). These included inrō (medicine or seal containers), smoking sets, yatate (writing sets), purses, and pouches for special equipment. They were hung by a cord kept in place by a small toggle called a netsuke.

Early netsuke were usually quite plain and functional pieces of wood or stone. However, by the eighteenth century they were very often finely carved ornaments, a show of the owner's wealth. Though most netsuke were less than five centimetres high, they were carved with extraordinary detail: the hairs of a tiger's coat would be individually incised; hidden parts, such as individual toes on the underside of bare feet were all perfectly reproduced.

From the middle Edo period onward, ivory was one of the most popular materials for netsuke. This fashion probably came from China. They were also often made of wood, as well as amber stone, coral, tortoiseshell and even cast-bronze. Although netsuke are no longer in general use, they are much in demand as collectors' items, and there are still numbers of netsuke carvers working in many varieties of materials.

The British Museum has an extensive collection of some 2300 netsuke.

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Images of cats from the British Museum collection, £9.99

Images of cats from the British Museum collection, £9.99