Ivory netsuke: a rat, a kirin and a bird's claw

From Japan
Late 18th century AD

Carved by Masanao, one of the leading masters of the late 18th century

The tiny sleeping rat, with its perfectly carved feet was probably given as a gift for someone born in the Year of the Rat, or worn during the Year of the Rat. The Japanese borrowed the Chinese custom of grouping years into cycles of twelve years. Each year was dedicated to a particular animal which gave its characteristics to people born in its year. 'Rats' were traditionally thought of as happy-go-lucky, adventurous types, very attached to their family. The animals of the Asian zodiac were very popular and netsuke carvers probably made a lot of money out of these tiny animal figures.

Mythical beasts were also very popular subjects for netsuke. The kirin had a human face and beard, two horns, a domed lump on its forehead, four horns down its back, the tail of a shishi (a mythical leonine creature) and cloven hooves. In spite of its weird appearance, it was said to bring good luck. This netsuke is only 3.6 cm high.

Netsuke carvers often chose unusual subjects, such as the bird's claw on the right, with its realistically scaly surface. Masanao's signature can be seen bottom left.

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More information


L. Smith, V. Harris and T. Clark, Japanese art: masterpieces in (London, The British Museum Press, 1990)

R. Barker and L. Smith, Netsuke: the miniature sculptu (London, The British Museum Press, 1976)


Length: 5.500 cm (rat)
Height: 3.600 cm (kirin)
Length: 5.500 cm (rat)

Museum number

Asia JA F782


Rat and kirin: Gift of Sir A.W. Franks
Bird's claw: Bequeathed by Oscar Raphael


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