The Asahi Shimbun Display
Objects in Focus:
Dressed to impress: netsuke and Japanese men’s fashion

19 June – 17 August 2014
Room 3

This Asahi Shimbun Display features a selection of five delightfully detailed netsuke and other traditional Japanese male accessories from the British Museum’s collection.During the early 1700s Edo (present-day Tokyo) was one of the largest cities in the world and its merchant population grew increasingly wealthy. In the social hierarchy of Edo-period Japan (1615–1868), however, merchants occupied the lowest class; below samurai warriors, farmers and craftsman.


Restricted by government laws regulating their clothing, allowing them only to wear dark silk or cotton with simple patterns, merchants instead displayed their wealth and taste through the latest fashion accessories. Netsuke (pronounced net-ské) were well suited to this purpose, as they were functional objects as well as fashion statements. These intricately carved toggles were used to hang personal objects (sagemono) from a sash (obi)tied around a kimono, very useful as these traditional robes had no pockets.’ They could be concealed beneath the folds of a man’s kimono thus allowing the wearer to subtly express their personality and prosperity. In this way, men participated in fashionable Edo life with both flair and discretion.

Traditionally, one of the most widely used materials to make netsuke is wood and there is an intricate example of this form of craftsmanship in the exhibition. The ‘lion-head goldfish’ or ‘ranchū’ was carved by Masanao I of Yamada in Ise Province (present-day Mie prefecture) from boxwood. Masanao I was the founder of a regional group netsuke carvers who created animal subjects from this material. This netsuke was carved in the 1800s, at a time when keeping goldfish as pets became popular and affordable, where people in Edo could buy them from street pedlars or win them at festivals.

Another netsuke in this display is a finely engraved turtle made of silver. Netsuke made from metal demonstrate the growing popularity of the fashion in Edo Japan. As demand grew, metalworkers who did not specialise in the art were able to supplement their income by crafting netsuke like this one. The turtle is known in Japan as an emblem of happiness and longevity. The minute detailing of the turtles’ head and legs stand out in strong relief to the scalloped edges that make up the shell. So this netsuke is both a fine work of art and a symbolic emblem, all in one small form.

Although Netsuke became outmoded around the start of the twentieth century as Japanese men adopted the Western suit, the kimono has recently come back into favour among fashionable men in Japan. Netsuke have previously been viewed as individual art objects, and while the best examples are indeed miniature masterworks, they were in fact functional items that were part of an ensemble of male fashion accessories that would be chosen for wear depending on the mood, the season and the specific event that the owner was attending.

This Asahi Shimbun Display seeks to show netsuke in context as part of a male outfit, allowing for a deeper appreciation for the medium and also for the sartorial tastes of Edo-period men about town. A male kimono will be shown kitted out with facsimile accessories while five original netsuke, four sagemono and a sword will be displayed nearby. Netsuke when seen in context reveal the sophistication of the wearer, his sense of style and even occasionally his sense of humour.

Notes to editors:

The Asahi Shimbun Displays are a series of regularly changing displays which look at objects in new or different ways. Sometimes the display highlights a well-known item, sometimes it surprises the audience with extraordinary items from times and cultures that may not be very familiar. This is also an opportunity for the Museum to learn how it can improve its larger exhibitions and permanent gallery displays. These displays have been made possible by the generous sponsorship of The Asahi Shimbun Company, who are long standing supporters of the British Museum. With a circulation of about 8 million for the morning edition alone, The Asahi Shimbun is the most prestigious newspaper in Japan. The company also publishes magazines and books, and provides a substantial information service on the Internet. The Asahi Shimbun Company has a century long tradition of staging exhibitions in Japan of art, culture and history from around the .

Alongside this exhibition, British Museum Press have produced the beautifully illustrated volume ‘Netsuke 100 miniature masterpieces from Japan', Together with external experts, author Noriko Tsuchiya has recently examined all of the netsuke in the British Museum’s collection and identified the top 100 for inclusion in this book.

'This tremendous book brings one of the world’s greatest collections of netsuke to life. It reveals their artistry and their vitality with wit and scholarship and vivid photography. It is the best alternative possible to having them in your hands.’
Edmund de Waal, author of Hare with the Amber Eyes Paperback, £14.99

Public programme: lectures and events

Men's fashion accessories in Edo Japan

Room 3

Tuesday 1 July, 13.15–14.00

A gallery talk by Max Rutherson, British Museum. Free, just drop in

Japanese miniature masterpieces: netsuke in the British Museum

Room 3

Wednesday 23 July, 13.15–14.00

A gallery talk by Noriko Tsuchiya, British Museum.

Free, just drop in

Staying in fashion: sartorial style in Edo Japan

Room 3

Thursday 7 August, 13.15–14.00

A gallery talk by Nicole Rousmaniere, British Museum.

Free, just drop in

Urban chic: fashionable dress in the Edo period

BP Lecture Theatre

Thursday 10 Jul, 13.30–14.30

In the sophisticated urban centres of Japan in the Edo period (1603–1868) fashion was an important indicator of wealth, taste and aesthetic sensibility. In this talk, Anna Jackson, Keeper of the Asian Department, Victoria and Albert Museum, will explore the style, decoration and social significance of the luxury garments created at this time and reveal how the kimono developed into a highly expressive means of personal display.

Free, booking essential

Sword: the essence of Japanese art

BP Lecture Theatre

Saturday 12 July, 13.30–14.30

In this lecture, Victor Harris, Keeper emeritus of Japan at the British Museum and Christie’s consultant, discusses the origins and establishment of the Japanese sword over 1,000 years ago as a work of art in its own right. Illustrated by swords from the collection.

Free, booking essential

For further information or images please contact the Press Office on 020 7323 8583 / 8394 or

For public information please visit or 020 7323 8299