[From March Issue 2012]
As a journalist from England involved in the world of Japanese fashion I am often asked how I came to specialize in such a niche world. Doubtlessly my interest in English designers, such as Vivienne Westwood, who were also popular in Japan, played a part in bridging that gap to Japan, but my initial interest in Japan actually came from a rather unlikely place – 17th Century Japan.
Given that fashion is usually thought as existing in the moment, the fact that my initial attraction was to an ornament that hadn’t been part of Japanese dress for the last century may surprise. But it was the humble netsuke that started the journey that led me to live and work in Japan today. Due to the absence of pockets in traditional Japanese dress, netsuke were invented as an effective clasp that attached to the obi (belt) which could then have a cord passed through it to allow the wearer to hang pouches and other containers from it.
This issue of practical necessity was vital to the evolution of the netsuke from a functional object to a meticulously carved masterpiece. Japanese dress, and menswear in particular, did not allow much opportunity for adornment or accessories. Because netsuke were functional, they were exempt from the customs and laws of the Tokugawa (Edo) era that forbid excessive public displays of wealth and status in the lower and merchant classes. This made the netsuke an avenue of self-expression for the rapidly emerging wealthy merchant class of the time and also an antidote to the minimalism and refinement typically preferred by the upper classes.
While they did in time permeate all areas of society, most netsuke were originally carved into the shape of subjects representative of the popular tastes of normal Japanese people. There are a wealth of depictions of animals, monsters from Japanese fairy tales, mythical warriors, and even the cruder subjects of sex and drinking. These subjects are worlds apart from the flower and tea ceremonies that we think of characterizing the era. In many ways they bridge a gap between the brashness of neon lit modern Japan, and the perceived minimalism and modest grace of ancient Japan. When you look at the netsuke beloved of the normal, working class Japanese people, you can see that, culturally, very little has changed after all.
When I encountered the netsuke collection at the V&A Museum in London, it opened a door to a wider view of Japanese aesthetics. It moved me in a way a rock garden would not. I was entranced by the cackling demons, the heroism of warriors riding into battle, and the macabre of skulls intertwined with snakes. It is art of unparalleled quality of workmanship that explores the serious and the playful with ease. The darker subjects in particular pose the important question: just what kind of man was walking around in Tokugawa era Japan with such imagery hanging around his waist for all to see? Perhaps myself in a former life?
This love affair with this particular Japanese aesthetic eventually led me to a career in fashion, ever in search of a hint of the beauty that grew out of Tokugawa Japan. Even today I wear my own wallet attached to a netsuke of fish, lanterns and flowers.
Text : Samuel THOMAS