12 July 2019

Netsuke, pockets, pretty little things and things I don't mind losing

Packing is always a test of what you can live without. And I'm not talking about distant, prolonged travels; I'm thinking mundane trips to the grocery.

If I had it my way, I'd like to be like men: have both hands free, and the torso unencumbered by straps and excess weight when outside. All they need are keys, cash, phone. All of which could fit in their trouser pockets. There'd still be probably room for a hanky and cigarettes. See, I could manage with only those items as well! Except there's a huge difference between men's and women's bottom wear, eloquently put in this tweet:

There're the rub. So until women's clothing is designed with "meaningful pockets", I would have to resort to wristlets, sling bags and the like.


Back in the Edo period, the pocketless kimono is accessorized with a netsuke, described by Tadashi Tanada as "a non-slip toggle used with sagemono — small personal items such as a money pouch or tobacco container". The sagemono and netsuke are on opposite ends of a cord that is secured onto the obi (sash worn with the kimono).

Of course you're curious about etymology, and Tadashi offers two possible origins: ne (root) + tsuketa (attached) and tsuketa (attached) + nemoto (to the bottom).

Fast-forward to the present, the netsuke has become a novelty to foreigners and even among the Japanese themselves (I asked a couple of my Japanese trainees about it and was met with silence). But japonisme along with netsuke carvers and enthusiasts have kept it alive as an art form.

Zanmai Onosato, A Tengu's Nose. Tengus are long-nosed goblins said to lead human beings astray.

At first sight, you'll take them as miniature sculptures. Masanori Watanabe breaks down the netsuke's distinctive features:
  1. Each netsuke must have two holes where a cord can pass, moreover, it must be designed to face the right direction when attached beneath the obi. Now that netsuke are almost never put to practical use, the holes may be nominal in size, but unless a cord can be passed through them, the sculpture is not a netsuke.
  2. It must not damage and get caught on the kimono or obi. A functional netsuke will have few projecting parts and an overall rounded form.
  3. Unlike ornamental sculptures meant for display, every surface of the netsuke is visible and appreciated while it is slowly rotated in the palm of the hand.
In celebration of the Philippine-Japan friendship month, The Japan Foundation brings its Contemporary Wood-Carved Netsuke traveling exhibition to Makati. Sixty-five pieces by netsuke artists are available for viewing — and touching — at Greenbelt 5 until the 21st of July.

My imagination was sparked, so during my visit I asked the maximum weight an average netsuke could handle, to which the answer is 50 grams. To be honest I may have misheard and I don't exactly know what 50 grams means. Half a mobile phone? Anyway, I saw a couple of keys tied to a netsuke in the exhibit, and in another, a rather wide but slim pouch.

How netsukes are traditionally used.


Can I navigate the concrete jungle with the merest 50 grams suspended from my clothes? (Aside, images of old ladies hiding cash in their bras now flash in my mind.)

When I was in college, on the way to the mall to meet high school friends, my wallet was stolen. Definitely, I couldn't go to the meet-up anymore, worse, I had no clue how I'd return home. After composing myself, I approached a policeman and explained my situation. Someone gave me transportation money in the end.

As for losing keys and gadgets, those happened to me, too, and somehow — as with the other small losses — I found a way to survive.

I'm not trying to force out a lesson on divestment from the netsuke (though I really wanted to). Rather, I'm urging you to go view the ongoing exhibit, and if anyone in the clothing industry is reading this, please: Women's clothes with functional pockets!


Source of quotes and netsuke information: Contemporary Wood-Carved Netsuke. Edited by Daisuke Harada and Keiko Okawa, The Japan Foundation, 2017.

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