I discovered netsuke on a visit to the British Museum many years ago. I was immediately charmed by the beauty, detail and whimsy of this miniature art form. Later, netsuke were introduced to a wider audience by author Edmund de Waal, in his book The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010).

Skull with lizard


This week I once again had the opportunity to spend a few hours in the British Museum, where I sought out the relative tranquillity of the Japan rooms on the 5th floor.


The museum has thousands of netsuke in its collection, of which only a small sample is on display at any time, so the ones in these photos are not the same as I had seen on my previous visit.


Octopus and a jar; Two horses; Rabbit
A fish and a dove

These human figures are none too flattering, but the artistry and detail are delightful. Check out the movement in the Ainu woman’s dress and sleeves. The Dutchman has a cockerel in his right hand, and some kind of implement that looks like a golf club in his left.

Chinese trader and Dutch trader
Ainu mother and child

This image of a monkey trainer is compelling – the man is grotesque with a manic grin; the poor monkey seems less happy.

Monkey trainer

Look at the bulging veins on this three-clawed demon arm:

severed arm of oni from Rashomon legend
Bat in a shell

This piece consists of a beautifully formed aubergine (eggplant) which splits into two halves. One half contains a carving of Mt Fuji, the other a hawk perched atop a yardarm or banner.

Hawk inside an aubergine
Lion-dog with a ball