The metallic bowl and mouthpiece of the pipe offered a tempting surface for embellishment, as well as the clasp of the pouch; and the netsuke, being made of wood, ivory or other material susceptible of carving, also gave occasion for art and ingenuity.
The engravers of pipes, pouch clasps, and the metallic discs (kagami-buta) attached to certain netsuke, sprang from the same class and were not less original.
The netsuke and the pipe, with all that pertained to it, were for the commoners what the sword-hilt and guard were for the gentry.
When Japanese sculpture in wood or ivory is spoken of, the first idea that presents itself is connected with the netsuke, which, of all the art objects found in Japan, is perhaps the most Netsuke essentially Japanese.
But the netsuke, we should still have no difficulty in differentiating the bright versatility of her national genius from the comparatively sombre, mechanic and unimaginatrve temperament of the Chinese.
But the netsuke may now be said to be a thing of the past.
The inro (medicine-box), which it mainly served to fix in the girdle, has been driven out of fashion by the new civilization imported from the West, and artists who would have carved netsuke in former times now devote their chisels to statuettes and alcove ornaments.
It is not to be inferred, however, though it is a favorite assertion of collectors, that no good netsuke have been made in modern times.
That theory is based upon the fact that after the opening of the country to foreign intercourse in 1857, hundreds of inferior specimens of netsuke were chiselled by inexpert hands, purchased wholesale by treaty-port merchants, and sent to New York, London and Paris, where, though they brought profit to the exporter, they also disgusted the connoisseur and soon earned discredit for their whole class.
But in fact the glyptic artists of Tokyo, Osaka and KiOto, though they now devote their chisels chiefly to works of more importance than the netsuke, are in no sense inferior to their predecessors of feudal days, and many beautiful netsuke bearing their signatures are in existence.
As for the modern ivory statuette or alcove ornament, of which great numbers are now carved for the foreign market, it certainly stands on a plane much higher than the netsuke, since anatomical defects which escape notice in the latter owing to its diminutive size, become obtrusive in the former.