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Small yet wonderful, netsuke pieces awe in exhibit

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, no, they are not sculpture for ants. 

Netsuke refers to the small, carved toggles—usually wood or ivory—that are used to secure small personal pouches to one’s kimono.

Better appreciated up close, these functional pieces feature designs so intricate that collectors are willing to pay a fortune for them. In fact, one late 18th century ivory netsuke featuring a shishi (lion dog) sold for GBP262,250 at an auction by Bonhams.

But of course, the appreciation for netsuke shouldn’t be dependent on how much monetary value it possesses. While miniature in size, a piece could take up to three months to finish.

Ayala Museum senior curator Kenneth Esguerra, netsuke artists Asuka Kajiura and Tadamine Nakagawa, Japanese Ambassador Koji Haneda, Japan Foundation Manila Director Hiroaki Uesugi 

“One has to have a high spirit,” says Nakagawa Tadamine, a netsuke artist for almost 40 years. “A piece so small, that it can fit in the palm of one’s hand… it is a reflection of a person’s character.”

A former president of the International Netsuke Carvers’ Association, Tadamine won Mie Prefecture’s Award for Cultural Merit in 2008. He, along with Asuka Shoura, is in the country as part of the Japan Foundation’s exhibit at Ayala Malls Greenbelt 5 in celebration of Philippine-Japan Friendship Month.

On display until July 21, the exhibition features 65 netsuke pieces and is done in collaboration with Ayala Museum and Ayala Malls, with the support of Ateneo de Manila University Japanese Studies Program, Arete, and the Embassy of Japan in the Philippines.

"Dragon X Queen" by Shinya Nagashima

"Plover" by Rumine Kandachi

"Promise" by Akira Kuroiwa

Shoura is a former announcer at NHK, Japan’s national public broadcasting organization. She decided to become a netsuke artist herself in 2010 after covering Tadamine at a traditional art crafts event.

“To be able to show the characteristic and strength of netsuke is very important,” she says. “But thanks to the Internet, people around the world will be able to know what netsuke is. The next decade will be a crucial time for us if we can maintain and pass on the knowledge and beauty of netsuke to the next generation.”

A kimono adorned with a netsuke

The netsuke exhibition runs alongside the 22nd Japanese Film Festival EIGASAI and “The Strangers”, a dance collaboration to be held at the Blackbox Theater, De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde.

“It is this kind of cultural and people to people exchanges we share that fuel our deepest sense of appreciation for each other’s cultures,” Japan’s Ambassador to Manila Koji Haneda said during the exhibition opening. “It has also cultivated mutual understanding and respect between Japanese and Filipinos that go far beyond the conventional areas of our cooperation, trade, investment, and development matters. As President Duterte often reiterates, Japan and the Philippines have become special friends. Against this background, I sincerely hope that this traveling exhibition serves as another opportunity for the local audience to understand the dynamic and evolving nature of the Japanese culture. May this event also inspire more Filipinos to know more about Japan and take part in strengthening Japan-Philippines ties.” Text and photos by Dexter R. Matilla

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