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Photo credit: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University

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Culture: Japanese
Title: Netsuke of three tengu battling a long-nosed octopus (tako)
Date: 19th century
Medium: Carved ivory and Ink
Dimensions: 1 x 1 1/2 inches (2.5 x 3.8 cm)
Credit Line: Memorial gift from the Estate of Charles W. Hay, Class of 1925
Object Number: 73.005.170
This is an ivory netsuke of three imaginary creatures called tengu, wrestling with an octopus.

This netsuke was made in Japan.

Netsuke made from ivory, like this one, were hand-carved with knives, chisels and files of different sizes.

During the Edo period (1603-1868), the standard attire for a well-dressed Japanese man consisted of a kimono tied with a sash. Because kimonos had no pockets, accessory bags and carrying cases (called sagemono: hanging things) were used to hold personal items such as money, medicines, tobacco and seals (a stamp carved with the owner’s name). Silken cords, attached to the sagemono, were threaded through the kimono sash (obi). A toggle, called a netsuke, was attached to the other end of the cord to prevent it from slipping through the sash. To see a netsuke with an inro—one popular type of sagemono that consisted of small, stacked compartments for holding medicines—search for object number 98.087.006 in the keyword search box.

The term netsuke comes from the words “ne”, meaning ‘root’ and “tsuke”, meaning ‘to fasten.’ Early netsuke may have been made from found objects such as pieces of roots, nuts, coral and bone. Over time, netsuke production became more and more varied, refined, and innovative, reaching a high point in the early 19th century. Subjects and decoration of netsuke and sagemono reflected the tastes and aspirations of their owners, often infused with an element of comic irony. As clothing traditions modernized, netsuke came to be collected separately from sagemono, and appreciated as sculptural gems in their own right.

In this netsuke, three tengu are battling with an octopus. The tengu is a mythical creature that lives deep in the woods and mountains. They are typically portrayed as bird-like animals with human characteristics; notice the beaks and wings of the tengu in this netsuke. They are known for their martial abilities and appear in many Japanese folktales.

To see a netsuke of a tengu hatching from an egg in the Johnson Museum’s collection, search for object number 97.050.024 in the keyword search box.

NOTE: This electronic record is compiled from historic documentation which may not reflect the Johnson Museum's complete or current knowledge of the object. Review and refinement of such records is ongoing.