This netsuke depicts the Japanese demon, or sometimes also called devil, Oni. In ancient times, all frightening and vague forces were invisible. The first written record in Japanese history from 712 gives mention to demonic forces; however, no description of them is provided. They were invisible and formless. No appearance is given to them until the arrival of Buddhism in the 6th century when the oni demons (messengers of Emma-o the overlord of hell) first began to be described. They were large in size with thundering voices. Their skin was either blue, yellow, black, or red. They had horns coming from their heads, sometimes only one. Their faces were humanlike but with the possible appearance of a third eye. Their mouths were always shown wide-open all the way to the ears. Bestial fangs protruded from their open mouths. The long claws at the end of their fingers and toes sometimes resembled spikes. Their only clothing was a woven loincloth, more commonly made from tiger pelt. This is the type of demon shown in our netsuke
We can see his horns, his curly hair, muscular body and brutish face. His feet are pressed together, and his right hand is reaching for one of his horns. In his left hand he is holding a mirror and is looking at himself. In Buddhist tradition, anyone is capable of reaching enlightenment. Even the most evil forces are capable of this. The oni here is touching his horn before the monastic tonsure, when Buddhist monks would shave their heads. Here the devil is clearly parting with his horns which will be shaved off during the dedication ceremony.
Every frightening thing which made one tremble and fear walking on mountain trails, in dark forests, or late at night, began to be looked at quite ironically during the Tokugawa period. Many subject matters were desacralized. The Lucky Gods became jolly beings who would find themselves in ridiculous situations. Terrifying devils were depicted in a way that they no longer evoked fear, especially if they were reciting prayers to Buddha, washing themselves before the dedication, or preparing for the cutting of their horns.
This netsuke was most likely carved in the mid, possibly the second half of the 19th century by the carver Homin, whose life we know close to nothing about. However, the general tendencies characteristic of the time can clearly be traced in his work: the smaller size of the figures compared to the 18th century, the more meticulous design with finer detailing. Homin worked with both wood and ivory and with this example we can see how delicately he controlled the material and the precision of the stain. This attention to detail, attention to subtlety, is what characterizes the netsuke carving of the mid-late 19th century.
Curator for the collection of Japanese art, Eastern Department of the State Hermitage