This is a charming netsuke. A closer look at it reveals three very plump, smooth puppies with curled tails, ears pressed against their happy faces. They are climbing up a straw hat and playing with each other, tugging at the hat. They are having fun as kids are supposed to. However, if we turn the netsuke around, we can see that the story continues underneath the hat where the mother is lying, paws curled up. The dog is clearly tired from her offspring horsing around and is trying to hide. Her kids are playing above, trying to reach down to her. This compositional approach to the netsuke makes one consider how intimate this art is meant to be. It is meant to be observed not from a glass case, not from afar, but in one’s hands where it can be turned around and studied from all sides. In this way the netsuke takes on a completely different perspective and tells a very different story.
We should remember how netsuke were used. This was a practical item worn on the person on the belt. It would attach either a medicine box or a tobacco pouch or a money purse to the outfit. When the wearer would come to a shop, for example, he would sit at the edge of the veranda and converse with the shopkeeper or owner. There may have been tea offered, a pipe smoked, and during the conversation he could remove this item from his belt and turn it in his hands for a moment or two being able to hold his favorite thing. Feeling the trace of generations and the warmth of the hands that held it before him was something invaluable.
To understand the reason behind the dogs as the subject, we should remember that netsuke often carry symbolic meaning. They could act as amulets with protective powers. Dogs were always seen as protectors of children. Puppies grow quickly and thereby signified the wish for children to grow fast. If a child would be crying at night, his mother would come to him and say “inu no ko, inu no ko”, or “puppy, puppy” and the crying child would calm down. The character inu (dog) could often be found at the head of a child’s bed. This was also meant to ward off any evil spirits (thereby acting as an amulet). Such an image was meant to ensure a painless birth for pregnant women. It was a common belief that a dog in labor did not feel any pain. There was also the wider meaning of the dog as being one of the 12 calendar animals. Likewise, anyone born in the year of the dog could wear this image as a personal portable amulet.
Dogs are very affectionate creatures to humans and it was thought that demons were afraid of taking human form in their presence and, likewise, if a traveler would come across a fox, badger, tanuki, or cat who had taken the form of a girl or young man, then it could be counted on that the dog would scare the demon, who would then show its true form. So we can see that this sweet story with the chubby tots has significant protective meaning.
This netsuke was carved by the master Kokei who is quite well-known to us for his work. He was quite a prolific artist and many of his netsuke have been preserved. We can say that around 80% of his work is made up of figures of resting tigers or goats followed by puppies. This piece is not signed by him, but all the details of the figure point to it being the work of this carver. Kokei had a unique carving style. At first glance his pieces appear sloppy but when you begin to look at them carefully it becomes clear that each cut of his tool was thought out exactly. This is well seen in his work depicting goats, wolves, and monsters. As a rule, the puppies were carved very smoothly with detailed work. This smoothness combines well with the hat, contrasting even a bit thus highlighting the quality of the smoothness. The hat is decorated with a thin weaving. Here it would seem he stepped away from his manner of carving. The carelessly thought-out cuts are not used here. However, this is also just as characteristic of his work.
Himatoshi, or cords holes, were needed to attach the netsuke to the belt. As a rule, Kokei did not use any specially made holes. He composed his work in such a way that the cord could be fixed behind one of the details. In this case, we can guess that the cord would have been attached behind the dog’s paw. When the item was placed on the belt, the dog was hidden from view. For those looking at it, they would only see a hat with puppies, so the paw which was hidden from sight served as an anchor for the cord.
Curator for the collection of Japanese art, Eastern Department of the State Hermitage