The subject of this netsuke is clearly not Japanese but a foreigner. It can even be said with full certainty that it is a Dutchman. He has a wide-brimmed hat with a feather, plump cheeks, and long straight hair down to his waist. He is wearing a short kaftan under which can be seen pantaloons, stockings, and wooden clogs. Another small detail is the small wooden heels seen on the bottom of the feet. Why exactly a Dutchman is represented can be explained by Japanese history. The fact is that the first Europeans to come to Japan were the Portuguese in the 16th century, followed later by the English. However, the negative impact of their politics was seen in their attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of the country. They brought with them firearms. They sided with certain local princes against others, and they began preaching christianity, which at the time was considered a threat to the central power. Accordingly, 100 years later the Jesuits along with all other foreigners were asked to leave. They were boarded onto ships; some were executed, and they were gotten rid of.
The only exception were the Dutch. As it were, they had never tried to have influence on the internal affairs of the country. For this reason the Japanese set aside the Nagasaki port for them where they were allowed to bring their ships once a year. Likewise, a small artificial island was established for them with high fences and a factory, or trading post, where goods were loaded and records were kept, and where a small Dutch community resided. Business, for the most part trade, with the Japanese government was conducted here. The foreigners were not allowed to leave the very compact territory and were never seen in town. Any necessary goods were delivered to them to this small island by Japanese merchants. However, rumors of the strange people living behind the high walls naturally reached the townspeople of Nagasaki and elsewhere. The information about these people continued to spread and elicited a natural curiosity. In order to satisfy this curiosity, local artists of Nagasaki began to draw pictures and later made prints with depictions of the Dutchmen. These works were in high demand as they gave insight to the clothing they wore, the facial differences between the Europeans and Japanese, etc. The appearance of the fair red hair uncommon among eastern nations such as Japan was frightening, appearing demonic, and the images of foreigners were apparently classed somewhere between water kappas and mermaids, and other evil spirits.
Netsuke carvers did not ignore this subject matter and at the end of the 18th century the popularity of such netsuke took off. More often than not the netsuke of foreigners are made from ivory rather than wood. This piece, however, is in fact made from wood with a light tinting in the recesses.
Foreigners were often depicted in netsuke holding an object or an animal, the variety of which could be counted on one hand. Often this was a boar, a gun, a rooster like in our case, sometimes a child or a flageolet, sometimes a dog by the feet. These were essentially the only subject matters used in netsuke.
The reason for the rooster could be connected to the fact that the meat-eating Dutchmen appeared quite unusual to the people of the Buddhist country, where it was uncommon to consume meat. This is one possible interpretation of this subject matter: to show the rooster as something edible. The second possible interpretation of this involves the East-Indian Dutch Company, which was founded in Malaysia and which adopted the tradition of cock fighting and apparently brought this tradition with them to Japan and continued it on the site of their factory. The large rooster which our man is holding is likely a fighting rooster. He has large, long, strong feet; his neck is stretched up, and his tail is practically gone. It may have been pulled out.
The netsuke depicting Dutchmen are typically large, around 9-11 cm. This places it as a very early piece from around the second half of the 18th century, maybe the late 18th century. Another feature pointing to this time period is the cord holes or himotoshi. The inlet hole can be seen between the pantaloons with the outlet hole on the back of our figure. The lower hole is quite wide, which was characteristic for items carved in the 18th century.
As a rule, all of the netsuke of foreigners are unsigned. The carver’s signature cannot be found on this piece or on the other figures of Dutchmen in our collection. We cannot say who the carver was. This subject matter was most popular among the carvers of Osaka and Kyoto. Perhaps our netsuke was also produced there.
Curator for the collection of Japanese art, Eastern Department of the State Hermitage