This netsuke is a rather splendid carving of a figure lying, hugging the ground. He is a little mysterious, and at first glance he appears to be a farmer with his straw raincoat and large conical straw hat, both of which are worn by farmers in Japan. However, if we look a little bit closer, we realize that lying beside him is a katana, a Japanese sword. So what we have is actually not a farmer but a so-called rōnin, a masterless samurai.
There is a similar netsuke to this in the British Museum in London, which is unsigned but traditionally attributed to Ogasawara Issai, an artist who was working at the end of the 18th century. He is a little bit mysterious with little being known about him. Many of the works attributed to him are not signed, but it is a fair attribution to make, and no alternative suggestion is given.
The story of the rōnin is an interesting one. It is based on a true incident, and it was subsequently dramatized into the so-called Treasury of the Loyal Retainers, known in Japanese as the Chūshingura.
The event itself took place at the beginning of the 18th century: “In 1701 Asano Naganori, the lord of Akō, was provoked by the arrogant treatment he received from the protocol official Kira Yoshinaka and drew his sword in an attempt to kill Kira within the precincts of Edo castle,“ — an act that clearly went against protocol — “for this Osana was sentenced to commit suicide, while Kira escaped without punishment. Osana’s domain was confiscated and the retainers who had served him were dismissed and became masterless samurai or rōnin.” So, this netsuke depicts one of these rōnin: “For nearly two years they bided their time while plotting revenge. Finally, on the 14th day of the 12th month in 1702, the band of 47 rōnin broke into Kira’s mansion at night and killed him. Although they were regarded as heroes by many for their unswerving loyalty, they were all nevertheless ordered by the authorities to commit suicide on the same day in 1703. The story became extremely popular as a theme for plays and paintings.”
This story of Japanese honor, which is very complicated, is depicted in this netsuke of a rōnin lying in wait, ready for the attack.