This netsuke depicts the wind god Fūjin, who is sometimes also called Futen. Along with the thunder god Raijin, he is likely one of the oldest gods of Japan. They embody poems which frightened people in Japan as well as in the rest of the world. In the old texts dedicated to Japanese myths we can already find descriptions of these gods. Fūjin would normally appear surrounded by thunderclouds, often carrying a large sack over his shoulders. In this sack, he would collect different breezes, storms, cyclones, and he would release these winds, sending them down to earth.
In this netsuke he is appearing out from a rising cumulus cloud in swirling wafts, leaning on these swirls with his elbows. He resembles a demon with his teeth bared and small horns. From paintings and descriptions in texts, we know he has red hair and green skin, which can only be imagined when looking at the netsuke. He is scary and is meant to frighten people, having command over the elements. The carver was able to stunningly convey the terrifying expression of the thunder god.
The carver of this piece, Unjudo Shumemaru is notable for the fact that his name appears in a book published in 1781 in Osaka by Inaba Tsûyrû. This is the first text to mention netsuke carvers. The text was written by a merchant who sold decorations for swords, tsuba, assembly elements for the hilt of the sword, as well as various sagemono, i.e., suspended items which included glasses cases, smoking kits, and, accordingly, netsuke, which acted as a counterweight for all these items. Six of the seven volumes of the book are dedicated to describing the tsuba, or hand guards, and only the last volume is dedicated to the carvers of Kyoto and Osaka.
Being able to learn even something about the people who were engaged in netsuke carving at the time is a rare opportunity. Inaba draws attention to Shumemaru by placing him second among the 54 carvers mentioned in his book. As number one he names Yoshimura Shuzan, another carver who worked and lived in Osaka and who is, according to modern tradition, considered to be the founder of the Osaka school. The second was Shumemaru, who, according to Inaba, lived and worked in Osaka. His real last name is not known since, following art tradition, it was customary to take on a creative pseudonym, something which was commonly seen among artists, calligraphers, and netsuke carvers. Shumemaru is his pseudonym and his real name is unknown. Inaba mentions him being a Shinto priest.
This is an important piece of information which characterizes the era in that, by the end of the 18th century there were almost no professional carvers left. Many of the netsuke carvers did this as a side activity, and often it was simply a hobby. According to Inaba’s book, netsuke carving attracted mask carvers, even dental technicians, and in this case a Shinto priest. He did not work on the market and only made netsuke at the request of people he knew. Inaba himself noted that few pieces of this master remained, precisely because he did it for himself and not for a living. Because of this, each piece in the collection is valuable for its uniqueness. We also learn from the text that he worked using the kijibori technique, i.e., a simple technique of plain wood carving without decorations or stains. This netsuke is also made from wood without any traces of staining. However, the last sentence of Inaba’s description seems to contradict his previous statement. Sometimes staining can be found in the folds of the clothes. Here, however, there is no staining to be found, only the kijibori technique.
The netsuke is rather big at over 9 cm. This size is characteristic of items at the end of the 18th century. When comparing pieces from the end of the 18th century and those of the 19th century, the difference in size is always easily noticed. Another feature of the earlier items is the cord hole on the back of the figure, called himotoshi. Himo meaning cord and toshi from the verb tosu - to thread. These holes are connected by a small channel and were used to pull a cord through and hide the knot in the bigger of the two holes. The hole where the knot would enter was always slightly bigger than the second, but for the earlier pieces this hole was characteristically bigger than was done in the 19th century. We can see this feature in this piece.
There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of this piece and the museum is proud to have such a rare piece in its collection. If we turn to the carving technique used, the period when this piece was carved is known for a certain “brutality”. The items carved during this period give impressions of strength and power rather than grace and ease. The towering clouds lifting up the god were made with one confident cut by the carver, which is evidence of the carver’s great mastery of the technique. The composition was planned in advance and he had no trouble bringing his drawing to life. This manner of carving supports the early origin of netsuke. It is always necessary to analyze features like this when attributing netsuke.
We often acquire our netsuke after seeing them in other collections, and we try to understand how true the attribution is, how expertly it was examined, how convincingly it was dated and its authenticity was confirmed. Using these terms, the netsuke can be dated and attributed.
Curator for the collection of Japanese art, Eastern Department of the State Hermitage