Lotus, Frog, and Bird Ivory by Ishikawa Rensai Japan, born c. 1832, active mid-late 19th century (3.9 x 4.4 x 1.6 cm) LACMA, Raymond and Frances Bushell Collection Photo © 2007 Museum Associates/LACMA

Little round carvings that nestle in your palm, small enough so your fingers need not clamp tight, textured enough so they want to roam the bumps and crannies and curves…. when I see  netsuke I imagine the fun my hand would get out of a mini-sculpture of a rat chasing its tail or a frieze with lotus blooming and a frog trying ever so quietly to escape the attention of a bird.  The closest I’ve come is reading Edmund de Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes and vicariously tumbling  the small sculptures   (boy, does he ever write about them beautifully — just like you would hope a potter would).

But then I stumbled across netsuke of funny-looking foreigners — there are a handlful of them on display at the Newark Museum.   And they are anything but round and cuddly.

Edo period netsuke of a dutchman -- collection of the British Museum

About three inches long and skinny, they aren’t always flattering for us European types:  goofy expressions, blocky clothes, a predilection for beards and furry beasts.  Though I suspect they are borne out of the same fascination for the exotic and the curious that gave rise to  Yokohama prints, my time in grad school would be wasted if I didn’t try to read something more into it.  So how is this for a twist on post-colonial theory:   here are these foreigners coming through the ports of Yokohama and Nagasaki, looking strange and rattling the status quo.  So along with curiosity they evoke uncertainty and fear in the Japanese — and what better way to gain control over these interlopers than to tether them to your waist and every now and again run your fingers over them for a laugh?   I mean, really, how afraid can you be of a man clutching  a rooster…?

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