Bling on the miniatures

Exquisite detail: Skilled carving went into the making of Japanese netsuke, just a few centimetres in circumference, that were used on kimono sashes. (David Harrison)

Exquisite detail: Skilled carving went into the making of Japanese netsuke, just a few centimetres in circumference, that were used on kimono sashes. (David Harrison)

A spotted doe on its haunches lifts its long neck to cry at an unseen full moon, a sleeping figure lies next to a temple dreaming of worldly success, gleaming fish spill into wavelike forms. To the uninformed they appear to be beautifully carved miniature sculptures. End of story.
But closer examination reveals two tiny holes that hint at their true purpose.

What is it about miniatures that exert such a compelling hold on people? It doesn’t matter whether it’s a dinky tea set, now frowned-upon ivory elephants that fit into a lucky bean or tourist kitsch, your name on a grain of rice. 

There is something of the talisman and of treasure in the miniature. In a sense, it is the world of the imagination made manageable, which is probably exactly why they are so enormously satisfying. Though these particular miniatures may have all the characteristics of general miniatures, they are also very specific. They make up some of the 200 finely carved Japanese toggles or netsuke in the Isaac Kaplan Collection, housed as a permanent exhibition in the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town. 

Netsuke (pronounced net-skay) is Japanese for toggle (ne meaning root and tsuke to attach). The kimono is a pocketless garment and these toggles, measuring just a few centimetres in circumference, were used to prevent the cord that attached anything from a tobacco pouch, purses or writing materials to the kimono sashes from slipping. 

Originally made of shells, driftwood and bone, netsuke have their roots in Chinese figurines which were first introduced to Japan between the 14th and 17th centuries by Chinese refugees. 

Netsukes were required to be rounded so as not to scratch kimono or sash and to contain an element of surprise. Animals and humans were the most popular subject matter and the narrative covers gods, myths, legends and nature.

The netsuke was a way of getting around the Japanese sumptuary laws that operated over many centuries and forbade people from flaunting their wealth in terms of attire. It was this law that helped the warrior samurai class to retain their position of power even when the merchant classes became wealthier than they were. 

Netsuke may have been insignificant in size, but their beautiful craftsmanship elevated them into potent bling and they became a tolerated way for the merchant class to show its wealth in spite of the law. 

Like miniatures, netsuke are meant to be touched and the rich patina of their ivory, bone and wood surfaces is the result of oil from the skin through handling.

Four years ago, British ceramicist Edmund de Waal, who refers to himself as “the potter who writes”, wrote The Hare with Amber Eyes, which won the 2011 Ondaatje prize for “evoking the spirit of place”. Referring to a collection of 264 Japanese netsuke that De Waal inherited from his great-uncle Iggie, he traces the destinies of his paternal grandmother’s family, the wealthy Viennese Ephrussis who fled Nazism to Britain. The book sold a million copies and has been translated into 30 languages.  Forgotten by the Japanese in the 20th century when their function became obsolete because of changes in fashion, netsuke suddenly caught the imagination of the world after the publication of De Waal’s book.

But the Isaac Kaplan Collection is not only about a Japanese tradition. It has larger connections, much like the many strands of cord threaded through the netsuke. How did one of the biggest private collections of Japanese netsuke in the world land up in Africa in the collection of a Jewish man? When one considers the Jewish diaspora, it makes a kind of sense. Interestingly, De Waal considers himself a lapsed Christian, “a new Jew” and “wannabe Buddhist”. 

And in that same vein Financial Times writer Jackie Wullschlager interprets The Hare with Amber Eyes as “more than an account of European displacement; it is about the inevitable fragmentation of history, art, lives”. Africa also played a role by providing the ivory, which the Dutch took and traded in Nagasaki. 

Interestingly the largest collections of netsuke are all outside Japan. And if Robert Kaplan, fearing that his father’s collection would be kept in some vault uncelebrated by the human eye, had not been able to persuade his late brother not to send them to Israel, this impressive and magical collection would have been lost to South Africa. 

The collector Isaac Kaplan was a self-taught man and a blacksmith. He first collected Japanese figurines until he fell under the spell of netsuke in the mid 1950s. He spent many a night after work in his study in their company, teaching himself to read Japanese and gathering information.  Yet he never visited Japan preferring to live in the 18th- and 19th-century Japan of his imagination, as he felt he would have been at odds with the country in the 20th century.

A replica of Kaplan’s study with the original dentist’s cabinet and its many drawers that housed the netsuke, his magnifying glass and his notebooks are all part of the display. 

His son Robert Kaplan remembers, aged six, sitting with his father and Dr Toddy Schrire after they had acquired 45 netsuke from the artist Gregoire Bonzaaier’s father’s collection. The boy watched how they methodically divided their spoils, piece by piece. He also remembers losing his heart to a fish netsuke made of mother-of-pearl and how it broke when, unaware of his son’s affection for the netsuke, his father sold it.

The netsuke in the museum can be viewed with a magnifying glass and can also be seen on a computer monitor, with accompanying text that explains the story behind each one.

The South African Jewish Museum, 88 Hatfield Street, Gardens, Cape Town. Telephone: 021 465 1546, email info@sajminfo, or visit

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