Animal symbolism is hugely important in Asian culture.


With that knowledge, it’s no wonder Japanese artists have been carefully carving animal sculptures for thousands of years. Many of the most prized Japanese animal carvings are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand or wear on a necklace. Beginning in the 17th century, Japanese men would hang small pouches for their pipes, coins, seals and other personal belongings from their traditional sashes. To keep the pouches in place, they attached counterweights to the opposite ends of a cords.


Japanese artists began carving what are today known as netsuke to decoratively counterweight these pouches.


Japanese Netsuke

Netsuke were most popular in Japan from about 1615 to 1868 and were carved from mammoth and elephant ivory, ebony, fossil walrus tusk, mahogany, rosewood and hippopotamus teeth. However, netsuke have been found in other parts of Asia as well and a select few artists continue to carve the small sculptures.


The pieces typically depict scenes from ancient Japanese folklore and almost always include at least one symbolic animal.


Japanese animal symbolism

To genuinely appreciate the beautiful Japanese netsuke that sell for hundreds to thousands of dollars around the world, depending on their histories and creators, you must first understand the animals Japanese artists chose to include in their tiny original sculptures.


              • The fish

So many netsuke – both original and new – include fish. It could be because the fish is one of the most humble and optimistic creatures in Japanese animal symbolism. It’s believed the koi fish can climb the falls of the Yellow River to transform into a powerful dragon. That will take a lot of work, perseverance and also luck. 


The fisherman

The fisherman is the workingman in Japanese culture. While not an animal, the fisherman is one of the most commonly depicted figures in Japanese netsuke. The netsuke could suggest humble roots again or could be channeling Ebisu or Hiruko, the god of fishermen and the workingman. He’s one of the seven gods of fortune.


• The dragon

The dragon is one of Japan’s most beloved mythic creatures. While Japan’s dragon was more fish-like and represented a water god, the culture quickly absorbed dragon images and symbolism from neighboring China, India and korea. The dragon is not only the imperial emblem of China, it also symbolizes power, strength, wisdom and goodness.


• The rabbit

The rabbit is known for virtue and longevity. It’s also believed to be lucky and able to make bad fortune vanish.


Spotted Deer

The spotted deer is believed to be a good omen bringing good fortune to anyone who sees it. Chinese legend tells that the sika deer is the only creature capable of finding the magic fungus of immortality.


The fox

The wily fox is believed to have supernatural qualities enabling it to assume human form and mischievously toy with love affairs. It symbolizes powers of the heart and longevity.


• The frog

For a good night’s sleep, a frog could help. Frogs are believed to inspire pleasant dreams in Japanese culture. They’re also known for bringing good luck and abundant rain. In Korea, dreaming of a frog while pregnant could mean the baby will be a boy.


• The tiger

The tiger symbolizes power, strength and invincibility. It is the king of the jungle in Asian cultures and is believed to ward off evil. It is also sometimes seen as a symbol of the destructiveness of evil. Dreaming of a tiger suggests a power shift is coming in your life.


There are so many significances for animals and they vary across cultures. Japanese netsuke artists might have approached their work with this symbolism in mind or they might have applied Chinese or other Asian interpretations to their works.


Whatever the background, the pieces are beautiful and intricate one-of-a-kind carvings that are often hundreds or even thousands of years old. Please browse the Carol Barrett Jewelry collection mammoth ivory netsuke.