"Mask Carver at Work" by Hoshunsai Masayuki, Katabori netsuke, wood, 19th century. (Will Kirk/homewoodphoto.jhu.edu/Evergreen Museum & Library)

The gallery at the Japan Information and Culture Center isn’t one of the city’s largest spaces. But scale your sights down to the pint-size objects in a new exhibition there, and the room may start to seem colossal.

“Meet Netsuke! Storytellers of Japan,” which opens Wednesday, is a showcase of Japanese netsuke — tiny sculptures with a practical purpose. Netsuke, usually carved from such materials as wood, ivory or antler, were a fixture of Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868) and served as toggles that secured personal items to the obi, or sash, of a man’s kimono. Coin purses, tobacco pouches and similar belongings could be carried this way — a necessary arrangement, since traditional kimonos had no pockets. (Women’s kimonos had sleeves in which personal items could be stashed.) Some Japanese craftspeople turned netsuke into stunning, diminutive artworks, often reflecting nature or Japanese folklore and culture.

Co-presented by the Japan-America Society of Washington, D.C., the exhibition at the JICC (part of the Embassy of Japan) features about 130 antique netsuke, drawn from the Evergreen Museum & Library in Baltimore and the Beverly and Jay Hopkins Collection in Virginia. Many of the items are no larger than a spool of thread but display a meticulous craftsmanship and idiosyncratic flair, as these examples demonstrate.

"A Toad and Sandal" by Masakatsu. Katabori netsuke made of wood and dark horn, 19th century. (Will Kirk/homewoodphoto.jhu.edu/Evergreen Museum & Library)
Toad atop a sandal

“Meet Netsuke!” was organized and curated by Takaaki Nemoto and Yoko Tsuge, diplomats in the Embassy of Japan’s public affairs department. Both had their first glimpse of authentic netsuke during a 2015 visit to the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center in Suitland, Md.; Nemoto had never even heard of netsuke before then. In general, the diplomats say, the art form is little known in contemporary Japan. In the wake of the rapid change that transformed Japan starting in the mid-19th century, the mind-set became, Tsuge says, “Let’s catch up with the West. We should abandon our old-fashioned things.”

Among other developments, the Japanese began wearing Western dress, and the once-essential netsuke became relics of a bygone time.

Nemoto and Tsuge, however, became convinced that netsuke could help tell the story of Japanese culture, and after research and consultation with experts, they assembled the exhibition, which is launching in conjunction with the 2017 National Cherry Blossom Festival.

They were particularly delighted by a 19th-century netsuke depicting a toad atop a sandal. Because the Japanese word for “toad” is a homophone for the phrase “return home,” netsuke of toads on sandals became a beloved souvenir for travelers, including those visiting the important Ise Jingu shrine.

The Garretts were among the first Americans to collect Japanese art, including this blue-lacquer inro. (Will Kirk/homewoodphoto.jhu.edu)
Blue-lacquer box, or ‘inro’

While Japan was drifting away from netsuke, Westerners were gravitating toward them. Particularly in the 1870s and ’80s, Western culture was enamored of Japanese applied art, says James Archer Abbott, director and curator of the Evergreen Museum & Library. The appeal, he says, “was tied into the Aesthetic movement of that period, that in itself was a rebellion against industrialization” and celebrated the hand-wrought.

As a result, many pieces from the golden age of netsuke — the Edo period — were snapped up by Western collectors. Even as the form was neglected in Japan, Tsuge says, “the tradition was maintained by Westerners.”

Two scions of Baltimore’s Garrett family — T. Harrison Garrett and his eldest son, John — were among the Americans captivated by Japanese art in the late-19th century. Their acquisitions are among the highlights of the Evergreen collection, once the family mansion and now a Johns Hopkins University museum. In addition to netsuke, the collection includes inro — boxes held in place by a netsuke. The inro from Evergreen features rare blue-lacquer work; the round netsuke, at the top of the cord, has a chrysanthemum design.

"The World's First One-man Band wtih Eight Arms," artist unknown. Katabori netsuke, ivory, mid-19th century. (Andrew Wilds/Hopkins Collection)

Octopus musician

In the 1970s, American orthopedic surgeon Jay Hopkins was posted to Japan by the U.S. Air Force. He became smitten with Japanese art, especially netsuke, charmed by their whimsy and irreverence. “Netsuke artists just had fun,” he says.

Hopkins, who now lives in Virginia with his wife, Beverly, amassed a significant netsuke collection and became an expert on the form, at one point serving as president of the International Netsuke Society. Historical factors, Hopkins says, influenced the playfulness of netsuke: At times when Japanese authorities strictly regulated personal dress, netsuke were seen as too insignificant to bother with, so the little toggles became a vibrant avenue for self-expression.

Whimsy and self-expression were certainly familiar to the artist who carved the 19th-century ivory netsuke of an octopus playing multiple musical instruments. The raised tentacles, apparently preparing for an imminent drum roll, illustrate another of Hopkins’s observations about netsuke: that the pieces often impart a sense of drama, even movement. “The artists loved to depict the split second before you step on a banana peel,” he says.

"Rat" by Ikkan. Katabori netsuke made of wood, dark horn and ivory, 19th century. (Will Kirk/homewoodphoto.jhu.edu/Evergreen Museum & Library)
Wooden rats

In 2010, ceramic artist Edmund de Waal published “The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance,” a poignant book about his European Jewish family’s netsuke collection, which survived in Holocaust-era Vienna. An international bestseller, the book raised awareness of the netsuke tradition.

It was perhaps no accident that de Waal named his book after one of the fauna-channeling netsuke he inherited: Netsuke in animal shapes are among the most endearing examples of the art form. “People tend to be drawn to the animal figures,” says Marsha Vargas Handley, a longtime gallery owner and past president of the International Netsuke Society.

The wooden rats depicted in the 19th-century piece (pictured at bottom), with ivory teeth and horn eyes, have an added layer of significance because they are (like hares) among the 12 animals in the Japanese zodiac.

The exhibition also is full of more fantastical creatures, such as tiny renderings of vengeful ghosts — two appear to be arm-wrestling — as well as dragons and the supernatural baku, whose attributes include tiger paws, an elephant’s trunk and the ability to eat human dreams.

Meet Netsuke! Storytellers of Japan Wednesday through May 15 at the Japan Information and Culture Center, 1150 18th St. NW, Suite 100. Free. There will be demonstrations by master netsuke artist Ryushi Komada on Wednesday at the JICC and Thursday at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Visit us.emb-japan.go.jp/jicc. For the Thursday event, which will include remarks by Freer/Sackler curator James Ulak, visit asia.si.edu/events.