Bird in the shape of mokugyo

Place made: 
Asia; Japan
Bird in the shape of mokugyo, 19th century
Ivory and black coral (unimatsu); carved with pigment
Overall: 1 3/4 in x 1 in x 1 5/16 in; 4.4 cm x 2.5 cm x 3.3 cm
William Richter Collection, Gift of Margaret Ruth Richter (Class of 1939)
MH 1986.30.31

The mokugyo is a bell-shaped gong used in Buddhist ceremonies. This netsuke has a loop carved on its top so when worn, the piece was observed resting atop the obi, rather than perched or sitting on the belt’s top edge. The loop’s position on top of the object is quite conspicuous, suggesting that the piece may have been specially commissioned and used to accompany a particular object.


A variety of materials were used in the making of netsuke, reflecting the creativity and superb skill of the artisans. Ivory and wood were most often used due to their fine grain and smooth surface, an important consideration due to the constant handling of the small toggles by their owners. Ivory could easily be toned or painted to brighten up the figure and was sometimes used in tandem with other materials such as wood, bone, or metal. Significant attention was also given to the symbolic aspect of the material. An example is the rare and precious ivory from the tusk of the narwhal which was believed to possess mystical medicinal powers.

Certain materials were suited for particular styles of netsuke. While all netsuke shared a common function, to anchor the sagemono (‘hanging thing’) suspended from the belt, a wide range of forms, sizes and shapes existed. The earliest netsuke tended to be slender, simple, sturdy objects crafted from bamboo that resembled a modern day paper clip. By the close of the eighteenth century, new forms and materials showcased the artisan’s virtuosity and imagination. Stains and inlays added dramatic flair and allowed for increasingly meticulous detail, especially in the features of humans and animals. Forms ranged from traditional long slender types to round, dumpling shapes. While decoration and visual delight became increasingly important, function remained the primary goal with some craftsmen going so far as to create versatile netsuke that doubled as ashtrays, compasses, abacuses, or magnifying glasses.