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Kurumi netsuke

By a quirk of serendipity, I have recently had several carved kurumi (walnut) netsuke for sale, provoking one contemporary carver to ponder the viability of creating piece from an abundance of American walnuts near his home.

 Seimin Kurumi netsuke - Rosemary BandiniA note on the INS website explains that often a maggot would be introduced via a tiny hole into the fleshy centre of the nut (the outer green husk already shed). Once hollowed out by the grub, the surface would be polished and carved, often with a pierced design, to create humorous Daruma, sparrows with their pointed beaks formed by the tip of the shell, fish designs and contorted mask faces. Occasionally the carver saw something more, fashioning them into bumbuku chagama, for instance, or into designs of gods. In the example shown here, Seimin has carved one of the Paragons of Filial Piety, Tō Fujin, suckling her aged and toothless mother-in-law, while her young son plays at her feet. In this rendition Tō Fujin (Ch. Tang Furen) is shown as a goddess. The 24 Paragons of Filial Piety reinforced the ideal that parents were to be given every care before the needs of children were considered, the message being that more than one child can be borne, but one only has a single set of parents. (These particular tenets were rejected by the teachings of Chairman Mao, who urged the young to reject their parents’ values).

Filial Piety images appear quite frequently in Japanese iconography, but in this case the use of this material adds to its link with Chinese lore, where the walnut is considered a lucky amulet. An article in China Daily from 2011 [1] tells of the practice of ‘walnut therapy’, which dates back to the Han dynasty and reached its zenith towards the end of the Ming dynasty. Two walnuts are rolled repeatedly in one (or each) hand, providing a gentle exercise. The harder shelled wild walnut is preferred and constant handling gradually imparts a transparency and depth of colour, believed to have come from the flesh and blood of the user. The beauty of the colour and lustre thus imparted was such that these walnuts became collectors’ items. In modern times the stimulation of blood circulation is a therapy to help control diabetes and alleviate the symptoms of numbness in the fingers. This therapy is still practiced today.

Another very comparable walnut carving of a Filial Piety subject also by Seimin is illustrated in Meintertzhagen’s card index [2], that example showing a subject identified by Will Edmunds [3] as Long Mu (Mother of Dragons) suckling the legendary Emperor Yao as an infant. (I have not found another source for this association).

  1. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/life/2011-02/10/content_11977279.htm
  2. Lazarnick, G., MCI, New York 1986, p. 711
  3. Edmunds, Will H., Pointers and Clues to the Subjects of Japanese and Chinese Art, London 1934, p.212-213
Rosemary Bandini Japanese Netsuke Catalogue 2019

The latest fully illustrated catalogue – Japanese netsuke and Sagemono (Summer 2020) – is available

Specialising in antique Japanese netsuke and inro, Rosemary Bandini started her career in the Japanese department of Sotheby’s in 1977, before marrying Luigi Bandini of Eskenazi Ltd. With him, Rosemary worked on the preparation of exhibition catalogues until 1996, subsequently organizing two further exhibitions for Eskenazi. Read more.

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