The Economists Netsuke

by Rosemary Bandini

The Economists NetsukeIt is unusual for a netsuke to turn up depicting a story which seems almost unknown, so when I came across this finely carved scene signed Masanao (of Ise Yamada), I was intrigued. In fact it was quite easy to discover the subject, as the netsuke is recorded in the Meinertzhagen Card Index, where FM’s description provides a mine of information:

Wood. “Story of the lost cash”

Awoto Sayemon Fujitsuna seated on the bank of the Nameri-gawa superintending the search for the lost coins, one of which is shown on the underside of the ‘netsuke’.

Signed: Masa-nao

H.S. Trower sale lot 243 (illustrated)

Formerly Huish collection (sold 1899)

Illustrated in Tomita’s ‘Treasure Tales; also in Joly’s ‘Legends’.

A most attractive little carving of this rarely represented subject. The treatment of the faces does not show any remarkable refinement of detail, but there is no lack of expression. The coin is particularly finely cut and the general composition and grouping of the piece is beyond criticism. The wood is of a somewhat pale orange-brown. Date circa 1820-40*. (*probably a little later, 1850-60, RB)

This netsuke probably made in conjunction with the ‘tonkotsu’ signed by this artist described on a separate card.

Sold Dr. Gunther for £4 September 1924

The story of the lost cash is an intriguing one.  Aoto Saemon Fujitsuna was charged with carrying a bag of government cash, but the bag slipped while he was crossing a bridge, with several coins falling into the water below. Unable to continue without the full amount under his charge, he summoned local workers to search for the money. After many painstaking hours, they were all recovered and the labourers were richly rewarded for their work. Fujitsuna’s companions laughed at him and chided him for this unprofitable expenditure, but he replied that no money had been wasted. Had he not spent the cash, the coins would have been lost, and the money paid would benefit someone beside himself, therefore none of the expenditure could be called unprofitable.

Showing the netsuke to a collector, she immediately remarked that yes, it was a perfect representation of the economic theory of John Maynard Keynes, who advocated government spending to stimulate growth and correct imbalances: investment by government in infrastructure injects income into the economy by creating business opportunity, employment…(cf. Alan S. Blinder, Keynesian Economics, 2008) 

The same subject was depicted by Kuniyoshi in Aoto Fujitsuna, Omatsuri  Sashichi (1852) from the Koto nishiki imayo kuni zukushi (Modern Style Set of the Provinces of Edo Brocade).

Image courtesy of British Museum, 2008,3037.09608

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