Netsuke are miniature sculptures invented in 17th century Japan as belt toggles. This hand-carved owl measures 3.7cm by 2.7cm.
Traditional Japanese garments — robes called kosode and kimono — had no pockets; however, men who wore them needed a place to store their personal belongings, such as pipes, tobacco, money, seals, or medicines. Their solution was to place such objects in containers (called sagemono) hung by cords from the robes' sashes (obi).
The containers may have been pouches or small woven baskets, but the most popular were beautifully crafted boxes (inro), which were held shut by ojimes, which were sliding beads on cords. Whatever the form of the container, the fastener that secured the cord at the top of the sash was a carved, button-like toggle called a netsuke.
Netsuke, like the inro and ojime, evolved over time from being strictly utilitarian into objects of great artistic merit and an expression of extraordinary craftsmanship.