Allow me to introduce you to these little fellers, some of whom I met at the Ashmolean this week…

They’re called netsuke – tiny sculptures the Japanese would use to fix belongings onto their kiminos. They transcended their functional role, spawning a range of finely crafted figurines that showed emotions, flaunted status and reflected cultural trends. Once I’d got over imagining some kind of ancient Oriental game of Warhammer – something about universities brings out my puerile side – I became fascinated. Such miniature items, which suggested everything from the serene to the grotesque, amusing and, yes, erotic, were clearly of tremendous significance.

I wonder if, in a society of ordered restraint, netsuke offered people anĀ ingenious chance for self-expression. In the hectic medley of symbolism that’s our culture, figurines are the stuff of Christmas crackers. In the soberer surroundings of ancient Japan they might express your individuality. A toggle could speak of your inheritance; a brooch evinced your self-concept; an irreverent portrayal of an authority would make your clasp a vehicle for satire.

It’s a lovely way of documenting history.

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