Japanese Ivory Carving

Japan opens up trade with the world for the first time

This Yorkshire World Collections object, is one of 100 chosen by young people aged 16-24, as part of the London Cultural Olympiad programme Stories of the World.

This ivory sculpture from Japan shows a cheerful fisherman with a child clinging to his leg, holding a large spear. On his head he is balancing a decorated pot out of which a lively octopus seems to be escaping. This kind of sculpture is known as 'okimono', a Japanese word meaning 'thing to display'. 

These objects would be put in a special alcove called a 'tokonama' , an important part of a Japanese home showing a wealthy person's collection of paintings and sculptures. They usually showed ordinary people such as this one, sometimes including birds, animals and children.

Japan had been closed to explorers from other countries for hundreds of years; its way of life hadnít changed. In 1853 the Americans sent Commodore Perry to Japan to see if they could start to trade together. Gradually the islands opened up and in 1868 there was an agreement to trade with other countries and Japan started its journey to become part of the modern world. This period was known as the Meiji Period and lasted until 1912. 

This ivory would have been made during this time. Traditionally much of the ivory and wood carving would have been to make 'netsuke', the little carved toggles that helped attach objects to the kimono. Once the country began to appreciate Western clothes, which have pockets, they had no need of these little objects. But the skill of the carver was greatly admired and gradually the craftsmen started to make and sell larger objects that the collectors could place in their 'tokonama', and that foreign visitors could take home.

Perhaps that is how this carving came to North Lincolnshire Museum. John Arthur Jackson, a local resident, collected ivory carvings from Japan, China and India. In 1965 he bequeathed his collection to the museum.


Bequeathed - means that someone leaves some of their property to a named person, or in this case a museum, in their will. 

Kimono - traditional Japanese clothing that has wide sleeves, wraps in front, and is fastened with a cloth band or sash.

Young person's response to this object

Imagine trying to carve this level of detail from one tusk, it seems like an impossible task. How did the artist create such a sense of delicacy?  Katie Chester

Discussion ideas:

  • How would you know that this sculpture was carved from a tusk? (Look at the shape, it has a slight curve)
  • Japan was a closed country until 1868. How do you think the Japanese people felt when they saw the Victorian sailors landing in Kyoto?
  • If you had a 'tokonama' in your classroom or in your bedroom at home, what would you choose to put in it, and why? 
  • Why did the ivory carvers in Japan have to make changes to their carvings? 
  • Fashion sometimes influences or dictates what we want to buy. Think of something you bought because you really wanted it, and the reasons for wanting it. Is there something now that you want even more? How will this affect people who make and sell things?

Activity ideas:

  • Some of these carvings have such lively characters you could build a story around them. This is the end of the fisherman's day.  Imagine that you are the child in the sculpture and write a story about how the octopus was caught.
  • Japan used to produce and export many objects that we used in Britain. Now nearby China is the big manufacturer. Find some examples of things around you that have been 'Made in China' 
Look at the Related Resources links for other material on My Learning that deals with the different conservation and moral issues associated with ivory collection and carving.

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