Japanese Netsuke and Symbiotic Relationships



I’ve always been interested in Japanese culture – both traditional and modern – and my recent trip to Japan has furthered my interest. But living in London means I am lucky enough to be exposed to Japanese culture and traditions on a regular basis, whether it’s through visiting the Japan Centre on Regent Street, getting my sushi fix at Hi Sushi in Soho (my favourite sushi restaurant in London) or visiting one of the exhibits at the V&A’s Japanese Collection or the British Museum’s Japan section.

One great example of how traditional Japenese culture can be applied to modern living is through a particular item of their clothing, the netsuke.

Traditional Japanese clothing was based on a simple wrap-over robe tied with a sash, the kimono (translated as "thing for wearing" – got to love the Japanese for their simplicity).

However, the kimono had no pockets. Women could carry things in their wide sleeves, while men used their obi sashes to hang various small accessories called sagemono ("hanging things" – again, Japanese is a very practical language). These included inrō (medicine containers), smoking sets, yatate (writing sets), purses and pouches for special equipment. They were hung by a cord kept in place by a small toggle called a netsuke.

Though most netsuke were less than five centimetres high, they were carved with extraordinary detail: the hairs of a tiger’s coat would be individually incised; hidden parts, such as individual toes on the underside of bare feet were all perfectly reproduced. The care and attention paid to the details reminds me of Steve Jobs’ obsession with the quality of parts unseen.

The netsuke photo included in this blog post is of Ashinaga ("Long Legs") and Tenaga ("Long Arms"). This netsuke is part of the V&A’s Japanese Collection (their Japanese Street Style section is also worth a look), is made of carved and stained ivory and dates back to the 18th Century. There’s also a similar version in the British Museum’s collection (who have over 3000 examples of netsuke in case you’re interested in seeing some for yourself).

Ashinaga and Tenaga were two mythical characters were fishermen who lived by the shore and combined their curious anatomical features to excellent symbiotic effect. Ashinaga, with his long legs, would wade out to sea whilst Tenaga, with his long arms, would ride on his back and reach down to catch the fish.

For me, this netsuke is the very model of a symbiotic relationship. Someone with long legs can work alongside someone with long arms to the overall benefit of both. Together, they achieve more than they ever could alone.

Ashinaga and Tenaga remind me of the 1989 film "See No Evil, Hear No Evil", starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. The premise is that one of the characters – Dave – is deaf, and Wally – the other character – is blind. They witness a murder, but it was Dave who was looking at her, and Wally who was listening. They team up and solve the murder mystery together. Here’s the trailer:

It’s a terribly cheesy film, but is a perfect example of how a symbiotic relationship can work.

This collaborative approach can also be applied to broader experiences. Take Casserole Club for example, where you can "do great with an extra plate". Casserole Club works by having ‘cooks’ (as the people signing up to the community are known) cook an extra portion of their evening meal. This portion then goes to someone who has difficulty cooking for themselves, such as an elderly neighbour, who are known as ‘diners’.

This might seem like a one way street, but the older people who receive meals give something back too, as they get to connect to their neighbours and share their food knowledge. The diners love that they can also give something back to their cooks, like sharing stories over food.

It’s a symbiotic relationship that works on a bigger scale. The cooks and diners are versions of Ashinaga and Tenaga, but belong to the wider community of Casserole Club.

It’s Ashinaga and Tenaga’s symbiotic relationship that I often bear in mind when I am working collaboratively: "I have these skills and this experience, but I am missing this and that. Who can I work with who has what I need? And how can I help them, as they may be missing the skills and experience I have?"

The next time you’re working collaboratively, keep Ashinaga and Tenaga in mind. You’ll achieve more than you ever could on your own through symbiotic relationships.


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