unsigned netsuke attributed to Ogasawara Issai
marine ivory Benkei in natural shell
the head and shoulders of Benkei emerging from the natural shell, the himotoshi formed through the interior plug of Benkei and pulled through a hole in the back area of the shell (in the style of a manju netsuke), late 18th century

length 2 1/8 in., 5.3 cm

The legendary hero Benkei, dressed as a yamabushi (mountain priest) eases his body out of a huge conch shell, holding a shakujo (ringed staff carried by traveling priests) in his hand. A tiny hat is tied to his head and he carries a traveling basket on his back. The cord is attached to the base of the figure and threaded through a himotoshi formed in the shell.

Benkei is regarded as a 'patron saint' of the yamabushi, who lived in the mountains to emulate the voluntary retreat of the Sakyamuni (historical) Buddha. Hardly priestly in their demeanor, however, they were fierce warriors who formed a formidable force setting themselves against established authority.

Although this subject is quite well known in netsuke, it is very unusual to see the conch as a natural shell. The artist Ogasawara Issai, who frequently carved in marine ivory, is particularly known for other examples of this design and the fine details of Benkei's face and clothing are very similar to his style. In Davey's Netsuke, however, Hindson notes that netsuke by this artist are rare and the majority unsigned (p. 267).

Neil K. Davey, Netsuke: A Comprehensive Study Based on the M.T. Hindson Collection, 1974, p. 267

Expressions of Style: Netsuke as Art, no. 33

Scholten Japanese Art is open Monday - Friday, and some Saturdays by appointment only

Contact Katherine Martin at
(212) 585-0474 or email
to schedule a visit between 11am and 4pm preferably for no more than two individuals at a time.
Visitors are asked to wear face masks and practice social distancing at their discretion.

site last updated
January 21, 2022

Scholten Japanese Art
145 West 58th Street, suite 6D
New York, New York 10019
ph: (212) 585-0474
fx: (212) 585-0475