unsigned ivory netsuke

18th century

cat on awabi shell

height 1 1/4 in., 3.3 cm

seated on its haunches, it secures an upturned awabi shell while licking its right paw- presumably tasting the abalone juices; well-worn and bearing a warm patina

Compared to their domesticated canine counterpart, cats are not frequently found as a netsuke subject. Surely one reason is simply that cats are not one the zodiac animals. According to legend, the cat was the only animal not to weep at the death of the Buddha, and as such, was passed over in the selection of the twelve animals of the zodiac. Cats were also thought to be able to assume human form, usually that of a beguiling woman. More to the point, the word for cat, neko, was an Edo period slang term for a prostitute. While the subject of a puppy or dog with an awabi (abolone) shell was popular with Kyoto school carvers, this pairing with a cat takes on a different connotation when considering that the awabi shell was a well known erotic reference to women.

For an excellent review of cat subjects in Japanese art, see Chris Drosse, Netsuke Basics from A to Z: Cats, International Netsuke Society Journal, Vol. 28, no. 1, spring 2008.

another view


Scholten Japanese Art is temporarily closed.

Contact Katherine Martin at
(212) 585-0474 or email
for more information.

site last updated
April 2, 2020

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