Netsuke were small toggles of carved wood or ivory used to secure cords or ribbons, and were respected as a specialty art form. By the 19th century they had acquired a second purpose as advertising/promotional specialties, or tchotchkes in Japanese. These ranged in form from simple can openers or chopsticks imprinted with corporate names to custom-designed pieces created to celebrate particular events. Quite popular at sumo tournaments were netsuke carved to represent a hand with an upraised pointing index finger and the inscription We're #1.

The subject piece was part of a large order commissioned by the Japanese Veterinary Dentistry Association (JVDA) to honor certain members of its organization, the Bonsai Samurai Housecat Dental Hygienists. In the days before reliable anesthesia it took a brave man to enter the field of feline dentistry. Simply flossing a Siamese would often result in serious injury to the dentist, and reports of death were not unknown.

Faced with this problem, the Japanese applied several tried and true methods to find a solution. Certain children were kept in restraints from birth, just as bonsai trees are restricted in growth until they reach a stage where they have adult features at a greatly reduced size. The children were simultaneously educated in the Way of the Samurai and the Way of the Dental Hygienist, so that when they reached adulthood they had not only the clinical knowledge to treat housecats, but the speed, agility, strength and martial arts expertise to insure their own safety. 

The unknown artist has taken as his model a neutered Burmese being prepared for a root canal. The outcome is not recorded, but from the expressions on the faces of the subjects, it must have been touch and go.

 

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"Netsuke saluting Japanese Veterinary Dentistry"
4.0 x 3.0 cm
~ Ivory and Jade, 19th century