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Guide to Ojime Beads

What are Ojime Beads?

(The pronunciation of Ojime is oh-jay-meh)

Ojime are handcrafted decorative beads which originated in Japan as early as the 16th century. Strictly speaking the word bead is superfluous as Ojime itself means cord fastener bead. They are typically between 3/4 inch and 1 inch in diameter with a vertical hole from top to bottom, and are made from fine metals, ivory, hornbill ivory, precious stones, jade, lacquer, tortoise shell, glass, coral, bone, stag antler, boar tooth and tusk, nuts and seeds, as well as other natural materials. As will become evident, aside from being decorative, they have a very specific role to perform in traditional Japanese attire and as such they go a long way towards defining the concept of adornment, namely that which is useful as well as beautiful.

The inro, made up of two to seven layers, was a box used for carrying small personal items such as the Hanko or personal seal, medicinal herbs, and acupuncture needles. Because the traditional Kimono had no pockets the Inro quickly became a standard accessory. Japanese men and women would wear this compartmentalised box hung on a braided double cord below the Obi, a wide silk Kimono belt. At the top of the cord, a large carved bead called a Netsuke (pronounced nets-kay) acted as a toggle to anchor the Inro, with the cord then passing under the Obi. The smaller Ojime then served as a sliding closure both to secure the lid of the Inro and to stop it turning. By sliding it upwards, as required, it also allowed access to each individual level of the Inro. Since the purpose of the Ojime was to close down tightly on the Inro and hold it in place, the centre hole of the Ojime had to be large enough to take two passes of the cord. An oversized vertical top to bottom hole is therefore one of the defining characteristics of an Ojime, that and the fact these hole ends would typically be covered with metal grommets or cord hole liners of brass, silver or gold to strengthen and protect them against the rubbing of the cord. These cord hole cylinders serve to finish off the Ojime and further elevate its appearance.

As shown in the illustration below, this design allowed the Inro to hang from the Kimono, out of the way, but always within easy reach. Collectively this set of components would be called Sagemono, encompassing the Inro, Ojime, and Netsuke, and these individual elements would normally have a unified theme with a common design and shared materials. Alongside the Inro there were other hanging accessories such as the Tonkostsu or tobacco pouch, the Kiseru-zutsu or tobacco pipe case, and the Yatate or writing set.

Bead History - What Are Ojime Beads Used For

What is the Origin of Ojime Beads?

The origin of Ojime lies in the Edo Period (1654 to 1868). These early Ojime were simply a drilled bead, often of coral, as it was believed that coral would disintegrate if brought near to poison. This would have been a comforting indicator for the average Japanese person as they made use of some interesting herbal medicines . . . but of course this belief has absolutely no basis in fact! Through human nature, these Sagemono or hanging compartments began to serve as symbols of status. Although the Japanese did not have an appreciation of jewellery in the European sense, they did have a long tradition of craftsmanship, artistry, decoration and adornment. Over time these small sets of accessories became highly refined and sophisticated. It was in the Meiji Period (1868 to 1912) that the Inro became an indicator of wealth and taste and the Ojime evolved into a functional but beautifully crafted object incorporating symbolism, mythology, poetry and other themes from everyday life. Even the materials used to make the Ojime often came from a source that was said to have special qualities, such as jade and rhinoceros horn. The shapes used also added to this meaning with, for example, frogs symbolising wealth or prosperity, whilst dragons indicated power and strength.

Bead History Japanese Ojime Beads

The montage above shows a selection of five Vintage Japanese Ojime Beads in differing decorative styles made using different materials and processes. From left to right they are 1) Meiji Period carved nut Ojime bead 2) Meiji-Taisho Period carved bone Elephant Ojime bead 3) Meiji-Taisho Period drilled and carved lacquer Ojime bead 4) Meiji-Taisho Period wooden based maki-e gold lacquered Ojime bead with abalone shell inlay 5) Meiji-Taisho Period red lacquered Ojime bead with carved chrysanthemum flowers and mother of pearl inlays. To view a selection of Vintage and Antique Ojime beads for sale through Big Bead Little Bead simply click on the link or the image.

It was during the latter stages of the 19th century that Western influences and style were introduced to Japan after two centuries of economic, political, and cultural isolation from the wider world. European merchants clamored for Japanese wares to take back to Europe. But this uplift in demand had a direct impact on the quality of the workmanship and the previous excellence of the Ojime carving diminished. In turn the arrival of Western style clothing in Japan, and in particular military uniforms followed by the business suit and then ladies gowns, meant that the Kimono and the Obi fell out of favour as day wear, which in turn meant the Inro, Netsuke and Ojime lost their practical purpose, save for ceremonial occasions.

Contemporary Ojime Beads

Today Antique Japanese Ojime beads remain highly collectable as pieces of art, as the amount of detail that went into the components of each Sagemono provides a further example of the exquisite beauty of Japanese art – alongside their calligraphy, block printing, ceramics, lacquer work, and paintings to name but a few.

Hand crafted reproduction Ojime are also available. Though, following the ban on the use of ivory in the mid 1980s, and for reasons of practicality they are typically hand carved solely from boxwood, and largely in the Heibei Province of China. Boxwood is an extremely close grained and dense wood allowing for intricate ivory like details to be captured by these contemporary Chinese master carvers, who typically follow traditional Japanese Ojime patterns. A master carver will create five to ten Ojime or Netsuke designs which he will then pass to his team of boxwood Ojime carvers to use as a reference point for their own carvings. These initial master carvings can take up to four hours to produce and are individually signed by the artist who carved them. These present day Ojime and boxwood Netsuke are hand polished and waxed to insure brightness and durability, and provide a good starting point for collecting Ojime beads.

In addition, there are also a number of Western and Oriental contemporary Ojime artists creating small sculptures, Netsuke and Ojime to a very high standard. By way of an example, Janel Jacobson has a beautiful website presenting her own pieces, as well as providing a very useful entry point into this world through a set of resources and links detailing fellow Ojime carvers and artists, Ojime forums, as wells as exhibitions, galleries and museums.

Further Reading

Inro Handbook: Studies of Netsuke . . . by Raymond Bushell
Ojime Magical Jewels of Japan . . . by Robert O Kinsey
The Signature Book of Netsuke, Inro and Ojime Artists in Photographs . . . by George Lazarnick

Online Resources For Inro, Ojime and Netsuke

International Netsuke Society . . . devoted to the study and appreciation of Netsuke and its related art forms namely Inro and Ojime
Netsuke & Japanese Art Online Research Centre . . . an organisation dedicated to the study and research of Netsuke art


Definition Of Ojime, Ojime Pronunciation, Vintage Wood Ojime Beads, Vintage Lacquer Ojime Beads, Vintage Glass Ojime Beads, Vintage Carved Nut Ojime Beads, Vintage Carved Wooden Ojime Beads, Vintage Carved Bone Ojime Beads, Vintage Lacquered Ojime Beads.

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