How to Identify Antique Japanese Figurines

By Laura Crawley
Japanese figurines, humans, gods, animals
netsuke image by Igor from Fotolia.com

The earliest Japanese figurines were pottery figurines dating from the medieval period. However, most antique figurines date from the Edo (1603-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods, and are made of wood, ivory, bronze or porcelain. Netsuke were small wood or ivory figurines, worn on cords from a person's obi (sash). Okimono figurines, made of wood, ivory or bronze, were displayed in an alcove (tokonoma) in the family house; they were produced mainly during the 19th century. Porcelain figurines have been made since the 17th century, and often depict geisha, or gods and goddesses.

Step 1

Geisha, samurai, popular figurines
Japan doll image by Dmitry Sosenushkin from Fotolia.com

Examine the figurine to see what it represents: for example, a samurai, a farmer, a geisha, or an animal. Note the material that it is made of. Measure the height of the piece. A very small wood or ivory piece might be a netsuke; if it is, it will have two holes through which a sash cord could be passed. A larger ivory, wood or bronze piece is likely to be an okimono.

Step 2

Earlier figurines, Japanese characters
set for calligraphy image by Daria Miroshnikova from Fotolia.com

Examine the figurine for markings. Older porcelain and ivory figurines (before 1891) will be marked with the Japanese characters of the maker's name. From 1891 to 1921 the mark "Nippon" was used for export pieces. The mark "Japan" denotes a piece dating from 1921 to 1941. After 1941, pieces were marked "Made In Japan."

Step 3

Jaoanese ivory figurines, their beautiful detail
netsuke of scholar image by Carpenter from Fotolia.com

Carefully check the figurine for other clues to its origins. For example, porcelain Imari ware figurines have a characteristically blue underglaze. Netsuke were quite small (only an inch or two high), and often depicted animals. Ivory okimono, larger than netsuke, were known for their exquisite detailing.

Step 4

Books, Japanese antique figurines, a visual resource
Books image by JenJen from Fotolia.com

Consult museum websites with relevant collections. Look at price guides and online sites, as well as books about Japanese antiques, to help you identify the figurine. Make a note of similar pieces' history and provenance.

Step 5

An antiques expert, old Japanese figurines
buddha statue image by Pavel Bernshtam from Fotolia.com

Consider hiring a professional appraiser if you are still uncertain about identifying the figurine. An expert in Japanese antiques will be able to help identify and and assess the piece.

About the Author

Laura Crawley has been writing professionally since 1991. She has written about urban history for "The Hillhurst-Sunnyside Voice." She has also written about New York City history at the Virtual Dime Museum website and about popular culture at Kitchen Retro. Crawley holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Swarthmore College and a Master of Arts in English from the University of Toronto.