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Today we’re going to explore how kimono pockets evolved into the popular phone charms that the Japanese people seem to be so fond of. I know, seems like a pretty unlikely progression, right? Kimono pockets to phone charms? What’s the deal here?

Sagemono and Netsuke

It all starts with these little things called sagemono and netsuke. Netsuke are miniature sculptures that were invented way back in 17th-century Japan to serve as fasteners for the portable pockets known as sagemono. The two Japanese characters ne and tsuke mean “root” and “to attach” respectively.

Traditional Japanese garments like kimono and hakama had no pockets built into them so people needed something in which to store their goodies. Since fanny packs hadn’t been invented yet, sagemono were used as miniature storage devices for stuff like pipes, tobacco, money, seals, and drugs.

These portable pockets were small containers hung by a cord from the sashes of the robe. The containers were usually simple pouches or small baskets, but the most popular and fancy ones were intricately carved boxes. One thing that all the sagemono had in common was the fastener that secured the cord at the top of the sash. This fastener was a carved attachment called a netsuke.

How does this relate to phone charms, you ask? Well, these netsuke evolved from useful little fasteners to much, much more. Over time they became an outlet for artistic expression and have a long history of reflecting everything from Japanese folklore to everyday life.

Netsuke art was most popular during the Edo period in Japan, around 1615-1868. With time it became a respected art form, but lost its practical application as a fastener for sagemono. Netsuke started to be produced for no practical reason whatsoever. Now we’re getting somewhere.

That’s Like, So Kawaii, Bro

Once the netsuke stopped being used for practical purposes, artists took it as an opportunity to create ornate pieces of breathtaking beauty and exquisite intricacies. Others took it as the opportunity to create precursors for Hello Kitty.

During the netsuke boom in Japan, many of the netsuke produced were cute little things specifically designed to make women and young children squeal their hearts out. As such, these netsuke are considered early examples of kawaii-ness in Japanese art. This is the second step of the netsuke to phone charm transition.

Netsuke Go Mainstream

Ah, the culmination of hundreds and hundreds of years of Japanese craftsmanship. For those who have been living in captivity their whole lives, phone charms are little dangly things that are connected to cell phones for fun. Many Japanese phones have a loop hole through which a strap can be attached and in Japan, they are known as “keitai straps” because keitai means cell phone.

If you take a look at one of the modern day phone charms, you can actually see the parallels to the netsuke and sagemono of days long past. I say there’s a definite connection here, and I’m sure other people on the internet would agree that Japanese phone charms are the modern day equivalent of netsuke/sagemono. Kimonos don’t have pockets, and neither do cell phones. They’re practically the same thing.

Anyway, phone charms are super popular in Japan and there are tons and tons of different varieties. Some phone charms claim they can detect ghosts (unlikely), some can carry medicine (throwback to the olden days, no doubt), and some are even specifically designed for Farmville farming (styluses). Some even flash or light up when your cell phone rings (technology!) and there are even some charms you can put on your finger to clean up your grimy screen.

So, just like netsuke, not all Japanese phone charms are just for looks. Some of them are actually used for something practical. Whether you need to carry your gold pieces to the capital or need a handy piece of cloth to wipe your cell phone screen, these little fasteners are there to help you out.

And now you know the rich history behind the plastic, mass produced phone charms of the modern age. Armed with this knowledge, you can impress your friends, relatives, and complete strangers. Semi-useful fasteners have been an important part of Japanese culture for hundreds of years. And that’s why the Japanese love phone charms so much. Or maybe they just think they’re cute. Your guess is as good as mine.


So tell me, what do you think about these nifty little fasteners known as netsuke and their evolution into the phone straps of today? Ever had a cell phone charm of your own? Let us know in the comments!


Sites Referenced:
Netsuke Wikipedia

Header by jpellgen

  • stefafra

    I have one, a little chirimen silk goldfish, with a tiny bell…I bought it in Kyoto this summer, initially I bought a few of them as presents for my colleagues, but I adopted one too as they where too cute to resist…
    Now at home my mobile phone is nicknamed “the fish”, as in “I need to feed the fish” if the batteries run low…
    Sad eh?

  • ben

    I thought you might also talk about how the charm trend hasn’t adapted well to America and how new smart phones don’t have a way to attach these (iPhone and Droid Razer off the top of my head). What does the lack of loop say about iPhone popularity in Japan? Do they make cases that add a loop?

  • DAVIDPD

    I would definitely rock a charm if it was more socially acceptable in the US.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Those inventors of useless things need to get on making cell phones that have pockets.

  • Lizzie

    When I went to Japan, I noticed that my American phone had the exact same hole in the top as the Japanese phones, so I bought a Hello Kitty clacker, a rubber duck and the ITC mascot guy… my friends back home thought it was weird.

  • http://twitter.com/KMendenhall2 Kenneth Mendenhall

    Thanks to WaniKani, I’m gonna guess sagemono is 下げ物。 Go WK! No idea about netuke, though.

  • Roachz

    There are cases with loops!

  • John

    There’s also some charms that plug into the headphone jack.

  • John

    I used to rock one for a while, haha. I took it off after I noticed it was scuffing the phone :(

  • DAVIDPD

    Yeah that’s another reason I can’t use them. Maybe a tiny plushy one?!! A man can dream!!!

  • Xaromir

    That was useless, but i loved it. :D Well, maybe that’s another reason why the iPhone failed in Japan.

  • http://twitter.com/JACKTHEDANIELS ジャック (Jack)

    Keitai culture seems really cool, but I’m kinda sad and I bought the sh-06a nerv evangelion edition phone for xmas >.> The phone charms are cool thought haha, I’ll get some to put on my phone when it arrives. I already have a dragon shrine one which my tutor got for me when she went back to Japan *^^*

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    If by failed you mean it was the best selling smartphone in Japan in 2011 (no idea about 2012, though), then I guess so.

    Though, there is some truth here. Many pundits said it would fail because it didn’t have a way to attach cellphone straps, and that might have been true at first to some degree, but people decided they wanted a nice phone > having cell phone straps after awhile in the long run.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    I’ve seen little things you stick to your loop-hole-less smartphones that have a hole in it allowing you to attach your cell phone straps before but no idea how many people use.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    That’s the definition of failed I always use.

    “So, how was the math test.”

    “Awful. I was the best selling smartphone in Japan in 2011.”

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    Very interesting theory.
    I love phone charms. I have millions and millions. Almost every time I travel I buy a new one.
    It’s hard to resist here in Japan, there are just too many cute and interesting ones! *g*

  • Random Guy

    Funny you say that, just 10 minutes ago I came across this: http://www.welldonestuff.com/2012/12/feed-me-iphone-case.html

  • Emi

    I have four chirimen kitties, but at 6″ they are waaay too big for my pocket, and i’m not one to carry my phone about in my hand all day long, so I keep them on my bag. I did have a Maruko-chan that has changeable expressions but I worried she would crack my screen. My HTC is too precious for charms.

  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    I suspect if these things things ever seriously caught on here, they would probably remind a lot of Americans of the charm bracelets that were so popular with elementary-school-aged girls in the eighties. Those kids are middle-aged now…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Julian-Garcia/100001891797090 Julian Garcia

    This is legitimately interesting, but you don’t really go into the point that it seems like an unlikely progression. I would have liked to know what happened in that near century in between the fading of the sagemono/netsuke and phone charms, otherwise this article feels incomplete to me. Still fascinating enough for me to write this comment though~

  • Xaromir

    Oh really? I Googled and there are plenty of articles about the iPhone failing quite big in Japan, and about the Japanese hating the iPhone, but i noticed that most of these are a bit older now. Well, i guess my info was old and never corrected – at least so far.

  • Vivian Morelli

    Informative piece, thanks for that! I love seeing grown men with a plethora of charms dangling from their keitai, what a turn on ;)

    http://vivianlostinseoul.blogspot.jp/

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Back in the day it wasn’t catching on for sho, but iPhone was also kind of a “failure” everywhere in the world if you ask the right people :( One thing I do notice, though, is a couple years back a lot of people had both an iPhone and a Japanese cell phone, for some reason. I guess the iPhone had one set of features and Japanese cell phones had a completely separate set… iPhone definitely had an interesting ride in Japan… now Android’s catching on in Japan and there’s tons of campaigns for it, though, so we’ll see how that goes.

  • http://twitter.com/hjordisa Rebecca

    I was wondering that a while ago when I noticed someone’s iphone didn’t have the holes. Now we know! Personally, I love my cell phone charms :)

  • Jessica-Robyn

    Cell phone charms may not be big in North America (my phone isn’t made for use of one), but I think our love of decorative key chains more then makes up for it. It’s the same idea, just a slightly different application. Not to mention our other similar obsession with decorative things hanging in front car windows. I’m scared to think what would happen if the charms did catch on here. Fuzzy dice anyone?

  • belgand

    I still don’t fully understand the point. It gets in the way, takes up space in your pocket and serves no real purpose. Then again, my keyring has a small flashlight rather than some sort of purely decorative fob.

  • CelestialSushi

    I love these things :D I’ve never been to Japan (I really want to go someday…) but I’ve ordered a handful of these charms from Strapya World. It’s a neat little online store in Tokyo, and they’ve got other stuff there too. But what I think is neat is the variety of Hello Kitty straps that are unique to different areas in Japan; it would be some kind of quest for a collector to roam around the country and try to collect them all!

  • CelestialSushi

    I’ve seen little looped buttons designed to attach charms to cell phones that don’t have loops, like smartphones specifically :)

  • tubasaga11

    It is interesting.
    To the ancient Awa Odori, you can see the tradition of this SAGEMONO.
    By individuals or groups, the shape of the object, the contents, size, position, etc. are different.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tyKihB0QaQY

    I have spread gradually it became popular around 1970 Uzuki-ren(うずき連) was long, the string.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5jI7-M_h4Y

  • LeeLee

    I think the purpose is just for personalization/customization, unless you attach a lanyard to it (I remember most people wearing phones around their necks in the ’90s, haha)… I personally enjoy customizing my phone’s themes, cases, ringtones, and so on. :)

  • Sarah

    I have more than I can count! I used to put them on everything; bags, phone, camera, pencil case… if there was a way to attach it it was there! I think they are great little souvenirs, but at 600 yen a pop for a Hello Kitty one I had to start cutting back. And since I switched to a smartphone they seem more cumbersome. Probably because it is constantly in my hand now. My current phone is completely naked.

  • Billy Priest

    Great article! Having lived there, it’s a question I’ve asked myself a million times. You could address the adaption to smartphones without loop holes: headphone jack plugs. In their myriad varieties, they include one that’s just a bare loop so you can hang your old-style straps on it. Love ‘em!