Okimono is a Japanese term meaning “ornament for display; objet d’art; decorative object”, typically displayed in a tokonoma “alcove” or butsudan “Buddhist altar”.
The Japanese okimono compounds oku “put; place; set; lay out; assign; station; leave” and mono “thing; object; article”. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the loanword okimono, “A standing ornament or figure, especially one put in a guest room of a house”, and records the first usage in 1886 by William Anderson.
Japanese okimono may be a small Japanese carving, similar to, but larger than netsuke. Unlike netsuke, which had a specific purpose, Japanese okimono were purely decorative and were displayed in the tokonoma. During the Meiji period many Japanese okimono were made for export to the west.
Although the history of the craft spans over centuries, it was the Meiji period (1868 – 1912) that finalized the form of okimono, now universally acclaimed as collectible. In the history of Japan, the Meiji period is hailed as a time of reform, when Japan was actively adopting the European experience, while the West was discovering for itself the multi-faceted Japanese culture. Within only a few decades, Japanese master carvers acquired the experience in decorative arts that Europe had built up for centuries. Thus it was the synthesis of the cultures of the two civilizations that lead to the emergence of a truly unique kind of art, which successfully combines the traditions of Japanese miniature arts and the experience of European sculptors.
The export of okimonos was part of the Meiji campaign to forging trade links with the West and for displaying the quality of Japanese craftsmanship and Japanese place on the global stage. Western collectors desired the figures made from ivory, rather than wood, because of ivory’s luxury status. They desired depictions of Japanese people in traditional dress and performing what were seen as traditional crafts because of the interest in Japanese culture and its people after the reopening of Japan after Japan was opened to trade 1854 after over 200 years of isolation.