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Tani Bunchō, Tiger Family and Magpies, Edo period, 1807, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Charlotte Wayne and Richard Wayne in memory of Lenore Wayne. Photo © Museum Associates /LACMA

The Roles and Representations of Animals in Japanese Art and Culture, Part 1—The War of the Twelve Animals: Anthropomorphosis and Allegory in Medieval Japan

Sarah E. Thompson, curator of Japanese art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Artworks representing animals—real or imaginary, religious or secular—span the full breadth and splendor of Japanese artistic production. As the first exhibition devoted to the subject, The Life of Animals in Japanese Art covers 17 centuries (from the fifth century to the present day) and a wide variety of media. At the symposium held on June 7, 2019, in conjunction with the exhibition, Sarah E. Thompson discussed The War of the Twelve Animals, a fifteenth-century narrative handscroll, also known in many later copies, that depicts a war between the Twelve Animals of the East Asian zodiac and the rebel animals led by the tanuki, or “raccoon dog.” According to Thompson, the original work was created at the court of the retired shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and refers to the events of the Oei Disturbance of 1399–1400, with animal characters representing the competing warriors; Yoshimitsu himself is the dragon. This interpretation counters the more common view that animal-to-human comparisons are inevitably negative. While the rebel animals are indeed mocked, the Twelve Animals and especially their leader are glorified, although humorous animal allegory masks any arrogance.