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    Animals in Japanese Folklore

    The Twelve Zodiac Animals

    The zodiac animals are a set of calendar symbols imported to Japan from ancient China. Each animal represents a year in a twelve-year cycle that is based on Jupiter’s orbit—the planet takes nearly twelve earth years to circumnavigate the sun. These symbolic animals, still in use today, follow this cyclical order: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar.

    A Japanese zodiac animal came to be linked to specific character traits, which were thought to influence the personality of anyone born in its year. For instance, those born in the Year of the Rabbit, which was associated with creativity, might share its talents and ideas! In antiquity the dragon, leader of the zodiac animals, was often shown as masculine, while the snake was depicted with feminine qualities.

    Studio of Kanō Seisen'in, after Tosa Yukihiro, Twelve Zodiac Animals at War, 1840, one from a set of three handscrolls, ink and color on paper, Tokyo National Museum

    The zodiac animals are often depicted as poets engaged in a contest, with a deer accorded the honor of judging the various poems. A mischievous raccoon dog envies him and asks to be named judge of the next contest, but the zodiac animals laugh at the idea. Undeterred, he gathers an army of friends, including a fox, crow, owl, and weasel, and battles the zodiac animals, but is defeated time after time. Finally seeing the falseness of his ambition, he enters the Buddhist priesthood and seeks enlightenment.

    Utagawa Yoshitora, Picture of the Twelve Animals to Protect the Safety of the Home, 1858

    Utagawa Yoshitora, Picture of the Twelve Animals to Protect the Safety of the Home, 1858, woodblock print, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection. Photo © 2019 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

    The zodiac animals promise good luck, and images of them can serve as prayers for good harvests and prosperity. This print was meant to protect the home, with a sacred beast displaying characteristics of all twelve animals: the rat’s face, the ox’s horns, the rooster’s crest, the rabbit’s ears, the horse’s mane, the goat’s beard, the dog’s torso with the tiger’s skin, the monkey’s legs, the boar’s and snake’s tails, all enveloped in the flames of the dragon. Above this mythical creature, the animals are named in a rhyme that honors what lies at the heart of a good harvest: “the farmer who rises in the hour of the tiger, before dawn, and works in the fields through the hour of the horse, noon.”

    During the Edo period (1603–1868) the zodiac animals were used to divide the day into twelve sections, such as the midnight rat or the noon horse. Even today, the Japanese term for midday is shōgo (literally, “proper horse”), and morning and afternoon are gozen (before the horse) and gogo (“after the horse”).

    Animal Symbolism


    Dragon and Tiger: The Mightiest in Japanese Lore

    Myōchin Muneaki, Articulated Dragon, 1713, iron, Tokyo National Museum

    Dragons are among the most familiar and powerful symbols in Japan. Conveying the form of the mythical beast, this Articulated Dragon combines elements from several creatures: a snake’s body, a fish’s scales, and an eagle’s talons. This sculpture is the oldest surviving inscribed jizai—a jointed object made from hammered metal plates that allow the limbs and claws to move and the body to bend from neck to tail. Makers of jizai were artisans who had supplied arms and armor to the warrior class. During the peaceful Edo period (1603–1868), they applied their skills to producing decorative arts like this sculpture.

    Dragons were worshipped as water gods that could bring rain, prevent floods, and control the change of seasons. When dragons emerged from their watery abyss to rise into the heavens (on the vernal equinox), they brought spring; when they resided in heaven, it was summer; and when they descended (on the autumnal equinox) to lie dormant in the water, it became fall and winter.

    Attributed to Kanō Motonobu, Dragon and Tiger, late 15th–early 16th century, pair of hanging scrolls, ink and color on paper, Philadelphia Museum of Art: 125th Anniversary Acquisition. Purchased with the Edith H. Bell Fund, the Edward and Althea Budd Fund, the Hollis Family Foundation Fund, the J. Stogdell Stokes Fund, and the East Asian Art Revolving Fund, 2000

    “Dragons bring the clouds,” according to an old Chinese proverb, while “tigers call forth the wind.” In these scrolls, the wind seems to swirl through a crouching tiger’s bamboo grove and into the clouds, revealing a dragon. The tiger turns its head as if sensing the turbulent weather to come. As the dragon and tiger govern the elemental forces of wind and rain, they were revered as rulers of the cosmos and the natural world. Their symbolic pairing was believed to bring about the blessings of rain and peace.

    The flying dragon and prowling tiger also came to represent heaven and earth. The two creatures convey the ancient Chinese concept of yin and yang, whereby all things—male and female, calm and movement, shade and sunshine, moon and sun—are defined and complemented by their opposites. The dragon, representing yang, is placed on the right and the tiger, representing yin, on the left. In this way, the balance between wind and water may be secured and a peaceful world made possible (see the ancient Chinese divination text I-Ching and Ball 2004, 21).


    Crane and Turtle: Symbols of Longevity

    Yogi with Crane and Turtle, 19th century, silk crepe, paste-resist dyed, Matsuzakaya Collection

    There is a saying in Japan that “cranes live for one thousand years, and turtles for ten thousand.” The design of this yogi (a coverlet shaped like a kimono) thus expresses a wish for a long, healthy life. The flying crane at the top and the turtle near the hem also suggest the opposition of heaven and earth. The large rock formation on the turtle’s back refers to the ancient Asian folktale of a giant turtle that supported the island home of the immortals, called Turtle Mountain in Japan. There, three “happy” plants thrive and promise good fortune—bamboo stalks, pine leaves, and plum flowers. All three appear in this yogi.


    Carp and Kintarō: Perseverance and Strength

    Charger with Carp Ascending Waterfall, 19th century, Arita ware, porcelain with celadon glaze and underglaze blue, Segawa Takeo

    Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Kintarō Seizes the Carp, 1885

    Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Kintarō Seizes the Carp, 1885, diptych, woodblock print, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Herbert R. Cole Collection. Photo © Museum Associates / LACMA

    Ancient Asian lore tells of carp that fight their way upstream against the rapid currents of the Yellow River, one of the longest and most dangerous in China. Along the way, they must leap the falls called the Dragon Gate. The few that succeed are transformed into mighty dragons. Carp thus came to represent strength and perseverance, and in Japan “carp leaping the waterfall” symbolizes success in life, particularly in the military. Japanese warriors ate carp before battles and at festivals celebrating victories so that they could absorb the heroic qualities associated with these fish (see Katherine M. Ball, Animal Motifs in Asian Art [New York, 2004], 189).

    The subject of many heroic stories, Kintarō (Golden Boy) is a role model for children. Like Tarzan, he was raised in the wilderness, and even as a toddler, he showed phenomenal strength. Here, with muscles rippling in his arms and thighs, he grapples with a giant carp. Forceful lines sweeping by Kintarō’s mother at the top and down over the two struggling bodies highlight the swiftness of the current.

    Utagawa Hiroshige, Suidō Bridge and Surugadai, 1857

    Utagawa Hiroshige, Suidō Bridge and Surugadai, 1857, woodblock print, Lent by the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Gift of Louis W. Hill, Jr. Minneapolis Institute of Art

    On May 5 Children’s Day is celebrated in Japan with colorful carp streamers made of paper or cloth and attached to high bamboo poles. As wind sweeps through the tail, fins, and body of the carp-shaped kites, the fish seem to fight against swift currents. Families pray for the strength and success of their children on this festival day, for carp symbolize vigor and perseverance. In this print the streamers fly above Surugadai, one of the densest concentrations of samurai households in 19th-century Edo. Today this city is known as Tokyo.

    Animal Stories

    Monkey: A Starring Role in Japanese Stories

    Kanō Naganobu, One Hundred Monkeys, 1802–1816

    Kanō Naganobu, One Hundred Monkeys, 1802–1816, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art

    Maybe because they look so much like humans, monkeys appear in many Japanese folktales, playing roles that range from wicked villains and mighty heroes to creatures symbolizing long life.

    Long-armed monkeys gather in trees and form chains, swinging from great heights across chasms. Japanese lore credits monkeys with the ability to live a long life, possibly because the Japanese character for the word “monkey” also refers to fate or luck. Although monkeys fill this scroll, there are not quite one hundred (as the title suggests). That number means abundance in Japanese art, and this picture may well be a wish for long life or good fortune.

    Ogata Gekkō, Monkey Reaching for the Moon, c. 1890–1910, woodblock print, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Robert O. Muller Collection (S2003.8.1669)

    Zen is a branch of Buddhism that encourages meditation. Zen priests use koan (riddles or puzzles) to express their insights and to guide a student’s thoughts. This print illustrates such a koan: a monkey reaches for the reflection of the moon in the water, but it vanishes into ripples once touched. The moon’s glittering reflection symbolizes the unreal nature of a fickle world and warns students not to strain for the unattainable.

    Sesson Shūkei, Monkeys and Crab, 16th century

    Sesson Shūkei, Monkeys and Crab, 16th century, hanging scroll, ink on paper, Private collection

    Depicting a group of monkeys preying upon a single crab, this painting illustrates another koan. It deals with karma, the principle of cause and effect that links one’s intent and actions to one’s future.

    In a version of the story, a monkey has a persimmon seed and a crab has a rice dumpling. Envious of the crab’s food, the wily monkey proposes a trade with the simple-minded crab. The crab agrees, and the monkey gobbles up the dumpling while the crab plants his seed. The next year, the persimmon tree bears large fruit, but the crab cannot reach it and asks the monkey for help. The greedy monkey climbs the tree and devours all the fruit. Even worse, the monkey throws the hardest persimmon at the crab and kills him. During the funeral the crab’s son takes revenge on the monkey, killing him with the aid of friends.

    Buddhist philosophy hinges on cause and effect—good deeds bring good results, bad deeds bring bad results. The wicked monkey is punished, but what of the young crab, who kills the monkey in revenge? As the novelist Akutagawa Ryūnosuke warns, “if crabs battle with monkeys, they will [both] end up being killed for the good of society” (Akutagawa A Week; “The Monkey and the Crab,” in a blog by Anthony Daniel Perrin). Some modern retellings of the story are less brutal: no one is killed; the monkey apologizes for his bad behavior; and all is forgiven.

    Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Bravery Matched with the Twelve Zodiac Signs: Monkey and Son Gokū, c. 1840, twelve woodblock prints, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, The Anne van Biema Collection (S2004.3.168.1–12)

    Monkeys may also embody heroic qualities. Here, the monkey king Son Gokū wears a tiger skin and—wielding a magic wand—transforms his fur into an army of small monkeys to battle Chohakkai (at top). This pig later becomes a friend and joins him on a quest to locate sacred scriptures in India.

    In East Asian folklore, Son Gokū symbolizes might and the warrior spirit. His feats are celebrated in a 16th-century Chinese novel that was also popular in Japan: He knows 72 different types of magic and can assume nine thousand forms. He can ride the clouds, fly six thousand miles, see the edges of the universe, and hear the faintest sound. Today he features in Japanese manga (comics) and cartoons, and is a childhood hero for many growing up in Japan.


    Fox: Tricky Shape-Shifter or Deity Guardian?

    Foxes play both good and bad roles in Japanese folklore. As dangerous, deceitful shape-shifters, they often transformed into beautiful women who lived among, even slept with, humans until their true identity was revealed. As messengers and protectors of the god of the harvest—Inari—foxes were also revered.

    Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Moon of Musashi Plain, from the series One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, 1892, woodblock print, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, The Anne van Biema Collection (S2004.3.315)

    Dancing Fox, 18th century, ivory with staining, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Raymond and Frances Bushell Collection. Photo © Museum Associates / LACMA

    Both the print and the netsuke (a small carved ornament) seem to show the fox as it transforms into a new shape. Twisting to gaze at its reflection in a stream, the fox (at left) calls to mind a beautiful woman looking into a mirror. The dancing fox (at right) charms with a playful pose and wily expression suggesting the seducer it is about to become.

    Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Kuzunoha, the Fox-Wife, Parting from Her Child, from the series Thirty-six Ghosts, 1890

    Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Kuzunoha, the Fox-Wife, Parting from Her Child, from the series Thirty-Six Ghosts, 1890, woodblock print, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles A. Duboc

    Not all shape-shifting foxes are malicious. In one story, a young nobleman saves a white fox from hunters. To repay his kindness, the fox turns into a beautiful woman named Kuzunoha, who marries him and has a child. But she cannot stay human forever. The print captures the tragic moment when her true fox form is revealed in the shadow cast against the rice-paper screen, and the son, pulling her kimono, begs her to stay. Leaving a farewell poem, she directs her husband and son to the forest where the couple first met:

    If you love me, darling, come and see me
    You will find me yonder in the great wood
    Of Shinoda of Izumi Province where the leaves
    Of arrowroots always rustle in pensive mood
    (Nozaki, Kitsune: Japan’s Fox of Mystery, Romance,
    and Humor
    [Tokyo, 1961], 110–111)

    They finally find Kuzunoha, but she can no longer turn back into a human.

    Utagawa Hiroshige, New Year's Eve Foxfires at the Changing Tree, Ōji, from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1857

    Utagawa Hiroshige, New Year's Eve Foxfires at the Changing Tree, Ōji, from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1857, woodblock print, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Caroline and Jarred Morse. Photo © Museum Associates / LACMA

    Foxes were also identified as messengers of Inari—the deity protecting rice farming and its harvest. In this print foxes gather on a cold, starry New Year’s Eve at a tree near the Inari shrine in northern Edo (now Tokyo). See the flickering flames above their heads? In Japanese folklore, these strange lights at night­—actually caused by burning swamp gases—signal the presence of foxes. By observing the shadows cast by these flames, local farmers believed that they would be able to predict the success of crops in the coming year (Gerstle et al., Masterful Illusions: Japanese Prints from the Anne van Biema Collection [Seattle, 2002], 320).

    Earth Spider: Vicious Monster or Rebel?

    Utagawa Yoshitsuya, Earth Spider, c. 1847–1852, triptych, woodblock print, The Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Museum Purchase

    In ancient Japanese texts, families that rebelled against the emperor were disparagingly called earth spiders (tsuchigumo in Japanese). In the popular imagination, the term was taken literally to refer to a ground-dwelling monster. With bulging eyes, eight legs, and knifelike claws, this earth spider holds a serpent and sits on a web that stretches, in gray and black stripes, across the bottom of the print. Adding to the horror, hundreds of small, black spiders crawl all over its body. To slay this gigantic monster, famous warriors descend in baskets with torches raised to light the underground cave. Despite the odds against them, the warriors succeed.

    Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Warrior Minamoto Raikō and the Earth Spider, 1843, triptych, woodblock print, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Joan Elizabeth Tanney Bequest. Photo © Museum Associates / LACMA

    The 10th-century samurai Minamoto Raikō sleeps in the right upper corner while an earth spider tries to ensnare him in its web. In the foreground, two of the hero’s four retainers play go (a board game), completely unaware of the imminent danger, but the other two turn their heads as if sensing the threat. Fast approaching is a horde of demons, including a lantern monster, a creature with nine skulls, and a small-headed woman with a gigantic face in her belly. The artist displays great creativity in turning demons described in Japanese folktales into bizarre and sometimes amusing visual forms.

    Details of demons

    In a message widely understood when this triptych was made, it also comments on harsh reforms carried out in the 1840s that suppressed the free spirit of the Edo period (1603–1868). The sleeping Raikō is interpreted as the ailing shogun Ieyoshi, while the many demons symbolize the resentment of the oppressed townspeople.

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    The Life of Animals in Japanese Art is on view at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building from June 2–August 18, 2019.