Vegder's Blog

June 24, 2013

Not Quite the Zodiac – Part Six: the monkey – saru – 猿

Like all of the other zodiac signs, the monkey appears in many forms and many guises in the world of art. While its appearance may not be ubiquitous it is about as universal as any major motif can ever get. It shows up in the graphics and sculptures of ancient societies, from the Americas to Egypt to pre-Greek Mediterranean cultures to Mesopotamia,  the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia and on to China, Korea and Japan. Sometimes it is a religious symbol, sometimes commercial, sometimes it is just a curiosity and frequently it has been used metaphorically as a commentary on the absurdity of human behavior. It’s everywhere. That is why I have chosen to start off this post with a poignant European example from the 16th century. It was one of the most surprising, even startling, monkey images I found while researching this topic.

Below is an embroidery by Mary, Queen of Scots. She did this in ca. 1570 while she was imprisoned by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. Mary was executed in 1587. According to a curatorial note at the Victoria and Albert Museum Mary based her work on an image from the Icones animalium (quadrupedum viviparorum et oviparorum)  Tome 1 by Conrad Gesner from 1560.

VAM_Mary_Queen_of_Scots_monkey_embroidery_c.1570   ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Here is what I believe is Gesner’s macaque which provided the model for the Queen.

Gesner_macaque_Natural_History_Museum_Paris_7   Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris

Mary was imprisoned at a number of castles for 19 years until she was executed on February 8, 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle. There is not much left of that place any more. Visitors to the site will only see a bit of masonry surrounded by a short, spiked metal fence with a couple of plaques commemorating the event. Legend has it that James I, Mary’s son, had the castle demolished, but the truth is probably a bit more mundane. It was picked apart and sold piecemeal to provide architectural features for a number of other structures. Sad all the same. In fact, the whole thing – i.e., Mary’s confinement, execution and the castle’s dismantling – seems a bit sad. That brings to mind the poor state of a pet monkey as can be seen in the Shunshō print from ca. 1776 shown below.

AIC_Shunsho_bijin_caged_monkey    ©The Art Institute of Chicago

And, just so you know that I plan on concentrating on Japanese monkeys on this page, here is a beautiful teaser. Is it any wonder that monkeys started appearing on ancient tomb sculptures long before they were recognized as one of the twelve creatures of the Zodiac?

Inquisitive_monkey_anjuli_ayer_Flickr_7 I found this at Flickr. It was posted there by anjuli_ayer. It was taken at the Jigokudani Monkey Park.

Monkeys in ancient Japan – Monkey bones have been found in giant funerary mounds built by the Jōmon culture (縄文: ca. 10,500 to ca. 300 B.C.E.). This would seem to indicate that monkeys were hunted and probably eaten. Some of their bones were carved and others were made into earrings which were then stained red. There is even a clay carving of a female monkey which dates from ca. 3500 B.C.E. “The figurine has hands held over the stomach, nipples, ischial callosities [look it up, I did], anus, female genitalia, and the short-tail characteristic of Japanese macaques. The figurine has holes drilled on either side and may have been worn as an amulet for seeking bountiful harvests or easy birth.” (Quoted from: The Macaque Connection… p. 35)

One source, Herding Monkeys to Paradise…, thinks that the killing of monkeys by people from the Jōmon period was more opportunistic than organized. “Jōmon dwellers may also have viewed monkeys as rivals for chestnuts and other prized nuts and berries of the forest and this food competition could have been an additional reason to kill monkeys.” There is even less evidence of monkey hunts in the next period, the Yayoi (弥生: ca. 300 B.C.E. to 300 C.E.), when more and more people were engaged in farming.

The Tokyo National Museum has an image of a haniwa (埴輪) monkey from Ibaraki prefecture dating from ca. 550 C.E. (See below)


Then came Buddhism in the 6th century and in 676 the emperor ordered an end to the hunting, killing and eating of monkeys, chickens, horses, dogs and cattle.

Monkeys and horses: The umaya-zaru (厩猿) or stable-monkey connection – At some point someone in Japan decided that keeping monkeys in stables with horses would protect the horses from diseases and other disasters. Even today monkey bones are kept in stables as a protective talisman.

Gekko_horse_monkey_Mead_7   Mead Art Museum, Amherst

The print shown above is by Gekkō and is entitled Ibashinen. It dates from ca. 1900. Ibashinen (意馬心猿) means ‘to be unable to control one’s worldly desires and passions.’ However, translated literally it mean ‘the mind of a horse with the heart of a monkey‘.

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney in her unusual book The Monkey as Mirror: Symbolic Transformations in Japanese History and Ritual wrote on page 101: “A distinct for of monkey performance developed in Japan is that in which a trained mokey dances to the tune of its trainer’s singing, to the shamisen… or to the beat of a drum… Based on the belief that the monkey is the guardian of horses, it started as a ritual performed at stables for the purpose of healing sick horses and improving their welfare in general. Later in history it was performed also on the street and at the doorway of individual homes. Until recently, all of these forms of the monkey performance were religious in nature. The dance performance by the monkey, the messenger from the Mountain Deity to humans, symbolized the Mountain Deity’s visit to the people in order to bless them with health and prosperity. Throughout history, the monkey performance has been a male occupation, although in some representations, such as paintings or porcelain dolls, trainers are depicted as women in male occupations…”

In the Musée Guimet there is an extremely exotic Harunobu (春信: ca. 1725-70) print of a woman playing a drum while a monkey performs as a sanbasō, -sometimes sambasō  (三番叟). I say ‘extremely exotic’ mainly because of the marbleized background. What was he thinking? There must be some kind of explanation grounded in facts – or even a pure speculation. Either way, this print is a stunner. I might also point out that anyone interested in old books, European or American – especially 18th and 19th century – will remember those dazzling – nearly psychedelic – marbleized papers used to line the insides of the front and back covers. They always hinted at something truly great to come. How often I was disappointed. More times than not the inside lining was the best thing to be found. But then again, I could be wrong. I am a bit of a philistine, you know.

Guimet_Harunobu_woman_monkey_sambaso_7   Musée Guimet

Just to make things a wee bit clearer, I think I should explain the term sanbasō – as best I can figure it out. The sanbasō dance is one of the oldest traditions of Nō theater. It was always performed at the beginning, before the actually play itself, and was meant to be something truly auspicious. This makes sense since much of this form of theater was supposed to be religious or quasi-religious in nature. Also, it should be noted that sanbasō had it origins in the 10th century or earlier which is prior to the establishment of Nō. What I don’t know is when they first started using monkeys as substitutes for humans. If I find out you will be the second to know.

Just for contrast, here is another Harunobu sanbasō dancer print from ca. 1766-67. If you haven’t figured this out yet, I bow down at Harunobu’s altar. Oh… and this is not a monkey.

AIC_Harunobu_sanbaso_dancer_7   ©The Art Institute of Chicago

The symbolism of monkeys and horses (in China) – Below is a Qing dynasty jade of two horses and a monkey. This represents the Chinese expression ‘mashang fenghou’ or “may you immediately be elevated to the rank of marquis” – (马上丰厚 or 马上封侯 possibly). Or, it could stand for a Buddhist expression, ‘xinyuan yima,’ which means “willfulness and wayward nature of human desires.” Notice how close this interpretation is to that of the one from Japan mentioned above.

Asian_Art_Museum_monkey_horses_nephrite_Brundage   Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, Brundage Collection

Monkeys as lion dancers  – Below is an inro showing three monkeys engaged in performing the shishimai or lion dance. It dates from the mid-19th century and is from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


There is a great netsuke of a monkey with a lion mask in the Avery Brundage Collection of the Asian Art Museum. It was carved by Masatami in the early 19th century. See below.

Asian_Art_Museum_netsuke_monkey_lion_mask   Asian ARt Museum, San Francisco – Brundage Collection

Monkeys and chestnuts – In the Hongū villages south of Nara there are chestnut and persimmon trees near a forest that are referred to as ‘monkey trees’ – saru no ki (猿の木)- and the fruits are called the ‘monkey’s share’ – saru no bun.


There are numerous accounts of humans in Japan competing with monkeys for chestnuts. As the restrictions on the killing of monkeys rose those animals got the upper hand in getting to the chestnuts first. It is said that a group of monkeys can strip a tree of its fruits/nuts in no time at all. Below is a photo from the site run by Shu Suehiro of a ripened Japanese chestnut (Castanea crenata – 栗) fruit showing the nuts enclosed within – just as can be seen in the Japanese art works in this section.


One common story says that if humans throw rocks at monkeys picking chestnuts the monkeys will throw chestnuts back at them.

Below is a kanamono or pouch clasp by Toshimitsu (壽光), mid-19th century.


The monkey and the jellyfish – Once upon a time the dragon god’s daughter, Otohime, became ill. The dragon god was told by his physician, an octopus, that she could be cured by eating the liver of a live monkey. So, the dragon king sent a jellyfish out to get one for him. In those days jellyfish had a skeleton and could move about like we do. The jellyfish found a monkey, but failed in his mission so the dragon king punished him by removing all of his bones and that is why the jellyfish is like it is today.

Jellyfish_picture_taken_by_Evan_Black_Vancouver_2012_no.7b   Photo by Evan Black taken at the Vancouver Aquarium in 2012.

Below is a netsuke of a monkey in a life and death struggle with an octopus. Some accounts state that after the jellyfish failed the octopus went out to fetch a monkey himself. This may be related to that version.


In a netsuke from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston there is an octopus who seems to  have gotten the upper hand(s) in its struggle with a monkey.


There is another netsuke in the collection of the Met, but this one shows a human-like octopus, robed and standing over a monkey trying to protect one of its young.


In The Macaque Connection… (p. 43) it says: “Monkeys were hunted sometimes because monkey gallbladder was a medicine highly valued by farm communities.” It was said to be good for “…eye diseases, stomach complaints, and even children’s tantrums…”

The Japanese, the French and La Fontaine – Jean de La Fontaine (ジャン・ド・ラ・フォンテ: 1621-95), the fabulist, borrowed mainly from ancient sources, like Aesop, but gave his tales a modernized, 17th century version. Popular as-all-get-out in France, his work spread worldwide and by the late 19th century was being published in Japan accompanied by woodblock illustrations. One such example is that of the monkey and the dolphin. The dolphin, a traditional friend of man, chanced upon a ship sinking at sea. It went to the rescue and thought, while heading toward the shore, that it was taking a man upon its back. Since it was going to be a while before they got there the dolphin struck up a conversation and asked his passenger where he was from. The monkey started to brag that he was a big-wig from Athens and that his cousin was the mayor of that fine city.  Hearing this the dolphin said: “You doubtless know Piraeus…” To which the monkey replied that he knew him well. Well, this was the monkey’s undoing since Piraeus is a town and not a man. Once the dolphin realized that the monkey was not only not a man, but a liar to boot he dumped him into the ocean so he could go back in search of a human to save. Moral:  When a stranger is coming to your rescue, don’t pretend to be something you are not and keep your damned mouth shut. Or, at least, that is my interpretation.

Below is a detail from a late 19th century Japanese woodblock illustration of this tale. Below that is a wood engraving designed by Gustave Doré. I found it at commons.wikimedia.



As a reminder: This is about the Zodiac – loosely – Below is a Zodiac commons.wikimedia where it says it is installed in the ceiling of the gate to the Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka. It was posted by Jakub Halun. The monkeys are near the bottom.

Zodiac_Kushida_Shrine_Halun_commons_7b    Zodiac_Halun_Fukuoka_Kushida_monkey_detail_7c

Monkeys and wasps – The tsuba or sword guard by Tomonaga (友壽: 1831-89) below shows a bespectacled monkey inspecting a netsuke of a monkey while a wasp hovers nearby.


Monkeys and persimmons

Toyama_Museum_Sosen_monkeys_persimmons_7c   Toyama Museum of Art

My personal favorite among painters of monkeys in Japan is Mori Sosen (森祖仙: 1747-1821). He painted the picture shown above. “No Japanese artist, it would seem, was as devoted to monkeys as was Mori Sosen. Not only were they the most frequent single subject in his oeuvre, Sosen went so far as to substitute one of the characters in his name, the so [祖] meaning ‘ancestor,’ with another so [猿], which means ‘monkey.’ He even, it is said, claimed the monkey as his ancestor, which is surprising because he was born in the year of the rabbit.” He trained in one school of art, but changed to another, ostensibly so he could paint monkeys more realistically. He is believed to have captured monkeys so he could study them more closely.

A city boy by nature, Sosen is said to have moved to the mountains where he lived among the monkeys for three years. One source said that he “…drew monkeys with an intuitive understanding that is unparalleled even today. Those who saw his drawings declared his ability to be godlike.”

“Sosen’s paintings almost invariably focus on the familial nature of monkey groups. In Monkeys in a Persimmon Tree he depicts a mother macaque, baby clinging to her breast, stretching upward for some bright ripe persimmons, while the stately pater familias sedately savors the fruits of her labors below.” [This information about Sosen comes from Edo: Art in Japan 1615-1868, p. 353.]

Mead_anonymous_monkeys_persimmons_c.1772_7b   Mead Art Museum – anonymous ca. 1772

The monkey and the crab

Asian_Art_Museum_monkey_crab_persimmon_Brundage_7   Asian Art Museum – Brundage Collection

“The monkey met the crab in the mountains and traded a persimmon seed he had found for the crab’s riceball. The crab took the seed home and planted it. He cultivated it carefully. Every day he said, ‘Sprout, sprout, or I’ll cut you with my scissors.’ Then, ‘Grow big, grow big, or I’ll cut you with my scissors.’ At last the time came for the fruit to ripen. The crab brought his sack, intending to pick the fruit, but try as he did, he could not climb the tree. The monkey came along and offered to pick the fruit if he wanted him to. He took the sack and scrambled up the tree. He began to eat the ripe fruit and to toss the puckery ones at the crab. This exasperated the crab. He called from below, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if you filled the sack with ripe fruit and tied it to the end of a dead branch. Then shake it.’ The monkey thought that sounded good and tried it. The branch broke and the fruit fell to the ground. The crab hurried over and pulled the sack into his hole. The monkey climbed down and went to the hole. He looked in and said, ‘If you don’t give me back the sack of fruit, I’ll make a pile in your hole.’ Then he turned around and pushed his tail toward the hole. The crab grabbed the monkey’s seat and would not let go. The pain was too much for the monkey and he begged to be forgiven. He offered to give some of his hair to the crab. That was the origin of the yamadachi crab that has hair on its legs. It is also why the monkey’s bottom is bare and red.” Quoted from: The Yanagita Kunio Guide to the Japanese Folk Tale, pp. 295-96.

Since you now know why the monkey’s butt is red you might as well see a fine example – a detail from a print by Kuniyoshi.

Lyon_Collection_Kuniyoshi_monkey_butt_7_dtl.2   To see the full print at the Lyon Collection click on the monkey’s’s butt or any other part of the image if you are too, too modest to click there.

Monkeys being monkeys – picking nits? – Sometimes you run across an image which can’t be forgotten or eliminated. Below is just such an image. It was posted at Commons.wikimedia by Leyo. Below that is a painting by Annibale Carracci (アンニーバレ・カラッチ: 1560-1609) from the Uffizi in Florence, Italy. How does this differ?


Uffizi_Carracci_Man_monkey_7   The Uffizi, Florence

The Thousand Monkey motif – I don’t know the what, where or why of this motif, but am working on. However, my ignorance should not stop you from enjoying this design with me. Below are two tsubas from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The one on the right is a bit less populated. Both are said to date from the 19th century.

MFA_1,000_monkeys_tsuba_7   MFA_monkey_families_tsuba

Monkeys and eagles – Below is a print by Harunobu.

Mead_Amherst_Harunobu_monkey_eagle_7d   Mead Art Museum at Amherst College

Monkeys in kyōgen and nō – There is a 17th century carved wooden mask of a monkey in the Tokyo National Museum. It is enhanced by the use of gesso and pigments. (See below)

TNM_Kyogen_saru_mask_just_bitten_a_persimmon_7   Tokyo National Museum

In the Edo: Art in Japan 1615 to 1868 it says: “During the Edo period kyōgen often used masks for animal roles, especially foxes, badgers, monkeys, and dogs – animals that share personality traits with the humans wearing the masks. Monkey (saru) masks were among the first to be designed, no doubt because they are so perfect for capturing human expressions. The example of the male monkey… looks as if he has just bitten a sour persimmon, while his female counterpart… [below] has a more passive expression that could be transformed by the simian mimicry of an actor. Monkey masks were worn in various kyōgen plays but were also used in the nō play Arashiyama, in which an entire family of monkeys, including a son and daughter, appear on stage.”

Immediately below is a photo of a macaque at Arashiyama posted by Richard Fisher at Flickr.


TNM_Kyogen_saru_mask_female_7   Tokyo National Museum

Monkeys and music – in Japan – Below is just one more example of Kuniyoshi’s ability to anthropomophize. Here he has given us a group of monkey musicians performing at the Sanno festival at Hie shrine in Edo. You can tell it is summer by the light weight robes they are wearing. But you knew that. The year: 1855.

BM_Kuniyoshi_Saru_Sanno_matsuri_7   © Trustees of the British Museum

Monkeys acting like humans

3_little_monkeys_Masashi_Mochida_Flickr_7b   I am adding this Flickr photo by Masashi Mochida here because it is so damned cute. Also, it seems to mimic human behavior, more specifically sumo wrestlers. But that is just my excuse. The real reason is the cuteness factor.

In the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston there is a monkey-sanbaso-performer print by Shinsai. Now here is the Zodiac connection, even if it isn’t apparent at first glance to most of you. This print is a surimono and these were produced privately as New Year’s momentoes, often for members of poetry clubs. Since the monkey was one of the 12 animals of the Zodiac this image would have most assuredly been produced for a monkey year. My guess is that this would have appeared in 1812 since Shinsai died 8 years later.


Europeans were just as fascinated by the human/monkey similarities as were the Japanese. It was something akin to “Anything you can do I can do better…” Or, at least, just as well. Everything was fair game from leisure pursuits to work habits. In fact, there is a stained glass panel in The Cloisters in New York dating from the 15th century which couldn’t be clearer in its intent. What I would like to know is what the whole window looked like. But I doubt I will ever know.


There is also a wonderful sixteenth century European allegorical figure on a tapestry of a monkey preening itself while holding a mirror. How many times have all of seen someone, male or female, rapt by their own image while combing their hair? And, how many times have we thought ‘how vain.’ Unless, of course, that someone is us. See the monkey?

Vain_monkey_tapestry_Louvre_7   Musée du Louvre

Humans acting like monkeys – Below is a Shunkō print from ca. 1785 showing the actor Ichimura Uzaemon IX as a monkey as a sanbasō performer. Notice the hat, the tell-tale sign of what is taking place here.

AIC_Shunko_Uzaemon_IX_as_sanbaso_monkey_7   ©The Art Institute of Chicago

Just so you will understand that sanbasō performers, sometimes written as sambasō, were naturally humans I am posting here a Koryūsai print from the British Museum from ca. 1760-80 showing a young man in this role. That means that a monkey dressed up as one of these performers is a parody. Not only that, this means that a man dressed up as a monkey dressed up as a sanbasō performer is a parody of a parody. Why that is almost Monty Pythonish. Oh those Japanese and their sense of humor. What a hoot!

BM_Koryusai_sanbaso_dancer_ca.1760_to_1780_7   © Trustees of the British Museum

1839 Kunisada triptych of kabuki actors dressed as monkeys – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

There are monkey toys and monkeys with toys – Below is a toy of a tin monkey riding a bicycle. I found it at commons.wikimedia and it was originally posted by D.J. Shin. Below that is a print by Hokusai showing a monkey playing with a monkey toy.


Mead_Hokusai_ca.1800_monkey_playing_with_monkey_toy_7b   Mead Art Museum

There is a monkey marionette made by Gair-Wilkinson in the early 1920s. It isn’t difficult to use your imagination to make it appear that it has come to life.

VAM_Gair_Wilkinson_monkey_marionette_ca.1920s   Victoria and Albert Museum

The Monkey King –  Below is a Gakutei of the Monkey King who has pulled some of his fur out, chewed it up and blew it out into air. As he does so each of his hairs becomes a little ‘Mini-Me’ warrior. In Arthur Waley’s translation it says: “The combat began at dawn, and lasted till the sun sank behind the western hills. The One Horned Ogre and all the kings of the seventy-two caves were captured and carried away. Only the four generals and the monkeys escaped and hid in  in the far recesses of the cave. But Monkey all alone, cudgel in hand, held back the kings of the Four Quarters, Vaiśravana and Natha, warring with them half way up the sky. At last, seeing that dusk was at hand, he plucked a handful of his hairs, tossed them into his mouth, chewed them up small and spat them out, crying ‘Change!’ Whereupon they changed into thousands of monkeys each armed with a metal-plated cudgel. They drove back Vaiśravana, Natha and the four kings. Then Monkey, at last victorious, withdrew the hairs and returned to his cave.”


Life imitates art – Below are two images of monkeys. The first is a photo posted at Flickr by Matteo Staltari. The second is a print by Hiroshige. The similarities were too great to ignore. What do you think?

Nihonzaur_no._5_Matteo_Staltari_Flickr_7b   Honolulu_Hiroshige_pet_monkey_cherry_blossoms_7b   Honolulu Museum of Art

William Hung (1893-1980), a scholar of Chinese culture, once posted a poem of unknown origin:

At the sound of beating drums you climb up the pole.
The second time is going to be harder than the first.
Monkey, watch carefully where you step,
For those are cold hard eyes that stare at you!

Monkeys and music – in Europe   – Below is a collection of porcelain figures known as the Meissen monkey band. It was created in ca. 1765 and couldn’t be more Baroque in nature. Unless, of course, you want to think of it as a bit more Rococo. Some people say it was modeled by Johann Joachim Kändler (ケンドラー: 1706-75), a genius of a sculptor little known outside of the world of porcelain, but a genius nonetheless. Others say he was assisted by Peter Reinicke (ライネッケ: 1710-65), but whoever it was who created the Monkey Band we are forever in his (their) debt.

AIC_Meissen_monkey_band_ca.1765_7   ©The Art Institute of Chicago

The Germans seemed to have a particular penchant for presenting monkeys as musicians as can be seen below in this anonymous print in the British Museum dating from around 1830.

BM_Monkey_performers_German_ca._1830_no.2   The British Museum

On more solid footing is the monkey teapot by Kändler. It was created in 1735 and is an astounding work of art. Don’t ya just love the spout?


Fashion or fetish – or both – Fashion can be ‘high art’ and the Costume Institute within the Metropolitan Museum of Art is proof of that. Within that collection are an incredible number of mind-blowing items which show the limits of human imagination and skill. Among these quite a few have what I would call ‘the creepiness factor.’ I once saw there the conical bra worn in concert by Madonna. Whether or not she worn this item off-stage is none of my business , but still… Cloris Leachman wore a pointed bra as Nurse Diesel in Mel Brook’s High Anxiety. Now there was a bra which could put your eyes out.

But, I digress: There is a winter muff made out of monkey’s fur designed by Elsa Schiaparelli (エルザ・スキャパレッリ: 1890-1973) in the Met. While, at least, it isn’t made from Japanese monkeys, that doesn’t change its ‘I can’t look away’ effect.


It looks like something Gloria Swanson or Joan Crawford might have carried with them back in the 1930s. Unique, elegant and show-offish, all at the same time. Perhaps those days have passed. But it is interesting to note that in China traditionally “…only members of the Imperial family were entitled to wear…” monkey skins.

Schiaparelli also designed a dress ensemble made of suede and monkey fur. It is in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But even more disturbing than this dress are what appear to be the shoes made for it – also with tufts of monkey fur. Wish I could show them to you, but they are in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and their copyright usage is a bit more stringent. However, trust me, those shoes are doozies. In fact, monkey fur, according to Vogue Magazine, was ‘all the rage’ – my term – in the 1930s along with the newfangled zippers.


In the same museum there is an early an American made 20th century ‘picture hat’ decorated with monkey fur. What amazes me is the number of things I learn every time I do one of these posts. Who knew that such things existed. Not I. Maybe you did, but not I.


Only the wealthiest women or women married to the most powerful men could afford to carry a muff designed by Schiaparelli and made of monkey fur. Likewise, only the most powerful men in the Kingdom of Kuba in the 17th and 18th centuries could wear a funeral mask, a makenga, with the ruff of a colobus monkey. If you are wondering, both the deceased and his most important mourners wear these masks. Below is an example from the collection of the Art Institute in Chicago. Everything about it bespeaks wealth and power just as much as the Schiaparelli muff does, but in a different way, from a different place and from a different time. But, other than that, how do they differ?

AIC_Mukenga_funeral_mask_with_monkey_ruff_7b   © The Art Institute of Chicago

Mmmmmmmm yummy – Is there anything humans haven’t eaten? Sadly that includes monkeys. In fact, it was still legal to hunt monkeys in Japan until 1947. In fact, following the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in the 19th century the restrictions on who could and who could not hunt were lifted. Guns were relatively cheap and many more people all over Japan went on the hunt. Monkeys were considered pests. Their fur could be sold and traded, their meat could be consumed. “Furthermore, a medicine made from monkeys – a black-roasted monkey cranium ground into a powder – was popular in villages as a cure for maladies connected to the head and women’s ailments.” Supposedly it helped treat “…headaches, dizziness, nervous disorders, asthma, sickness at pregnancy, and blood circulation…” Then in the 1950s the Japanese began to establish monkey parks, thus insuring a degree of safety for these animals. And yet, there has been a much longer tradition of monkeys as food than there has been any kind of social taboo.

Donald Keene, one of the scholars I admire the most, in his 2008 Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan wrote on page 11 about his eating habits. He mentions the numerous times he was tested by native Japanese as to his particular tastes and their limits. Did he eat sashimi? Yes. Would he eat fermented soybeans? Yes. How about salted fish guts? Again yes. But then he noted that “…some prejudices remain. I would not willingly eat dog meat or the celebrated Chinese specialty, monkey brains. If an Arab host offered me the eye of a sheep, said to be the most delicious part of the animal, I don’t think I would touch it, even at the risk of offending my host. I do not wish to have a glass of terrapin blood, even though the owner of my favorite Japanese restaurant insists that it is delicious.”

Li Ho (791-817), a poet and member of the T’ang dynasty court, has been compared to Baudelaire because he continued a cult of ‘strange’ imagery. If “…Tu Fu’s [poetic] genius was that of a Confucian sage, and Li Po’s of a Taoist immortal, that Po Chü-i’s was human and Li Ho’s ghostly and daemonic.” Perhaps that explains the lines from one of Li Ho’s poems, High Dike:

You shall eat carp’s tails,
I shall eat monkey’s lips.

Some other stuff – There is a scroll painting from the early 16th century in the Suntory Museum attributed to Tosa Mitsuhisa (土佐光久). It tells the story of an old farmer who says he will marry his daughter off to anyone who will help him harvest his fields. A group of monkeys come forward and do the job. So the old man gives his daughter off to them and she is married to one of the monkeys, but she is none too happy about it. A group of hunters come and kill the monkeys and rescue the girl from her misery. There is supposed to be a message here, but what it is I don’t know. Your guess is as good as mine.


In the mid-18th century the lord of Aomori prefecture ordered his men to hunt down and kill the wolves to protect his horses. The result was “the wild boar famine“. Without their main predators other animals multiplied and raided the farmers fields. These probably included monkeys and deer.


Dried monkey intestines added to hot water and then consumed by a pregnant woman was said to make childbirth easier. (My sister said she was going to eat hot spicy food – or was it hot boiled shrimp – or was it watermelon – and then was to be driven over bumpy roads to help bring on the birth of her first child. As I recall that was not how it happened.) “In the Nagano area a woman who had just given birth might be given monkey blood to drink to help her recover her strength…” Quoted from: Herding Monkeys to Paradise..., p. 95.

Drinking animal blood may have been an old/ancient tradition. In a late 17th century play by Chikamatsu two characters descended from two different emperors drink ox blood together. This is unlike the proscription from God when he blessed Noah and his sons in Genesis 9:4. “…you must not eat the flesh with the life, which is the blood still in it.” This is reiterated and stated a bit more strongly in Leviticus 7:27. Of course, in John 6:53 all of this gets thrown out when Jesus tells his followers that there is no life in them if they do not eat of the flesh and drink of the blood of the Son of Man. I guess, to each his own.


In Waiting for Wolves in Japan : An Anthropological Study of People-Wildlife Relations: An Anthropological Study of People-Wildlife Relations by John Knight it says that sometimes hunters would bring home young monkeys as pets for their children. Sometimes they would be adopted and nurtured by villagers. “There are even rare reports of infant monkeys suckled by village women…” One old woman, a devout Buddhist, would scatter oranges for the monkeys to eat. She even kept two monkeys as pets and named them Jirō and Hana. Jirō, “…as an infant… was discovered lying injured on the forest floor and brought back to the village…” where the old woman nursed him back to health. “Jirō is famous in Hongū for eating rice gruel for breakfast, for drinking beer, for watching television, for taking a nightly bath, and for sleeping on a futon inside the house…” next to the family. Because of this there have been many newspaper and magazine articles and Jirō has even appeared on television.

Just because – Below is a print by Toyokuni I (豊国: 1769-1825). I am putting it here just because I like it and it is so unlike most of that artist’s works.


And, of course, this post would not be complete without at least a couple of spa-oriented pictures of monkeys soaking – Now, don’t get me wrong, no post is ever complete, but, you have to admit, that once you have seen a picture of Japanese monkeys lounging in a hot pool in winter you pretty much think you have seen it all when it comes to the unusual-over-the-top-cuteness scale..

I had already planned on adding the photo seen below, but was reminded to do so after watching hours of professional football games yesterday. During one of the commercial breaks there one for a hi-tech flat screen TV. In one special moment there was a picture like this one. Don’t know why except that someone at their advertising agency must have seen the same iconic significance of this imagery as I have. Who knows? I had the commercial set on mute.

Snow_Monkeys,_Nagano,_Japan_yblieb_Flickr_7   Posted at Flickr by yblieb.

Jigokudani_Flickr_Wajimacallit_7   This picture was posted at Flickr by Wajimacallit. What a great name. What a great pic.

Years ago I sold a gorgeous, dreamy copy of a Kasamatsu Shirō (笠松紫浪) print of bathers in hot tub in an unbelievable, out-of-doors setting. Fortunately I found an image of it in the collections in Limburg, Belgium. Imagine what it must look like in a snowy setting. How does this differ from the picture of the Japanese macaques shown above? [To those of you who are literal-minded – this is a rhetorical question.]


On November 7, 2013 I added another story to my page on the hare as a sign of the zodiac. Click on the image below to go there.


For those of you who would like to see more information about Japanese art and culture please visit my other web site at

For a ton more information – scattered and diverse – visit my index/glossary pages. You will find links to numerous individual pages about half way down the home page. Just click on any of them and then brace yourself. Enjoy the ride! Thanks!

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