Vegder's Blog

October 19, 2018

Frogs and toads in East Asian art, but mainly those in Japan

Walker Evans wrote [of photography] –
For the thousandth time,
it must be said that pictures speak for themselves,
wordlessly, visually, or they fail.

The same could be said of the images on this page.

The Freer/Sackler Galleries
Washington, D. C.

To the untrained (unfamiliar, unschooled, untaught, unpracticed, unitiated and/or inexperienced) eye, this golden ornament made for mid-15th to 16th century Chinese headdress, looks damaged, like it is missing a back limb. But it isn’t. It is just as intended. A three-legged toad with a magical/poisonous (?) vapor escaping from its mouth in a form similar to the licks of a flame.

The chicken… errrr, I mean… the toad/frog in China

“The spawn of the frog is believed to fall from heaven with the dew, and hence the frog is called the “heavenly chicken” 天鸡.” So wrote C.A.S. Williams in his Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs.  He also pointed out that the warts of toads when touched with a searing iron would exude a substance that could eventually be turned into something like digitalis, a medicine used for people with heart problems.

The three-legged toad and money

Edward Theodore Chalmers Werner wrote about the three-legged toad in 1922. He said that “The sun is symbolized by the figure of a raven in a circle, and the moon by a hare on its hind-legs pounding rice in a mortar, or by a three-legged toad. The last refers to the legend of Ch’ang Ô…”

Williams wrote: “The legendary Chieftain Hou I (后羿), circa 2500 B.C., obtained the Elixir of Immortality (無死之藥) from Hsi Wang Mu (西王母) Ch’ang O (嫦娥), his wife, stole it and fled to the moon, where she was changed by the gods into a toad (蟾蜍), whose outline is traced by the Chinese on the moon’s surface.”

It’s Liu Hai in China/It’s Gamma Sennin in Japan – 劉海/蝦蟇仙人

“Mythologically, frog and toad are closely related… Extremely old toads also should be caught on the fifth day of the fifth month and they should be dried. If, then, one makes a drawing on the ground with the toad’s on the ground with the toad’s foot, foot, water will start flowing. Besides, this toad makes one invulnerable…” It can be a form of protection in time of war and the three-legged toad is an animal who lives in/on the moon.

Li Po (李白 – 701-62), one of the greatest Chinese poets, once wrote (and this is only the first stanza) –

The toad in the moon, now a crescent in the sky
It eats away at the moon’s jade terraces
In the heavens, the round light is less than circular
Metal energies fade and disappear


The Chinese believed that whenever there was a lunar eclipse it was because the toad on/in the moon had swallowed it. Makes sense to me.

Two versions – one Chinese 13th century – one Japanese from 1822

Detail of a painting of Liu Hai by Yan Hui, 13th century
Kyoto National Museum

Gama Sennin by Tani Bunchō (1763-1840)
Indianapolis Museum of Art

Tsuba by Shobayashi Takeaki (正林武顕) of Gama Sennin and his toad
Mid to late 19th century
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Japanese toad magic was amazing

Iwatetsu Hoin and his toad by Toyokuni III from 1861
Tokyo Metropolitan Library

Before we go any further, let’s discuss the gama yōjutsu (妖術蛙)

Robert Schaap wrote: “Tokubei invokes his magic by making a magic sign with his fingers (gama yojutsu) by which he could appear and disappear at will and which enables him to transform into a toad.”

But don’t rush into any rash conclusions that this arrangement of the fingers and hands is toad-specific. It isn’t. Any good conjurer worth his weight in magic knew this trick. It could be used by Nikki Danjō, as seen below, for evoking forth a giant rat. I mention this because you should look closely at some of the prints shown lower down on this page. As of now, there are seven other examples to showing this position. By the time I decide to leave this post there may be more. I hope you have found this helpful.

A small detail from a 19th century woodblock print.

Detail from a Toyokuni I diptych showing Nikki Danjō doing his giant rat magic.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The case of Tenjiku Tokubei (天竺徳兵衛)

Tenjiku Tokubei means ‘Tokubei from India’. A major play about him, Tenjiku Tokubei Ikoku-Banashi debuted in 1804. Earlier plays were based on the account of an Edo adventurer Takamatsu Tokubei who traveled to India and returned to Japan on a Dutch ship in 1633. “For decades, these plays had been performed in summer as so-called water plays (mizu kyōgen), which used real water to distract audiences from the heat. Nanboku, the playwright, also used water and added numerous spectacular tricks (keren) to emphasize his transformation of the tale into a, at times, chilling ghost play (kaiden mono), in tune with the summer Obon (bon) festival in which the spirits of the dead were briefly welcomed home by their families.”

Tenjiku Tokubei on a giant toad by Kuniyoshi from ca. 1825-30
(I found this example at Wikimedia Commons.)

“The success of the 1804 production of Tokubei from India not only resulted in a series of revivals but also ushered in a whole slew of ghost plays. Previously ghosts had appeared in kabuki to express the yearning of a departed soul. Nanboku — inspired by the new taste of theatregoers for the bloodthirsty and bizarre, an effect of the Bunka-Bunsei (Kasei) era’s (1804-1830) social decadence — wrote a series of ghost plays that aimed to terrify audiences…”

Tenjiku Tokubei by Kunisada from 1841
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“The play is renowned for its spectacular tricks and unusual costumes, which represent magic and foreign influences on Japan. The play is also unusual for the multiple and rapid scene changes that contribute to the sense of supernatural uncertainty.”

I’m sorry, but it doesn’t get better than this –

Tenjiku Tokubei by Toyokuni III in 1860
Waseda University

Tokubei doesn’t realize it but he is the son of a Korean warrior who is hell-bent on killing the shogun. His father is in the possession of several powerful tools which help him perform magical feats. Before killing himself the father hands off these magical tools to Tokubei. The spectacles that follow in this play are astounding.

But, of course, there is always this one by Kuniyasu –

Tenjiku Tokubei by Utagawa Kuniyasu (1794-1832 – 歌川国安) – early 19th century
Waseda University

“The play is remarkable not only for preposterous magic and visually brilliant special effects, but also for the dramatic concept of supernatural chaos…” Source and quotes above are from: Kabuki Plays On Stage: Darkness and Desire, 1804-1864, volume 3, pp. 33-35.

Kunichika triptych from 1883 of Tenjiku Tokubei and his toad
Waseda University

‘Frog Magic of Tenjiku Tokubei’ by Masatoshi from May 1973
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Tokubei with the head of Sōkan by Toyokuni III from 1859
Waseda University

“…Yoshioka Sōkan, steals the shogun’s precious sword, Namikirimaru, and plans the overthrow of the country. During his machinations, he accidentally encounters his son, Tenjiku Tokubei, who receives the sword and his father’s magical powers, while Sōkan kills himself.” Quoted from the New Kabuki Encyclopedia.

“…Tokubei, mounted on a gigantic, fire-breathing toad,
appears with Sōkan’s head dangling from his mouth.”

Okay, okay… so the head is not held by his mouth, but use your imagination. The crowds must have gone wild watching this production.

The Jiraiya 児雷也 myth

There are many stories, fantastic stories surrounding Jiraiya (Young Thunder) and I will tell you one. Born the son of a lord on Kyūshū who was murdered. A faithful servant hid the boy by holding him to his chest as they fled. As a result Jiraiya grew up in Echigo, but things were not great. One day his faithful servant was killed by robbers, leaving Jiraiya alone to fend for himself. Since there was nothing for him in Echigo he began to wander around, visiting various other provinces. In time he became a brigand with a band of men who joined him. Charming, but treacherous, and skilled with a sword soon made him very successful and wealthy. But his main goal was to return to Kyūshū and to restore his family’s original position.

Traveling to Shinano, disguised as a pilgrim, he planned to continue his larcenous ways there. With a snow storm approaching he took shelter in a modest little house where he found a kind and beautiful woman. But being who he was he decided to rob her anyway. At midnight he sneaked into her room ready to strike, but found her still up and reading. Jiraiya had unsheathed his sword before he entered. Just as he was about to strike, arm raised, the beautiful woman transformed into an old man, grabbed his sword and broke it into pieces as though it was a twig. The old man revealed to Jiraiya that his name was Senso Dōjin, that he had lived in these mountains for hundreds of years and that, in truth, he wasn’t even an old man but rather a giant frog.

Actors as Jiraiya on the left and Senso Dōjin on the right – by Sadanobu
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Instead of teaching Jiraiya, this young punk, a lesson by killing him Senso Dōjin decided to teach him a lesson by teaching him how to govern frogs, control storms and to do this whenever it pleased him to do so. It was the control over the frogs that seemed to offer the greatest rewards. He could transform an ordinary frog into something enormous. So enormous that he could stand atop a giant frog’s back or ride it across deep waters or transport heavy loads. Frog magic can come in very handy sometimes. When the old man had finished teaching him these magical ways he told him in no uncertain terms to quick robbing and hurting people… unless, of course, they were wicked and deserved what they would get. At that Senso Dōjin turned into a giant frog and hopped, hopped, hopped away. Ribbit!

Jaraiya was pleased as Punch – even though they didn’t have Punch and Judy in Japan and he could not have heard of it/him – but he did lament that having control over frogs did nothing to protect him from snakes. From that time forward Jaraiya gave hope to the poor who were being exploited by both merchants and landlords. He even helped the rich if they were good and beset. And then there was the time that a man was condemned to death for a crime he didn’t commit. Valiantly Jiraiya stepped up and told the judge that he was the one who did it. So the judge condemned him to be hung and hung he was. There he was handing from a tree and, what do think?, the next day he turned into a giant frog and hopped, hopped, hopped in the direction of Shinano.

Jiraiya sitting atop the toad in the center panel in battle with Orochimaru, also in the center
Kuniyoshi triptych from 1852
The British Museum

Jiraiya standing atop a snow-toad spitting flames from its mouth
Toyokuni III from 1852
Waseda University

Sometimes you can stand or ride on a toad, but at other times the toad can ride on you

Taira Tarō Yoshikado and his toad by Toyokuni III from 1859
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Shōgun Tarō Yoshikado (将軍太郎良門) by Toyokuni III from 1859
The National Museums of Scotland

Turning boulders into toads

Ogata Rikimaru turning boulders into toads by Hokushū from ca. 1830
The Achenbach Foundation

The curious case of Komakine Hachirō (駒木根八郎)

The two Yoshitaki diptychs seen below are curious for two reasons. The first is that the character on the left sheet of both compositions represent Komakine Hachirō, a figure I know absolutely nothing about. In both that figure appears to be wearing the large skin of a large toad. The second reason I find it curious is the two different renditions of the same diptych. The first is from 1867 and the second one is from 1873. The actors have changed, too.

1867 Yoshitaki diptych
The Lyon Collection
(A deluxe edition with lot of metallic printing.)

1873 Yoshitaki diptych
The Lyon Collection


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