Monkey's Galore!

by Robert O. Kinsey

Robert Kinsey is retired airline executive who serves as chairman of the board of directors of Netsuke Kenkyukai. Bob has been an avid collector of Japanese art for many decades. He shares this hobby with his wife, Miriam, who describes her husband in her book Living Master of Netsuke, as “… a perfectionist and I am sometimes reminded of the saying a perfectionist is a person who takes great pains, and gives them to others.”

It’s the Year of The Monkey – BY FAR THE MOST POPULAR OF THE twelve zodiac animals. For centuries, Japanese artists have portraited monkeys and apes in netsuke, ojime, inro, and other kinds of sagemono as well as in okimono, paintings, prints, and sword furniture. The humanoid appearance and behavior of monkeys and the contrapuntal simian traits of mankind have created an enormous legacy of oriental mythology, legends, and folk tales from which netsukeshi have borrowed freely, but with the addition of innovative and refreshing ingredients from their own imaginations.

The Zodiac Monkey(figure 1)

The monkey (saru) is the ninth animal of the twelve-year zodiac cycle which also includes the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, rooster, dog, and boar. During the twentieth century, years of the monkey are 1908, 1920, 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, and 1992. Persons born in those years are believed to be endowed with many talents and virtues. They are exceptionally energetic, perceptive, intelligent, versatile, dexterous, imaginative, ingenious, agreeable, and conciliatory. Highly successful in business and in money matters, they are decisive, authoritative, thoughtful, resolute, and inventive. Their numerous capabilities and accomplishments are limited at times by a certain degree of eccentricity, excitability, extravagance, and vehemence. Emotionally they are virile, amorous, sensuous, and impetuous and, as a result, their sexual relationships are numerous and frequently troubled. When they fail to attain their objectives — usually for reasons beyond their control — they become tremendously upset, but not for long. Usually they rebound quickly, realizing even greater rewards than originally hoped for. Their fortunes in life are often turbulent but highly successful.

In Japanese folklore it was believed that the zodiac animal of one’s birth year not only determined personality traits, but also the suitability of marriage choices. The best marriage for a person born in the year of the monkey would be a person born in the year of the rat or in the year of the dragon. The second best choices would be persons born in the year of the ox, rabbit, horse, sheep, rooster, or dog. Bad choices would be persons born in the year of the snake or boar. The worst of all choices for a person born in the year of the monkey would be a marriage partner born in the year of tiger. Marriage with a person also born in the year of monkey would be an unsure bet. Marriage during the year of the monkey is considered unlucky because saru, the word for monkey, is also the Japanese word for divorce.

1. Netsuke of the 12 zodiac animals by Kaigyokusai, featuring three monkeys, one carrying a branch of maple leaves. Ivory. Kinsey collection.

Kinds of Monkeys and Apes (figure2-7)

The monkey most often portrayed in netsuke is the Japanese macaque (Macaca fuscata), figure 2. It is medium sized monkey with a short tail and one of the few wild mammals still living in Japan. A strong, vigorous animal, highly intelligent, and as much at home on the ground as in the trees, it is the only primate other than humans able to withstand a cold, snowy winter and near freezing temperatures. In some parts of its range it spends long periods of time immersed up to its neck in thermal pools.

2. Netsuke of Macaque Monkey by Kangyoku. Ivory.

The average length of the Japanese macaque’s head and body measures thirty inches, and its short tail is about nine inches long. It’s average weight is about thirty pounds. The color of its fur is a burnt amber and its buttock pads and the exposed skin of its face are reddish. A census of Japanese monkeys taken during the 1960s tabulated almost 30,000 monkeys living in more than 400 troops, each troop comprising a group of dominant males and females surrounded by numerous youngsters. It was a macaque, an Indian Macaca mulatta, that was first sent into space in a rocket.

3. Netsuke of a squirrel monkey by Hidefumi. Ivory.

Monkeys and apes include three families: the Old world Monkey Family (Cercopithecidae) comprising about seventy-six species, including macaques and baboons; the ape Family (Pongidae) comprising ten species of gibbon, orangutan, chimpanzee, and gorilla; and the New World Monkey Family (cebidae)comprising about 36 species, including squirrel monkeys.

4.Netsuke of a baboon resembling a shojo by Nick Lamb.Rosewood. Courtesy of Michael Spindel.

5. Netsuke of a chimpanzee by Nick Lamb. Boxwood. Courtesy of Michael Spindel

6. Netsuke of a gorilla by Nick Lamb. Ebony. Courtesy of Michael Spindel

The monkey was worshipped in India and China and in Japan it was venerated as the divine messenger of the Shinto deities, believed to have the power of bestowing health, success, and protection from evil spirits. It was the symbol of energy and intelligence. When portrayed with the peach, an emblem of immortality, the monkey represented a wish for longevity, and it also conveyed wishes for wealth and fertility. Images of the monkey were treasured as much for their beauty of form as for their symbolic meanings.

7.Netsuke of Gibbon by Alex Igunatius.

During the Edo and Meiji periods (1600-1912), many monkeys were caught, tamed, and taught to perform theatrical dancing roles imitating human actors. The monkey handler (Saru-mawashi) was also street exorcist who proceeded from house to house with a trained monkey perched on his shoulder, offering to exorcise evil spirits from each dwelling. The handler would beat a drum to provide rhythm for the monkey’s exorcism dance and the animal, costumed with an eboshi hat and a happi coat, usually held a gohei in one hand and a cluster of tiny bells in the other hand.( see figures 1 and 19.)

Famous Monkey Designs and Legends (Figures 8-22)

Many superb screens and handscrolls (emakimono) featuring monkeys have been important sources for ingenious netsuke designs. Perhaps, the oldest are the ink paintings on paper known as “Scrolls of Frolicking Animals” (Choju giga), a national treasure located in the Kozanji Monastery in Kyoto, attributed in part to the Tendai monk, Toba Sojo(1053-1140). These paintings portray caricatures of monkeys, hares, and frogs behaving as humans in sports and entertainment such as swimming, archery, wrestling, tug-of-war, dancing, games of go and backgammon (sugoroku), and staring contests (niramekko). (See Figure 8.) numerous monkeys and gibbons were also depicted in the paintings of the Hasegawa Tohaku (1539–1610) and it is possible that either he or his immediate antecedents originated the design of gibbons reaching for the reflection of the moon in water. ( See Figure 28.) Superb monkeys are also featured in the magnificent scroll and screen paintings of the Shin’enkan Collection in Corona del Mar, California. Several of these works are signed by Mori Sosen (1747-1821), a noted Kano School painter.

8. Handscroll of two macaque monkeys by Toba Sojo. Ink on paper.

Undoubtedly, the monkey subject most often portrayed in netsuke and related objects is the speak-no-evil, see-no-evil, and hear-no-evil triumvirate. (See Figures 9-13). These three monkeys convey a Buddhist precept but are deeply rooted in Shinto mythology. The subject probably originated in the wood carving of “The Three Mystic Apes” (Sambiki Saru) attributed to Hidari Jingoro, a noted carpenter and sculptor of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The carving is a ramma (decorated panel for lighting and ventilation) which is located over the entrance of the stable of the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko which houses the sacred white horse kept there for the use of the Shinto gods.

The three no-evil monkeys are: Iwazaru – no speaking, Mizaru – no seeing, and Kikazaru - no hearing. The Sambiki Saru are believed to be the attendants of Koshin, the Shinto god of the roads and they also are thought to be three manifestations of this deity who was sent down to earth to free it of disease. During the plague epidemics in Japan, priests painted pictures of Koshin, a monkey-headed man, which were nailed over the doorways of houses to keep out the evil spirits of disease.

Ojime of See-No-Evil Ojime of the Speak-no-evil Ojime of Hear-No-Evil

9.10.11. Ojime of the see-no-evil, speak-no-evil, hear-no-evil monkeys by Keiun. Ivory. Kinsey collection

Two of the most enjoyable and unique interpretations of the no-evil monkey subject (Figures 12 and 13) were created by Kaigyokusai (1813-1892 ) and by Kangyoku (1944-), a superb contemporary artist. Kaigyokusai’s design features only one monkey rather than three monkeys, and the solitary animal busily uses both hands and feet to block evil. Kaigyokusai’s design was carefully copied by Carl Faberge (1846-1920) in his okimono carved in amazonite, a green, semi-precious, South American hardstone. The same design was also adopted by Whittaker Freegard, a contemporary American artist, in his jade carving which is not only a netsuke but also a functional ocarina. Kangyoku’s humorously irreverent version also features a single monkey, but she covers only one eye, only one ear, and only part of her mouth. Obviously she wants to see and hear a little evil, and then she wants to talk about it!

12. Ojime of the no-evil monkey by Kaigyokusai. Ivory.

13. netsuke of the little-bit-of-evil monkey by Kangyoku. Ivory. Kinsey collection

For most netsuke enthusiasts one of the most delightful portrayals of a monkey shows the seated animal, clad in happi coat and sometimes wearing spectacles, carefully examining netsuke-ojime-inro (or tonkotsu) ensemble. The monkey is in the process of discovering that the netsuke depicts a monkey – his kind of people! Essentially this same design has appeared a dozen times in paintings, netsuke, and okimono, and the silk painting by Yamaguchi Soken (1759 – 1818 ) appears to be the forerunner. (See Figure 14.) The silk painting of this same subject by Shibata Zeshin(1807-1891) is one of the best know representations (Figure 15) and it is titled “Monkey Posing as a Collector.” The Honolulu Academy of Arts has dated Zeshin’s painting at about 1835. Except for the absence of spectacles and a different happi coat design, the kagamibuta netsuke (Figure 16 ) appears to be almost an exact copy of Zeshin’s painting. Similarly, except for a different pattern of the monkey’s happi coat and the floral design of the inro, the design of the metal box (Figure 17) also seems to be a faithful copy of Zeshin’s painting. The netsuke and box shown in Figures 16 and 17 are works of the same artist, Unno Seiju Moritoshi (1834-1896) whose lineage traces back through the Mito branch to Goto Yujo (1440-1512), the founder of the Goto school of metal workers.

14. Silk painting of a monkey examining a netsuke in the form of a monkey, attached to an ojime and inro, by Yamaguchi Soken (1759-1818). Ink and slight colors on silk. Szeszler collection.

15. Silk painting of a monkey posing as a collector by Shibata Zeshiin (1807-1891). Honolulu Academy of Arts.

16. Kagamibuta netsuke of a monkey posing as a collector by Seiju. (Unno Seiju Moritoshi, 1834-1896). Gold disk with shakudo, copper.

17. Metal Box with design of a monkey posing as a collector by Ryounsai, Moritoshi (Unno, 1834-1896). Shakudo with gold, copper, shibuichi, and silver. The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore. Length 4.6”, width 3.3”, depth 2”.

Of particular interest is large, unsigned ceramic okimono (Figures 18 and 19) in which the monkey holds a tobacco pouch (tonkotsu), decorated with calligraphy reading “Beware of Fire,” and the monkey portrayed in the netsuke is wearing an eboshi hat. The archaic appearance of the tobacco pouch calligraphy suggests that this piece may well precede Yamaguchi Soken’s painting, perhaps by a considerable period of time. The small, unsigned, boxwood okimono (Figure 20), the large, bronze okimono (Figure 21), and the ivory netsuke (Figure 22) by Meigyokusai ( 1896-1991) are all similar versions of the same basic design, except that in the boxwood carving the monkey is holding a tobacco pouch rather than an inro.

18.19. Two okimono of a monkey posing a s a collector. Unsigned. Ceramic. Kinsey collection.

20. Okimono of a monkey posing as a collector. Unsigned. Boxwood. Levin collection. Height 2 ½".

21. Okimono of a monkey posing as a collector. Signature unread. Bronze. Courtesy of Warren Imports. Height 10.5".

22. Netsuke of a monkey posing as a collector by Meigyokusai. Ivory. Kinsey

Monkey Folk Tales (Figures 23-28)

Well known folk tales often inspired designs for outstanding netsuke, inro, and okimono, and the following are a few prime examples. Kaigyokusai’s netsuke of “The Monkey and the Crab” (Figure 23) relates to the story of a devious monkey that persuaded a crab to trade its rice cake for a persimmon seed. The crab planted the seed and it soon grew into a tree laden with delicious fruit. The greedy monkey climbed up the tree and devoured the ripened persimmons. When the crab begged it to toss down some of the fruit, the monkey instead pelted it with green persimmons and almost killed it. The outraged family of the crab then declared war on the monkey and eventually succeeded in crushing it with a mortar and pestle after torturing it by burning its paws with hot food and setting free wasps to sting it. Keiun’s netsuke (Figure 24) and Senpo’s netsuke (Figure25) both portray a monkey holding a persimmon, reminiscent of the monkey-crab fable.

23. Netsuke of the monkey/crab folk tale by Kaigyokusai. Ivory. Atchley collection.

24. Netsuke of a monkey with a persimmon by Keiun.

25. Netsuke of a monkey with a persimmon by Senpo. Ivory, Kinsey collection.

The unsigned okimono of a monkey perched on the back of a turtle (Figure 26) relates to the fairy tale about the turtle’s quest for the liver from a living monkey. This was the prescription of the octopus, the attending physician of the dragon king, to cure the illness of the king of dragons. When the monkey realized its danger and escaped by trickery, the turtle was punished by being beaten into a mass of jelly—thus the origin of the jellyfish. The ojime portraying a monkey and octopus (Figure 27) relates to this same folk tale.

26. Okimono of a monkey on a turtle. Unsigned. Boxwood. Meselson collection.

27.Ojime of a monkey and octopus. Unsigned. Ivory. Ward collection.

The superb lacquered inro by Yoyusai (1772-1845) portrays a Buddhist parable (Figure 28). The design shows two gibbons, one reaching into the water in a vain effort to capture the reflection of the moon, an example of senseless greed and the desire to possess things that cannot be used.

28. Inro with the design of gibbons reaching to the moon’s reflection, by Yoyusai (1772-1845). Lacquer. Nordskog collection.

The gibbon’s vain effort to capture the reflection of the moon is an example of senseless greed and the desire to possess things that cannot be used.

Other Note worthy Monkeys (Figures 29-36)

These eight illustrations represent a small sampling of countless netsuke, ojime, inro, tonkotsu, and okimono, both antique and contemporary, that feature monkey designs. Figure 31 shows Natsuo’s Monkey ojime which, in 1972, brought the highest price ever paid at auction for an ojime. The winning bid at Sotheby’s London auction was £7,000 which, when the buyer’s premium of ten percent was added, amounted to $18,403. Figure 34 shows a boxwood netsuke by Seiho which depicts three monkeys endeavoring to reach the fruit of a peach tree. According to Taoist legend, the sacred peach conveys immortality.

29. Netsuke/ojime/tonkotsu ensemble depicting many monkeys by Mitsukuni. Boxwood. Swedlow collection.

30. Netsuke of a monkey grooming its offspring by Masanao of Kyoto. Ivory. Atchley collection.

31. Ojime of a monkey by Natsuo (1828-1898). Shibuichi, copper, Shakudo, and silver. Courtesy of

32. Netsuke of two monkeys holding an Okame mask by Shinzan (Masanao). Boxwood. Kinsey collection.

33. Okimono of chimpanzee by Gernot Schluifer. Crystal. Courtesy of Gernot Schluifer. Height 2½”.

34. Netsuke of three monkeys endeavoring to reach the fruit of a peach tree by Seiho. Boxwood. Kinsey collection.

35. Ojime by Carlin titled “Evolution” depicting the skull of an ape resting on Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species. Boxwood. Kinsey collection.

36. Netsuke by Masatoshi depicting a worried monkey peeling a shallot, an onion like vegetable which is all peel and lacks substance. Boxwood. Courtesy of Raymond


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