The world of animals

Kyoto National Museum

The world of animals
Humans have for centuries lived side by side with many species of animals. Japan is no exception in that it has a rich history of human interaction with animals—animals have supported people’s livelihoods; they have been revered as divine messengers; and they have been made auspicious emblems, such as symbols of longevity. Representations of animals in artworks reflect how animals have been perceived by people through the ages.

Bronze Mirror Decorated with Triangular Rim, Double-Wave-Patterned Band, Gods, and Animals
3-4th Century


This mirror with a rim rising to an angular point and a god-and-animal motif was excavated from the Higashinomiya Tumulus on Mount Hakusan in Aichi prefecture. Bronze mirrors of this type were excavated from tumuli belonging to the first half of Japan’s Kofun period. They are large, more than 20 centimeters in diameter, and feature a raised peripheral rim that is triangular in shape. The mirror face is somewhat convex. The back has a central knob for a cord and a design with alternating figures of gods and animals in high relief (hannikubori, or “half body engraving”).

This mirror, one of eleven excavated from the Higashinomiya Tumulus, has a superior design and is representative of the type. It is inscribed with four Chinese characters: ten (heaven), ō (king), hi (sun) and tsuki (moon). Because mirrors with a triangular rim and a god-and-animal motif follow the traditions of Chinese mirrors, yet are of a type not found on the Chinese mainland, there is debate in academic circles about where they were made. This is one of the most important artifacts of Japan’s Kofun period.

Horse Figurines with Three-color Glaze
8th Century


These tomb figurines in the form of horses have been glazed in the green, brown and white known as ‘Tang tri-color.’ For the Tang-dynasty aristocracy a great horse was not simply for riding, but served to display the owner’s personal power and wealth. That is why the carriage horses accompanying aristocratic parades were fitted with elaborate decorative trappings that far exceeded any practical function. Although their excavation site is unknown, the splendid decorative saddles and palmettes on these horses leave us in no doubt that they were tomb figurines buried together with high-ranking individuals.

Horse Figurines with Three-color Glaze
8th Century

Tang tri-color horse tomb-figurines were produced in very large numbers, but this black horse is extremely rare; we know of only a few black pieces, such as that excavated from Tomb 120 at Guanlin in Luoyang, Henan province. The white horse too, has a very unusual dappled coat achieved by applying spots of white slip over the reddish clay base, instead of the overall white slip covering usually used, thus bringing out the beautiful glaze color.
Both are highly accomplished pieces displaying great technical prowess, masterpieces of Tang tricolor tomb sculpture. Although a little static in feel, they stand up in comparison with imperial burial items, like those excavated from the tomb of Crown Prince Yide (Li Chongrun, 683–701).

Tutelary Deities and Administrators of Wakasa Province
13th Century


This narrative handscroll has a distinctive composition; it consists of the origin of the Ichinomiya and Ninomiya shrines in Wakasa province (now southwestern Fukui prefecture) with descriptive annotations for each scene, followed by portraits of successive generations of Shinto priests of the Kasa clan who administered the shrines. In scenes from the first existing section of the scroll, the ancestor of the shrine priests of the Kasa family, Takafumi, respectively welcomes the male deity Wakasahiko and the female deity Wakasahime, who descend on the white cliffs at the source of the sacred Yoshikawa river in the village of Saigō in Onyū county, and builds the first shrine, Ichinomiya, for him and the second shrine, Ninomiya, for her. The original first section, which may have consisted of text and illustrations of the descent of Wakasahiko, has been lost, however, the scene of Takafumi running after Wakasahiko, who rides upon a white horse on a cloud, to determine a suitable place for this deity’s shrine, remains intact. The next scene shows Takafumi, sitting upright with a gohei (Shinto purification rod decorated with folded paper streamers) in hand, in front of the Ichinomiya Shrine that he built, followed by an illustration of the Kurodōji Shrine in which Takafumi himself is later enshrined. Next is the manifestation of the female deity Wakasahime on the white cliffs, followed by another scene of Takafumi again holding a gohei in front of a shrine.

The second section features the shrine priests, facing one another in pairs: one as a divine figure in formal court attire, seated on a raised dais (raiban); the other in informal court attire, seated on a tatami mat. The portraits of the priests up to the twelfth-generation Kagetsugu (1205–1299) were produced in the Kamakura period, while the priests of later generations were painted during the early modern period ending with the thirtyfirst generation Masafusa, who died in 1800.

The origin tale of the shrines and the portrait of the priests up to the twelfth generation are rendered in sharp, elegant lines and bright colors. The powerful brushstrokes used to distinctively depict the priests are also outstanding and exemplify the stylistic succession of the traditional nise-e, or realistic portraits, in which fine lines were skillfully used.

Mounted Warrior
14th Century


This warrior, dressed in armor and astride a black horse, carries a naked blade over his shoulder, and grips the reins in his left hand. There is no background. He is not wearing a helmet, his hair is dishevelled, and he has a broken arrow in his quiver. His large eyes gaze piercingly to his front, the details of his armor are carefully illustrated, and the coloring is truly beautiful. The horse’s nether quarters appear to be lowered, one of his front legs is raised in a spirited pose, and with his forelocks falling into his eyes, the painting exudes an atmosphere of movement. As the painting was being cleaned, conservators discovered that a bow in the warrior’s left hand had been erased.

Normally, with portraits used as objects of veneration, the figures are represented in static or still postures; however, this painting depicts the warrier if he were removed from a battle scene in an illustrated handscrol. The warrior is thus infused with the irresistible vigour of the battlefield. As the signature above the warrior is that of the second Ashikaga shogun, Yoshiakira (1330–1367), scholars have assumed that this portrait was executed before his death in 1367 ( Jōji 6). This is an early example of a painting representing a warrior wearing armor on horseback and differs considerably from stereotypical portraits of warriors that appear later. It thus indicates something of the conditions surrounding the establishment of the warrior portrait genre.

Given the semblance with the portrait of Ashikaga Takauji (1305–1358) in Matsudaira Sadanobu’s Shūko jisshu (Collected Antiquities in Ten Categories), a catalogue of ancient art works with a preface dated in 1800 (Kansei 12), it had been assumed this was indeed a portrait of Takauji. Later, however, scholars noted the linked circles depicted on the sword at his waist and on the leather straps connecting the front saddle forks with the cantle, and recognizing also their similarity to the Kō family crest, advanced the theory that the warrior portrayed is either Kō no Moronao or his son, Moroakira (d. 1351). The identify of the warrior, nonetheless, remains unclear.

Fleet Horse
by Inscriptions by Keijō Shūrin
15-16th Century


Ashikaga Takauji (1305–1358), the founder of the Ashikaga shogunate, had a favorite horse he would always ride into battle. It appears that this horse was included in a portrait of Takauji dressed in armour. The horse alone, however, was then copied in a separate painting without Takauji, this being the painting here. According to the inscription on the painting by Keijō Shūrin (1440–1518) of Shōkoku-ji Temple, Ashikaga Yoshizumi (1480–1511), the shogun at this time, commissioned the painting. He then kept the painting close by for the purpose of worshipping the memory of Takauji. It is also recorded that the painting was presented to the head of Renkiken, a building located in Jōtoku-in, a subtemple of the Shōkoku-ji.

The head of Renkiken, Shūzan Eisū, was the son of Fushiminomiya Sadatsune(1426-1474), an imperial prince. It seems highly likely that it was upon Shūzan’s request that the inscription was made. The painter remains unclear, as the only record on the painting is “painter,” but if reconsidered in light of the shogun having commissioned this painting, there is no question that it would have been one of the important painters of the period. From the unvaried, carefully executed brush lines and the detailed depiction of the hairs, it is believed that the painter belonged to the yamato-e (Japanese painting) tradition rather than the Chinese painting tradition.

The inscription has been included in Kanrin koroshū (Forest of Writing Brushes, Collection of Gourds and Reeds), an anthology of poetry and prose, the editing for which occurred over a two-year period, from 1501 (Bunki 1) to 1503 (Bunki 3), confirming the date of composition.

Kosode with Kamo Horse Racing
18th Century


The design on this kosode robe depicts the ritual horse races held on the fifth day of the fifth month at Kamigamo Shrine in the north of Kyoto. In this ritual, reputedly started by Emperor Horikawa (r.1079–1107) in 1093 (Kanji 7), the winner of two horses predicts the year’s harvest. The theme of horse races on Boy’s Day (Tango no sekku) suggests the kosode belonged to a youth.

The upper portion has a checker-board pattern done in stitch-and-bind shibori, while the lower portion depicts one horse overtaking another in yūzen dyeing with embroidery added here and there. Yūzen involved tracing the outlines of the pattern with rice paste resist and brushing inside the paste-delineated area with various colors, in a technique of free-hand painting appearing much like a painted picture. Developed at the end of the seventeenth century, it soon became the main method of decorating kimono due it its great freedom. Notable for the thin white lines known as “thread lines” (itome) left by the pasteresist and for the beauty of the gorgeous coloring,this piece, with its minute depiction in yūzen of the tense atmosphere between the two riders on racing horses, imparts a feeling of being present at the actual scene.

The design corresponds to one that appears in Tōryū moyō hinagata tsuru no koe (Crane Calls, Pattern Book with the Latest Designs), a kosode pattern book published in 1724 (Kyōho 9), indicating a probable general date of production.

Monkeys Playing Among Trees and Rocks
16th Century


Formerly it was thought that Shikubu Terutada (n.d.) was another name for Shōkei, also known as Chūan Shinkō (a painter at Kenchōji Temple in Kamakura), but it is now clear that he was a totally different person, active mostly in the Kantō area of Eastern Japan, around the middle of the sixteenth century. Because he has posthumously been attributed with an enormous number of fan paintings, it has been suggested that he headed a fan workshop. In addition, he purportedly worked for the Imagawa family, lords of Suruga province, but all these postulations await further investigation.

This screen is one of four in his hand. The scene of monkeys playing deep in the mountains by the waterside has been brushed with a soft touch reminiscent of the Song-dynasty master Muqi ( J. Mokkei, ca. 1210–1269). While the complex, cragg y rocks clearly exhibit characteristics of Shōkei, influence from the Kano school is remarkable in the dense, strong compositional methods. The humanistic rendering of the monkey’s expressions here elicits a smile.

Lion and Lion-dog; Lion-dog
12th Century


Images like these of the lion and lion-dog are often simply called protective shrine dogs (komainu), but they are actually distinguished by the fact that the animal bearing a horn on the head is the lion-dog (komainu), while the one without a horn is a lion (shishi). They are typically arranged (if facing the images) with the lion on the right with the mouth open, and the lion-dog on the left with the mouth closed, as if speaking the Sanskrit syllables A and Un respectively.

There are Chinese and Korean precedents for the protective animal with a horn on its head, but the pairing with the lion is a distinctively Japanese phenomenon that likely began in the ninth century during the early Heian period.

Lion and Lion-dog; Lion-dog
12th Century

During the Kamakura period, Kei school Buddhist sculptors such as Unkei (?–1223) and Kaikei departed from the calm, delicate styles of the late Heian period and created naturalistic images based upon the older styles of Tenpyō sculptures. The lion and lion-dog also show this trend, and revive the strong forms of Nara sculptures.

These sculptures were formerly housed in Bujōji Temple in Hanase, Kyoto. There are remnants of late Heian period sculptural elements seen, for example, in the gently flowing mane, but the pose with reared head and the sharp expression already show the signs of life and naturalism characteristic of Kamakura-period images. These characteristics indicate a twelfth-century production date,sometime during the transition between the Heian and Kamakura periods.

Stationery Set with Black Pines and Deer in Makie and Mother-of-Pearl Inlay
16-17th Century


Using decorative techniques of nashiji (pearskin ground), hiramakie (flat sprinkle metal decoration), raden (mother-of-pearl inlay), and inlaid tin plate, the inkstone case depicts a male and female deer resting at the water’s edge, while the stationery box shows a pair of deer and black pines growing on an earthy mound. In both cases, the motifs are highly stylised, creating a striking impact through the beautiful combination of diverse materials.

The composition also exploits the entire surface of the piece, extending from the lid down the sides of the body to the bottom. The inside of the stationary-box lid has a huge full moon rendered in silver plate that shines through the branches of a pine tree on an earthy bank. Around this, in tin-plated script, is a verse from the tenth-century antholog y Kokin wakashū (Collection of Ancient and Modern Japanese Poetry): “The autumn moon shines brilliantly upon the mountain range to show us the very number of the fallen colored leaves.” The inside of the inkstone-case cover and the interior of the case are decorated solely with black pines.

We know relatively little about the artist Nagata Yūji, only that he was active in the Shōtoku and Kyōhō eras (first half of the eighteenth century) and hugely admired Ogata Kōrin (1658–1716), signing himself ‘disciple of Seisei’ (a reference to Kōrin). The undersides of both the inkstone case and the stationery box bear the signature ‘Seiseishi’ and the artist’s seal. Although there are other extant works with this signature and seal, none match the scale of this tour-de-force, which can be considered Yūji’s great masterpiece.

Bottles with Pine and Deer
18th Century


A group of deer under a pine grove is painted in great detail on the body of these bottles using the technique of fencai (famille rose), an adaptation of European cloisonné decoration that developed in the Kangxi era (1662–1722) of Qing-dynasty China.

The relief-work bats attached to the neck of the bottle are rendered in bright red, instead of the more standard black. This is thought to symbolize overflowing good fortune, because the second Chinese character for ‘bat’ is homonymous with characters meaning ‘good fortune’, ‘crimson red’, and ‘large amounts’ or ‘overflowing’. What is more, the Chinese pronunciation of the character for ‘deer’ recalls another meaning ‘blessing/prosperity’, so with the addition of the pine trees symbolizing perpetual youth and longevity, the entire surface of the bottle is filled with auspicious motifs that are allegorical references to good fortune, prosperity and longevity.

These motifs accord perfectly with their being products of the Imperial kilns (kilns producing ceramics exclusively for the imperial court); underglaze-blue inscriptions inside the foot-rings tell us that they were was made in the Qianlong era (1736–1795).

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