Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

January 18, 2016

The Year of the Monkey

2016 is the Year of the Monkey (sarudoshi) in Japan, the ninth year in the cycle of 12 signs from the Japanese (and originally Chinese) zodiac.

Huge Ema for the Year of the Monkey in Matsuo Taisha, Kyoto
[Huge Ema for Year of the Monkey in Matsuo Taisha, Kyoto]

Monkeys are indigenous to Japan in the shape of the Japanese macaque (Macaca fuscata), a medium-sized wild monkey with a short tail, which gets about 60 cm tall. Wild monkeys are relatively common, a number of decades ago when they were counted they numbered 30,000. Wild monkeys are found in Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, but not in Hokkaido which is too cold (the Shimokita Peninsula at the northern tip of Honshu, where about 100 monkeys live, is the northernmost habitat of any primate in the world). Japanese monkeys live in troops of 20 to 150 individuals organized in strict hierarchy.

The monkey plays an important role in Japanese folklore. Japanese myth makes mention of a monkey deity, Sarutahiko, and some shrines like the Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine in Otsu treat the monkey as a divine messenger. Until early modern times it was believed that keeping a monkey tied to a post in stables would keep disease away from the horses (going back to the Chinese belief that monkeys could in general drive illness away). Monkey shows (sarumawashi) were once a common street entertainment (happily, not anymore).

In contrast to China, where the monkey is regarded as an emblem of ugliness, lust and trickery, in Japan it is an animal of good standing. It is a fortunate birth year as Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) was born in a monkey year: he is a singular case in traditional Japan of a man raising himself from a low-born station to the highest rank and power in the country (on top of that, he was said to be "monkey-faced"). But monkey years are considered unlucky for marriage, for "saru," "monkey," is a homonym with "saru," "to leave," suggesting divorce.

[Gibbon reaching for the moon's reflection 
by Ohara Koson]

Monkeys play a large role in Japanese fairy tales, such as the story of Momotaro or Little Peachling. The animal also figures in many proverbs: "Even a monkey falls sometimes from a tree" ("Anybody can make a mistake"), "To teach a monkey to climb a tree" ("To do something superfluous"), and "The monkey seizes the moon" (an example of delusion: long-armed monkeys made a chain hanging down from a branch in a tree, until the branch broke and they were drowned). "A dog and a monkey" points at the same unfriendly relations as our "a cat and a dog."

[Ukiyoe of Sun Wukong fighting a wind demon]

The most famous Chinese monkey is the monkey king Sun Wukong from the novel Journey to the West (Xiyouji). an extended account of the legendary pilgrimage of the Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang who traveled via Central Asia to India to obtain sacred texts (sutras) and statues. In the fantasy novel, he has several supernatural protectors, the most important one being the monkey Sun Wukong, who is also his disciple.

Wild monkey in onsen bath in Jigokudani, Nagano
[Wild monkey in onsen bath, Jigokudani, Nagano]

The most famous Japanese wild monkeys live in the Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano Pref., called "Hell's Valley" after the boiling water that naturally bubbles up in this volcanic area. This results in a good onsen (hot springs), one inside the rustic hotel for humans, and one outside in the snow for the monkeys. Called "Snow Monkeys," the macaques descend from the steep cliffs and forest to sit in the warm waters of the onsen, looking almost human, and return to the forest in the evenings.

Monkey Carving in Toshogu Shrine, Nikko
["See no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil" monkey carving in Toshogu Shrine, Nikko]

The most famous representation of monkeys in Japan is the carving on the Nikko shrine: one covers his eyes with his hands, another his ears and the third one his mouth. With a pun on "saru," they represent mizaru "seeing-not", kikazaru "hearing not" and iwazaru "speaking-not." Such monkeys are also often found as stone statues by the roadside and they are associated with the Koshin cult and the God of the Road. They continue teaching us the moral lesson of "seeing no evil, hearing no evil and speaking no evil."

[Written with information from Japan, An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Kodansha) and We Japanese (an old publication of the Fujiya Hotel)]