Three wise monkeys and a sleeping cat

My mother brought back many souvenirs from her time in Japan in the 1950s when serving in the army at the time of the Korean War.  She and her colleagues would sometimes visit Nikko National Park (on  Japan’s main island of Honshū) in their longer periods of R&R. Later, taking me with her, Mum often gave talks to women’s groups about her time in Japan and after the watered-down description of the horrors of life in a hospital tending the casualties of war, she would tell them of Nikko – of the pagodas and elaborate shrines, shimmering lakes and waterfalls, exotic flowers and rivers, describing them all as spectacularly beautiful.

MonkeysMore than a hundred buildings form the two Shinto shrines and Buddhist temple at Nikko, the Toshugu Shrine (mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan, which ruled Japan from the early1600s until 1868) being one of the most popular attractions and well known for its elaborate carvings.  The shrine’s famous sculpture of the eight stages of life depicted by monkeys, includes a panel  showing them as the three wise monkeys (Hear no evil, Speak no evil and See no evil)  and has provided inspiration for many a tacky trinket,  but it was this small bronze one, bought at Nikko, which was ever present when I was growing up. Although it is possible to buy a number of (mostly spelter) versions cheaply nowadays, not all are depicted in the correct order as they appear on the shrine. The three-monkey theme occurs throughout the history of the Asian continent, possibly bought from China to Japan via India and the Silk Road, and appearing often in Buddhist sculpture.

CatAt the rear shrine, which dates from 1617,  is the carving of the Sleeping cat, Nemuri-neko, which is attributed to the possibly-fictional 17th century artist, Hidari Jingorō. It is apparently unusual for a cat to be depicted in religious sculpture. On the other side of the gate is another sculpture which represents a pair  of sparrows. Like most legends, the stories distort over the years but generally the interpretation, i.e. that the sparrows may fly freely in the presence of a cat, is that their coexistence portrays the disappearance of chaos leaving a world in peace. Some say that the cat may not be fully asleep, thus staying alert to the possibility of unclean creatures entering the scared shrine.

Some days a blogger just doesn’t know what to blog about so I took a walk around the house looking for inspiration. This is what you got!

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6 comments

  1. What a blessing that your mother flew back!

    When I was still a very young child, my parents took me and three of my half brothers on a cruise to Japan and back, with many stops in other ports of call. We visited many of the landmark shrines in Japan and I know we, too, had a little souvenir sculpture of the Three Wise Monkeys. I think, though, that the middle one should be “speak no evil” (you have typed “hear no evil” twice). 🙂

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  2. Your Mum had such a fascinating life, Eloise. What a privilege to tell some of her story. You are a really good story-teller. I found this post most interesting. I like to know the real story behind things. Thanks xxxxx

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    • She was fortunate enough to have a very forward thinking father, Ratnamurti, who thought that girls should have careers. Consequently she was an older mum, quite unusual in those days. I remember a fair amount of what she used to talk about but I so wish that I had been more interested when I was younger. By the time I was, she had dementia and recalled very little.

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    • Thank you, Margaret. As you know, a large part of my first novel was set in Japan and South Korea. I have several pieces that she brought back with her. There were many more but they went down when the ship on which she was meant to be travelling home, sunk. She was asked at very short notice to fly back with a patient by which time her luggage trunk was already en route to the ship. Had she not flown, I’d not be here to tell the tale!

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