Wed, Feb 26, 2020

Japanese art according to Sophie Richard: On captivating animals in Japanese art

As we begin the Year of the Rat, I have been receiving many greeting cards from Japan featuring charming depictions of the rodent, one of the twelve animals which appear in the Chinese zodiac. This made me think of how prevalent as well as captivating the representation of animals is in Japanese art.

Animals are a great subject for artists. This has been the case since ancient times, across centuries and cultures. They afford great possibilities for composition, from realistic, lively representations to more stylised images. As a subject, animals can be charming, playful, ornamental, fierce and, generally speaking, animal imagery is attractive to all viewers.

Animals seem to be particularly beloved by Japanese artists and have been represented since the earliest times. There are examples dating from the Kofun period, around the 5th, 6th century, such as haniwa clay models of horses that have been found in burial mounds. Some are still in excellent condition and display details such as a harness, a saddle and other decorative fittings. It is believed that these figures represent the first domesticated horses in Japan; at the time they were regarded as symbols of power and as such fit to accompany deceased persons of high ranking.

Haniwa Horse (Excavated from Manabe Kofun in Tsuchiura, Ibaraki Pref.)
Kofun period, 5th-6th century; Kyushu National Museum
Source: ColBase

Animals in Japanese art of course such a broad theme that is not possible to offer any kind of overview, even elementary, and I would not like this essay to turn into an interminable list. But here are a few illustrations of works of art representing animals, in no particular order but selected for their attractiveness as well as the story they might invoke, which I hope will make for an enjoyable perusal.

Be they domestic, wild or fantastical, animals play a salient role in Japanese culture. They appear in folklore, were used to measure time as signs of the zodiac (like the rat this year), can be symbolic of the changing seasons, and allow for lively interpretations of proverbs and stories.

The dragonfly is auspicious in Japanese art. Some time ago I found it fascinating to learn that it was considered emblematic of military success. As such the insect was often represented on objects related to samurai, for example here a tsuba, the round metal guard placed at the end of a grip on a sword.

With its distinctive shape and patterns, as well as rich colours, the dragonfly was also attractive to Western artists and it was a much-loved subject at the time of “Japonism”, when in the late 19th century Japanese art became all the rage in the West. The American creator of luxury objects, Louis Comfort Tiffany, selected the dragonfly as one of the most emblematic images inspired by Japan. His contemporaries Emile Galle and Rene Lalique in France did the same.

Rene Lalique (Lalique Museum Hakone)

One cannot think about animals in Japanese art without mentioning the famous Kyoto painter Ito Jakuchu who between 1757 and 1766 created an extraordinary series of hanging scrolls titled “The Colourful Realm of Living Beings.” Now in the collection of the Imperial Household, these thirty paintings on silk are incredibly varied and dynamic, ranging from roosters to phoenixes and from fish to snakes, with strikingly vivid colours and captivating details, in beautifully arranged compositions.

Fowls (Ito Jakuchu “Colourful Realm of Living Beings”)
Edo period, circa 1757 – circa 1766
Sannomaru Shozokan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections)

Animals were also a popular source of inspiration for netsuke carvers. Netsuke were worn by men in the Edo period as a toggle around their sash. Sculptures in miniature, they were very personal objects that had to be not only aesthetically pleasing but also with smooth contours, so as not to damage the fabric of the kimono. The animal kingdom provided a wealth of subjects; one netsuke remarkably features all twelve animals of the zodiac assembled together. Another that caught my attention in the collection of the British Museum features a deer, an animal often represented in fine and applied arts in Japan. In this instance, the object has a graceful elongated shape and shows a stag crying for its mate, a symbol evocative of autumn and loneliness in classical Japanese poetry.

Toggle (Netsuke) in the Shape of Animals of the Chinese Zodiac
Edo period, 19th century (Tokyo National Museum)
Source: ColBase

To finish I am thinking about another deer, this time by contemporary artist Kohei Nawa who included the animal in his series of PixCell sculptures in which he covers taxidermied animals in transparent beads. These magnify and distort different parts of their bodies in a mesmerizing way.



Art Historian


Born in Provence and educated at the Ecole du Louvre and at the Sorbonne in Paris, Sophie worked in the art world in New York before moving to London where she now resides. She has been a regular visitor to Japan for the last 15 years. Passionate about Japanese arts and culture, she set out to explore the country’s many museums. In the course of her research she has visited close to 200 venues across the country. Her articles on Japanese museums have appeared in the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan. Her first book on the subject was published in 2014 and then translated into Japanese. Her new book “The art lover’s guide to Japanese museums” was published in July 2019. In 2015, Sophie received the Commissioner’s Award from the Agency of Cultural Affairs in Tokyo, in recognition for her work in bringing Japanese culture to a wider audience. (Photo©Frederic Aranda)



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