Like most traditional cultures around the world, the Japanese see animals not merely as fellow creatures, but as symbols of a variety of qualities they would like to express or benefit from. No, we’re not talking about Hello Kitty and Godzilla, though their popularity could be a new wrinkle in this old theme; nor are we going to address the mythical beasts of religious iconography such as the dragon and phoenix.
Instead, the animals in question are those which have long been a part of life in Japan’s mountains and surrounding oceans, as well as in the nation’s painting, sculpture and religious imagery. Japanese carp (koi), cranes, monkeys, tigers, deer and raccoon dogs – an actual beast called the tanuki, unique to the Japanese archipelago – are there not just for their beauty, but for their meaning.
Like many symbolic animals, the meaning attached to many animals in Japan originally came from China. But in the case of the koi, a species of carp, the species itself was actually imported from China, where they have been bred to produce different colors for more than 1,000 years. The Japanese have more than 20 different names for breeds of koi, which are considered to symbolize and bring good luck and success in life, business and, for children, who often fly koi kites, in school.
Cranes, with their long legs and necks, natural poise and elegant movements, are abundant in Japan, and are regarded as symbols of good fortune. Because of their natural grace and beauty, they have long been favorite subjects of Japanese artists, and their images are especially popular at new year and weddings, when origami cranes are offered. Cranes are also a symbol of longevity, since they were long thought to have a lifespan of a thousand years.
Monkeys are still extant in the Japanese archipelago, and have long meant what they mean in many cultures: Clever, tricky, playful creatures whose obvious physical resemblances to humans have not gone unnoticed by the Japanese. Monkeys were worshipped in early Shinto and even Buddhism, and the social and familial aspects of monkeys have long been a favorite subject of Japanese artists – the Three Monkeys of the Tosho-gu Shrine in Nikko is a prime example of the depth of meaning the Japanese find in humanity’s closest genetic cousins.
Cats are popular in Japan, occupying as they do all over the world, that borderland between the wild and the domestic. In that sense, cats are never quite to be trusted, and many Japanese folk tales concern cats that shape-shift and may even possess humans. They are ubiquitous (hello, kitty!) in Japanese arts both ancient and modern.
The tanuki, or “raccoon dog,” is an indigenous mammal that is not a raccoon, despite its dark eyed mask. It is a distant relative to dogs, but with an edge: in Japanese folklore and arts (including a lot of small statuary often encountered outside of Japanese homes, public places and even shrines), the tanuki is assigned supernatural powers. Those powers are said to include shape-shifting and the ability to bring good fortune to whoever honors them with well-placed statuary called Bake-danuki. The statues are distinguished by, among other features, the tanuki’s large testicles – as well as by a taste for sake, which they are often depicted drinking.
Another small mammal that has been assigned supernatural powers is the kitsune, a small fox that, like foxes the world ‘round, are admired for their intelligence and cunning. Kitsune can be good or bad for humans, however: The good ones are the guardians of the Shinto shrines of the god of rice, Inari, and statues of the beasts often guard those shrines. But the bad ones, again like foxes around the world, are the kitsune who raid chicken coops, steal small farm animals and otherwise make life difficult for Japanese farmers.
This menagerie of beasts shows up everywhere in traditional art, as well as in the modern mythologies of manga and anime. Because of its roots in Chinese culture, which has an entire zodiac built around animals, Japanese culture has long had a fascination with turtles, snakes, eagles, dogs, rats, rams, and many other animals that most urban Japanese are highly unlikely to ever actually encounter. But the power of their meaning will most likely live on.