The Three Wise Monkeys of Tōshōgū Shrine in Nikko, Japan3 min read
The grand Tōshōgu Shrine was built in 1617 in Nikkō, and it is one of Japan’s most lavishly decorated shrines.
It is actually the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was later deified, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, a dynasty that ruled Japan from 1603-1867, with its capital in Edo, current day Tokyo.
This Shinto shrine is a part of ‘Shrines and Temples of Nikko’, a UNESCO World Heritage site and 5 of its structures are categorized as the National Treasures of Japan. A cobbled path leads up to its entrance marked by a granite stone Torii gate called the Ishidorri. To its left stands the beautiful 5-storied pagoda representing the five elements of nature – air, water, earth, fire and wind.
The pagoda, donated by a feudal lord in 1650, was actually destroyed in fire in 1815 and later rebuilt in 1818.
One of the buildings that form the complex is the Sacred Stable, which is adorned with an eight-panel sculpture attributed to Hidari Jingorō, a legendary sculptor whose existence is a matter of debate.
The sculpture depicts eight stages of life enacted by monkeys, and Its most notable panel is the “Three Wise Monkeys,” which depicts three Japanese macaques representing the principle of not seeing (Mizaru), not hearing (Kikazaru), and not saying (Iwazaru).
This particular relief was introduced to the western world during the Meiji era (1868-1912), leading to the coinage of the proverb “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”
Historically, the motif of three monkeys can be found across Asia (and not only).
It’s believed by some that it was brought to China from India through the Silk Road, and then also to Japan.
In any case, by the Edo period, which lasted from 1603 to 1868, a group of three monkeys was often depicted in Buddhist sculptures, such as the companions of Shōmen-Kongō, a folk deity who protects against diseases believed to be caused by demons, who often appears as an angry character with a blue body and four arms.
Probably you’ve heard of the popular proverb “see no evil”. But few know the origin of this principle, or the curious reason it’s also associated with monkeys.
Although the phrase itself is relatively modern, the principle is believed to date back to antiquity.
For example, the Analects of Confucius, which was compiled during the Warring States period of China, has this saying: “Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement which is contrary to propriety.”
And, at some point in history, appararently around the 8th-century, Buddhist monks brought the proverb to Japan and It was eventually translated to “mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru,” or “see not, hear not, say not.”
Interestingly, -zu/-zaru is a common (albeit archaic) suffix used to negate a verb, while saru—or, as a suffix, -zaru—means “monkey” in Japanese.
Needless to say, this led to the association of the proverb with monkeys.
The three wise monkeys (Hepburn: san’en or sanzaru, emoji: 🙉🙊🙈, literally “three monkeys”), sometimes called the three mystic apes, are a pictorial maxim. Together they embody the proverbial principle “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”.
The three monkeys are Mizaru, covering his eyes, who sees no evil, Kikazaru, covering his ears, who hears no evil, and Iwazaru, covering his mouth, who speaks no evil.
There are various meanings ascribed to the monkeys and the proverb including associations with being of good mind, speech and action while, in the Western world, the phrase is often used to refer to those who deal with impropriety by turning a blind eye.