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Three Monkeys: Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil

The panel with the famous monkeys at the Shrine in Nikko, Japan

A tourist plaque for sale in Japan

I think almost all of us know about the famous three monkeys and what they symbolize: “Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil”.

The three wise monkeys, known throughout Asia and the Western world, 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. Sometimes there is a fourth monkey depicted with the other three; this one, Shizaru, symbolizes the principle of do no evil, and may be shown crossing his arms.

It’s an admirable philosophy but where did this popular pictorial rule, or guide for living, come from? It originated from a 17th-century carving over a door of the famous Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, Japan, carved by Hidari Jingoro. It’s believed that he incorporated Confucius’s Code of Conduct, using the monkey to depict the life cycle of mankind. There are a total of 8 panels, with the iconic three wise monkeys in panel 2. The philosophy he was illustrating, however, probably originally came to Japan with a Tendai-Buddhist legend from China in the 8th century.

Three stone statues of small monks at a Temple on sacred Miyajima Island in Japan also use this theme

The philosophical teaching actually had no connection to monkeys, so it’s probable that the concept of the three monkeys originated from a simple play on words. The saying in Japanese is “mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru“—literally “don’t see, don’t hear, don’t speak”. However, -zaru is pronounced the same as saru “monkey”, so the saying can also be interpreted as the names of three monkeys.

These monkeys have featured in many ways around the world and have become iconic as a way of staying away from evil doings. Not so long after the carving was done by Jingoro, another famous Japanese artist, Keisai Eisen (1790-1848), used the motif in his ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock printings), which may have helped popularize the pictorial maxim. A few other examples: Mahatma Gandi, the Indian pacifist who had a strict lifestyle of non-possession, allowed one notable exception to this—a small statue of the three monkeys; in the 1968 film Planet of the Apes, the three judges at Taylor’s tribunal assume the traditional wise monkeys pose as Cornelius and Dr. Zira present a version of the Theory of Evolution; an award-winning 2008 Turkish film by director Nuri Bilge Ceylan called Three Monkeys (Üç Maymun).

Small stone monkeys tell the story at a shrine on sacred Miyajima Island, Japan

On our many visits to Japan, we’ve seen numerous examples of the popularity of the Three Monkeys and what they stand for—from tacky touristy items, to small groupings of stone statues in Buddhist Temples or Shinto Shrines. We’ve also had fun making our own groupings with family members, showing that the maxim is indeed popular and powerful.

More family fun, in London

Family members having fun in Berkeley, CA

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