Museum Dictionary

About the Handscroll Poetry Contest of the Twelve, Zodiac Animals

The widespread popularity of comic books shows that even very complicated and difficult stories become interesting and easy to read when illustrated with pictures. In early Japan, there were no comic books, but people were very fond of narrative illustrated handscrolls called emaki.

Emaki are a little different from comic books because they are scrolls instead of books. To make a handscroll, the artists first write a story (kotoba) on special paper, which is wider than it is high, illustrate the story with paintings, and finally mount these papers together as a single scroll.

There are many different kind of stories told in emaki. Many of the important literary works of the Heian period (794-1185 A.D.), such as the Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari), the legendary origins of important temples and shrines (called engi), and the travels and adventures of Buddhist priests, were made into emaki. In the Muromachi period (1392-1573), emaki were also made of children's stories, such as fairy tales (otogibanashi). Let's look more closely at one of these fairy-tale emaki called the Poetry Contest of the Twelve Zodiac Animals (Junirui emaki).

First let me outline the story told in this emaki. On the evening of August 15th, the Twelve Animals of the Chinese zodiac (including Rat, Cow, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Boar) hold a poetry contest. The judge of this contest is Deer. After the contest is finished, the animals have a big party in celebration. At this party, Deer is given the seat-of-honor and treated with great respect by all the animals. Now it so happened that Tanuki, a wild raccoon dog, has gone to the party with Deer.

  • Poetry Contest of the Twelve Zodiac Animals (Detail)
    Poetry Contest of the Twelve Zodiac Animals (Detail) (Private Collection)

Tanuki sees all the attention that Deer is getting and becomes very jealous. "Next time they have a poetry contest," he thinks, "I want to be the judge!" When he asks the Twelve Animals to grant his request, however, they all laugh rudely in his face. "What a foolish idea!" they say and chase him away.

This treatment makes Tanuki angry, so he gathers his friends, including Fox, Crow, Owl, Cat and Weasel, and goes to battle against the Twelve Animals. However, the Twelve Animals are very powerful, and Tanuki and his friends lose the battle.

On the advice of his friend Hawk, Tanuki and his friends decide to attack the Twelve Animals at night, while they are sleeping. In the beginning, this plan works and Tanuki's side wins, but after the Twelve Animals change their strategy, Tanuki and his friends are beaten once and for all.

  • Poetry Contest of the Twelve Zodiac Animals (Detail)
    Poetry Contest of the Twelve Zodiac Animals (Detail) (Private Collection)

Next Tanuki tries another strategy. He dresses us as demon (oni, in Japanese) and tries to frighten the Twelve Animals. Dog sees through his trickery, however, and Tanuki runs away.

In the end, however, Tanuki sees the falseness of his ambitions and the emptiness of the world of form. With this he is enlightened. He decides to leave his wife and children to lead the life of a Buddhist monk under the direction of a famous Buddhist priest.

How do you like this story? But the handscroll Poetry Contest of the Twelve Zodiac Animals has not only an interesting story; it also has wonderful illustrations. The animals in the story are painted in the way that Japanese people imagined them long ago. For example, on the Twelve Animals side, Snake is a female because people used to think that women were like snakes, and Dragon is the General because people used to think that the dragon was the leader of the animals. All the animals on the Tanuki side are painted with evil, sneaky-looking faces, because the tanuki, fox, crow, etc. were considered to be sly, sneaky creatures.

There are also lots of puns in the mixed into the words of the story. Many of them are hard to understand at first, but let's pick out one and try to explain it. This is a verse recited at in the poetry contest by Snake.

When your eyes slither up to the moon, forgotten are woes Who could ever find too long, such an autumn evening?

Do you see how she uses the word "slither" to mean "look?" In the second line, the word "long" is another reference to snakes, because they have long bodies. At the party after the contest, Snake again says something with a "snake-like" second-meaning. Can you figure out what?

"I have filled my belly with wine. Ah, how I want to take off my clothes, stretch out LONG, and go to sleep!"

Both the authors and the illustrators of this handscroll had wonderful senses of humor, didn't they?
This story is actually divided among three handscrolls. Let's look at some of the scenes from the third and final scroll, which tells the story from the battles with the Twelve Animals to when Tanuki leaves his family to become a monk.

  • Poetry Contest of the Twelve Zodiac Animals (Detail) (Private Collection)
    Poetry Contest of the Twelve Zodiac Animals
    (Detail) (Private Collection)

This is a very sad scene in which Tanuki leaves his wife and children to become a monk. Everyone is crying and the baby tanuki is pulling on his father's sleeve as if to say "Don't go, Daddy, don't go!"

In the next scene, Tanuki has become a monk and is beating on his big belly like a drum as he chants the Nenbutsu (a kind of Buddhist prayer). He looks, not sad or depressed, but peaceful and content.

  • Poetry Contest of the Twelve Zodiac Animals (Detail) (Private Collection)

These days, parents always say "Stop reading comic books and do your homework!" I wonder if parents in the old days told their children "Stop reading that emaki and study!"

Text by Junji Wakasugi, Department of Fine Arts
English translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives

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