The subject of the Japanese poem best known in the West is a frog:
The ancient pond–
A frog jumps in,
The sound of water.(1)
A frog may be the lead character of Bashō’s haiku, but notice that he or she is not the protagonist; the poet — the one who hears the splash of the water — experiences the moment. This famous haiku has been used to teach millions of school children that what distinguishes Japanese poetry is its emphasis on change and sensory observation, and also that Japanese poetry is sometimes blissfully short. I would say that the hashioki above shows a frog in pre-jump contemplation, while the one of the left seems to be asking us what we thought of that cannonball into the pond that he just made.
Because Japan has many ponds and many rice paddies, frogs are commonplace. Japan views them as a symbol of good fortune The Japanese word for frog is kaeru, which also happens to be a homophone for the Japanese verb meaning “to return.” Frogs are sometimes sold at Shinto shrines because the priests are hoping their visitors will return (and buy even more frogs).
I don’t know why so many frog hashioki have googly eyes, but they do. Maybe it’s an attempt to make a wet and slimey creature more agreeable.
This lounging pair of frogs with googly eyes is among my favorites in my collection, because they were a present from Sumie Jones, Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature and of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Indiana University. I was fortunate to audit Sumie’s seminar on The Tale of Genji in Fall 2006 at Indiana University, and it was a fantastic experience to study the classic in depth, and to benefit from Sumie’s expert commentary.
I know that Sumie purchased this pair in Berkeley, California, and that adds to my appreciation of them. I think of Berkeley as being a place of serious scholarship and political action, but I suspect that these guys must have been drop-outs.
(1)Keene, Donald. World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era 1600-1857. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 88.