The frog, monkey and rabbits shown here — including the rabbits originally posted in my September 2016 post “Rabbits” — are as familiar to most Japanese as Sonic the Hedgehog or Mickey Mouse.
These animals are featured players in the Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga or Chōjū-giga, generally translated as the Scrolls of Frolicking Animals, which date from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The four black ink on paper scrolls, composed entirely of illustrations with no text, are sometimes referred to as Japan’s earliest manga.
As these hashioki demonstrate, the Chōjū-giga drawings are often charming and humorous. They show animals doing human activities, like dancing or playing music or competing in an archery contest. Scholars have traditionally suggested that the scrolls were created to lampoon errant Buddhist priests and pampered aristocrats of their time.
It’s entirely possible that the Chōjū-giga scrolls exist today only because they are an official National Treasure of Japan. In the late 19th. century Japan enacted legislation which designated buildings and items with historic or cultural significance as kokuhō, or National Treasures. This legislation prohibits the export of these treasures, regulates their transfer or alteration inside Japan, provides tax incentives for restoration and even offers professional help for preservation and display. There are currently over 200 buildings and structures classified as National Treasures, and approximately 870 fine arts and crafts, including the Chōjū-giga scrolls.
I was fortunate enough to see the Chōjū-giga scrolls when they were on display at a museum in Kyushu in November 2016. Even before the museum opened there was along line of people waiting patiently in line to see the scrolls, and the line was even longer when I left. One of the gratifying (if slightly annoying) things about visiting museums in Japan is the large numbers of Japanese people who are interested in viewing their nation’s treasures and artwork.
No hashioki have been designated as National Treasures…. yet. But at least hashioki like these examples help familiarize users with Japan’s cultural heritage.