Animals and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Japan

Animals have long been a popular subject in Japanese art, and they have served a variety of purposes throughout the centuries. In some instances, depictions of animals were auspicious symbols intended to bring good luck to their owners. Animals were also the subject of scientific studies, particularly in the field of natural history. In early modern Japan, scholars of the natural world often relied on illustrations of flora and fauna rather than on actual specimens, particularly for plants and animals not native to Japan. For example, the image of the rhinoceros seen in this installation was based entirely on texts from abroad, including from the Netherlands and China.

This installation explores the place of animals within Japanese art: as decoration, as symbols, as subjects of study, and as subjects of art. Korean and Dutch works complement Japanese objects to highlight the cultural and scholastic exchanges that occurred before the so-called opening of the ports by Commodore Perry in 1868. The featured works seek to show what animals mean in Japanese art, and how they reflect the interconnections between cultures.

Mai Yamaguchi
PhD candidate, Department of Art & Archaeology