8 June 2023

Monkeys Praying and Rabbits Wrestling,
Choju Giga Picture Scroll

A fine example of a free and joyous world indifferent to the mundane obligations of their days. Perhaps this is one reason why the humorous animal caricatures in the "Choju Giga" have a timeless appeal. Rabbits and frogs enjoying various games with their fellow friends. A heartwarming and humorous painting from 800 years ago.

The "Choju Giga"(Animal caricatures) is a picture scroll believed to have been painted in the medieval age, and it employs no color except black ink on white paper. Due to its uniqueness in depicting animals such as rabbits and frogs impersonating human affairs of the time, it has been a curious source of imagination and inspiration throughout the history of Japanese art. We will present to you in this article some historical background to the emergence of such humorous picture scrolls and introduce you to the details of the various images presented in the scroll.


  • The Philosophy of "Asobi" or Salvation
  • Monkeys, rabbits and frogs
  • The Timeless Appeal of Choju Giga

The Philosophy of "Asobi" or Salvation

The time period that the "Choju Giga"(Animal caricatures) was supposedly painted, was indeed a turbulent time for medieval Japan. Civil war was frequent in the cities and other regions; the royal household sought refuge to powerful warlords. In such times of violence and insecurity, emperor Goshirakawa (1127-1192) was known for his patronage of artists, entertainers and various other performers. 

This could have been his own way to seek solace and spiritual refuge, in finding salvation through the arts, or perhaps did he employ these performers as inconspicuous agents for political information? – the truth is unknown. The arts he protected were not necessarily the traditional high art such as Waka poetry. He notably favoured "Imayo" songs (popular "modern" songs). It was not uncommon for aristocrats to invite these popular dancers and musicians to their houses to perform. The popular songs of the time show how commoners sought solace in Buddhism and Shinto deities; prayers often incorporated a lot of rhythmic dancing and singing as well. One of the famous songs begin with:

Is the reason we are born in this world, so that we can begin our play?
"Asobi wo sentoya umare kemu"

"Asobi" means "to play" in modern Japanese, however, the ancient Japanese word encompasses the entirety of the arts, music, dance and poetry. It was a time when prestigious art and the more popular entertainment of common folk were crossing boundaries, that both aristocrats and commoners enjoyed and sought solace in various forms of entertainment, or "playing."

In the art of painting, one medieval scholar in the 13th century wrote about the virtues of painting as follows:

"Pictures and illustrations employ the five shades (Buddhist term for describing the various states of human emotion) of our world and never fail to capture the forms of every object. We see the images in pause and the variations of movements, we enrich our own imagination and enjoy them in our hearts. Paintings are our play in times of leisure indeed."

Perhaps it is this "enjoyment in our hearts," and the seeking of "play in times of leisure" which formed the historical background behind the making of our "Choju Giga" picture scroll. 

Monkeys, Rabbits and Frogs

Apart from the fact that this painting was perhaps painted sometime in the medieval period, we know almost nothing about the author(s), patron and intentions of this painting. Even the technique of "Hakubyoga" (Painting using black dye on white paper) stands out in contrast to the more extravagant colorful scrolls such as the Tale of Genji Scroll. Picture scrolls of this period often include "Kotobagaki" (Texts written next to paintings) to describe the images, but our "Choju Giga" only provides us with black line sketches of animals.

This lack of authoritative and decisive information concerning the painting has likewise allowed modern artists and intellectuals to venture to define its value in their own ways. Isao Takahata, producer of various animation films such as "Grave of the Fireflies" noted the significance of "Choju Giga" as,

"The painting introduced the notion of time, greatly improving the technique of storytelling, and the "Choju Giga" became a masterpiece of art employing time and visual imagery. This was unprecedented until we see the emergence of movie making 700 years later."
("Animation in the 12th Century", Tokuma Shoten, 1999)

This notion of time is most famously expressed in the depiction of the wrestling between a rabbit and a frog.

The right-hand side shows the wrestling scene, and on the left-hand side we can see that the frog has thrown the rabbit onto the ground. As picture scrolls were intended to be rolled out from right to left, we see that the artist made use of the rolling procedure to present a progression in time. This is one of the most famous examples of the "Choju Giga", often noted as the "ancestor of animation." (The original is preserved in Kozanji Temple, Kyoto)

Once again, while other famous Japanese treasures of picture scrolls are more extravagant and prestigious such as this Tale of Genji Scroll, the anonymity and simplicity of technique of the "Choju Giga" is perhaps why it continues to attract modern audiences who find simply joy in such comical paintings, open to endless interpretations.

The above section depicts what scholars interpret as the performance of "Dengaku'' (A type of dance performance, which was popular in Kyoto and Nara, known to be the ancestors of Noh theater.) The stomping of the foot by the frogs are characteristic of such "Dengaku'' performances which often imitate movements in farming such as stumping, watering and planting. It is interesting that the dancers are themselves frogs, which must have been very common to see in pastoral scenery.

While people of higher status such as monks are often depicted as monkeys, in this section we see the Buddha as a frog. Professor Kenji Ueno suggests this is because the frog has a webbing between the fingers which symbolizes Buddha who scoops and saves everyone from the drowning waters. (Kenji Ueno, "Choju Giga no subete", Takarajima, 2021.)

The rabbit here is running to catch up with his friends, carrying a bow made of a branch. It appears that he is actually jumping and floating above a hill. This is another fun thing to imagine about what is going on here. Some scholars such as Professor Kenji Ueno suggest this rabbit is symbolizing the moon, as rabbits were believed to live on the moon as well. This is perhaps why this rabbit here is drawn so up high.

In this section a pair of monkeys is carrying a "Sugoroku" board game and a bag with the chips. "Sugoroku" is an ancient board game where one moves the chip according to the dice and was very popular in court life. As is the rabbit and monkey, we see that these animals are portrayed to depict the fun and joy of playing various games such as shooting arrows, board games and wrestling.

The art of archery was also popular among aristocrats, often an important event for young boys to show their talent in public life. Far from the ceremonial prestige of such court traditions, the archery game played by the rabbits and frogs are more casual and pastoral. Or is it quite comical that the rabbits who are usually the game, have reversed their roles and are trying out the art of archery themselves? The use of a huge lotus leaf as the target, and the branch as bow, gives the impression of a playing of toys rather than lethal weapons. It is dubious what strength an arrow can have with such twigs and lotus leaves, perhaps this is part of the pleasure of watching innocent animals play their own game.

Finally, we have fellow rabbits carrying the feast for an outdoor picnic. In contrast to the more firm and furry legs of the rabbits, we can see the frog with its slimy feet just bearing himself to carry the weight of the sake urn. The frog is gasping with exhaustion and the rabbit on the right is using his fan to encourage them on their way.

The Timeless Appeal of Choju Giga

The lack of information we have about this very work gives us more leisure for our own imagination and fascination to grow. We see in this scroll the innocent playful scenes of rabbits and frogs excited to see each other and wrestle. Or a pair of monkeys walking together to a gathering where their dear friends await to begin their board game match. A monkey monk is giving prayers to the frog Buddha, so the webbing of the frog may save all from the drowning waters of turbulent life. Artwork such as the "Choju Giga'' gives us a glimpse of how humorous and playful drawings can have timeless appeal beyond Japanese culture.

View  Kozan-ji Temple (Choju-Giga) Series

Other Posts