Animals in Japanese prints. Famous rabbits of today, anonymous, circa 1868-1877, Meiji period. All images from the collection of the Edo-Tokyo Museum

A fondness for pets and other animals knows no limits or boundaries, as can be seen in this exploration of the residents of Edo’s connection to animals and nature during the 18th and 19th centuries through Japanese prints. The exhibition marks the 25th anniversary of Maison de la culture du Japon in Paris. Co-organised with the Edo-Tokyo Museum, it brings together more than a 100 works to evoke the history of these relationships with animals that also reveal the unqiue culture in which this coexistence came into being. Shuko Koyama, curator and conservator at Edo-Tokyo Museum, draws attention to the fact that an enormous variety of animals can be found found on a diverse range of materials, including ukiyo-e, historical documents and books, as well as textiles, daily utensils, toys and other decorative items.

Changing Lifestyles in the Edo Period

The Edo period (1603-1868) heralded a long period of peace for Japan that brought stability and prosperity to its citizens. This new chapter in the history of the country started with Tokugawa Ieyasu’s defeat of the Toyotomi forces in the Siege of Osaka (1614-15), when a new reign name of Genna (1615) was declared and the turbulent era of war experienced during the Momoyama period (15680-1600) ended. The rise of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867) also resulted in a shift of power to a new city – Edo. Although the capital remained with the emperor in Kyoto and kept its place as the bastion of traditional Japanese culture, Edo soon challenged its royal neighbour in trade, entertainment and this commercial success also saw a burgeoning merchant class. Edo expanded rapidly and soon became a very large city – its population rose, at the beginning of the 18th century, to one million inhabitants.

Alongside this growing city, all kinds of animals coexisted with the population – domestic animals and livestock, as well as a range of wild beasts living in the uncultivated spaces on the outskirts of the city. One foreign resident in Edo, the American zoologist Edward S Morse (1838-1925), commented, ‘During my many rickshaw rides, I noticed how carefully the drivers avoided cats, dogs and chickens on the road. I have so far never witnessed any manifestation of anger or mistreatment towards animals’.

This exhibition of animals in Japanese prints opens with this quote from Morse, who had arrived in Japan, in 1877, to teach at the University of Tokyo. He is surprised by the kindness with which the Japanese treated animals and notes that city dwellers carefully went around the dogs and cats lounging in the middle of the road so as not to disturb them; and that they call them using the honorific suffix ‘san’. A work in the exhibition by the artist and designer Georges Bigot (1860-1927), who lived in Japan for 17 years from 1882, shows daily life in Japan at that time and humorously illustrates this cohabitation between animals and humans.

This understanding between humans and animals is also depicted on a screen (a replica) that accurately records the appearance of the city of Edo and its suburbs in the 17th century. In addition to numerous scenes representing the shogun Iemitsu pursuing stags and wild boars, or hunting falcons, there are also monkey tamers, stray dogs fighting, working oxen and sacred horses from Shinto monasteries. The original screens, created in 1634, are now in the National Museum of Japanese History.

Animals used for work are also portrayed in Edo-period art, such as horses, oxen, and dogs. A section in the exhibition explores the different roles of animals in connection not only to the elite samurai life, but also animals used for work by peasants in agriculture, as well as their place in the life of the merchant classes.

Domestication of Animals

The domestication of animals became increasingly popular as the long period of stability gave the citizens of Edo the time and leisure to enjoy life; all types of cultural activities boomed and, in the home, people were happy to surround themselves with their pets. These include, in addition to small dogs and cats, birds such as nightingales and quail, as well as insects such crickets and locusts, which were appreciated for their song.

In response to popular demand, many ukiyo-e prints and reference books on how to deal with all types of domestic pets were published during the period, adding to the popularity of animals in Japanese prints. Edo was a city surrounded by hills and rivers – and open to the sea – enabling the inhabitants to live with a deep connection to nature. As nature was so important, various seasonal rites and festivals marked the course of the year and the changes of season offered many opportunities to admire the superb natural landscapes nearby. Within this admiration of nature, the life of wild animals was included as a familiar feature and they were closely tied to religious beliefs and the rituals of the annual calendar.

The space outside the city limits, where the wild animals roamed, was where the samurai class regularly practised hunting and honed their equine skills. Falcons were used in the art of hunting to capture wild birds such as cranes, geese, and ducks. Larger animals, such as deer and wild boar, were also hunted on a large scale, usually organised by the shogun.

Wild Animals in Edo

Certain wild animals were also associated with religious beliefs, as can be seen in the print by Utagawa Hiroshige, New Year’s Eve Foxfires at the Changing Tree at Oji. Here, foxes gather at the large, old enoki (hackberry) tree on New Year’s Eve to prepare to pay homage at the Oji Inari shrine, the headquarters of the Inari cult in eastern Japan (Kanto). The cult centres on the god of the rice field, for whom the fox serves as messenger. On the way to Oji, the foxes have set a number of kitsunebi (foxfires), which farmers count to predict the upcoming rice harvest. Hiroshige’s print successfully conveys the mysterious atmosphere of the rite as the procession of foxes bearing fires approaches from the distant, dark forest under a starry sky.

From the beginning of the 17th century, when Edo was rapidly becoming more urban, the population began to look for new attractions to entertain themselves. One such event was the exhibition of rare animals, including peacocks and parrots, which had been brought by boat from China or Holland. The animals were displayed in specific places – the ancestors of zoos – with shops nearby offering food and drink to visitors. With the development of trade with the West, the number of imported animals increased considerably over time, with the fashion for ‘exotic’ animals experiencing an unprecedented boom. By the start of the Meiji era in 1868, Japan had begun to build modern facilities based on the Western models to cater to the public demand for zoos, aquariums, and racetracks.

Animal Images Used in Decorative Motifs

This craze for animals was also reflected in their depiction on clothing and everyday objects. Animal symbolism had been in use for centuries, but during the Edo period all kinds of animals were widely used as decorative motifs to symbolise success, happiness, good health and good luck. Animals are frequently depicted on kimonos and accessories, as well as on everyday personal objects. It was during the Edo period that further developed animal patterns and motifs on kimonos. as well as symbols of natural subjects such as the four seasons, to be used as auspicious image. A favourite image was the crane, which still is the most popular bird depicted on a kimono, as it is believed to live for a thousand years and to inhabit the land of the immortals, therefore symbolising both longevity and good fortune.

Animal motifs were also important in a domestic setting. The very high infant mortality during the Edo period helps to explain the manufacture of many protective talismans and amulets used personally and in the home, intended to ward off the bad luck with the symbolism and design reflecting the beliefs attached to different animals. One such example in this exploration of animals in Japanese prints is a red-eyed rabbit/horned owl by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, used as a talisman to guard against infection or plague.

Today, as in the past, toys in the shape of animals were very popular, as with other objects, animals evoked the spirit of a season and was associated with auspicious events. During the Edo period, decorative motifs representing animals began to evolve, showing a greater freedom of design and richer variations of styles. However, towards the end of the 19th century, Japanese culture in connection with the animal world began to fade and the emphasis was increasingly placed on the kawaii (cute) side of pets. The traditional portrayal of animals can still be widely seen in Japan in many different forms, but there is a battle to be won against Hello Kitty.

A Japanese Bestiary, Living with Animals in Edo-Tokyo, explores animals in Japanese prints and runs from 9 November to 21 January, 2023, Maison de la culture du Japon, Paris,