top of page

A Selection of Elephants in Edo Period Art

For me, elephants are an obsession. I have always loved them from my earliest memory. So what better way to discuss elephants than in the context of my other obsession: Japanese art. Elephants are not native to Japan, but their depiction - although sometimes unusual - is often bold, captivating and charming. Below are a few (though not all) of my favourites that show the changes from highly stylised to more realistic.

1) Tawaraya Sotatsu (c.1570 - c.1640)

Tawaraya Sotatsu is credited with being the proto-founder of the Rinpa school of art, although it was only later crystallised under Ogata Korin (1658-1716), Ogata Kenzan (1663-1743) and Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828). Nevertheless, his decorative, bold and stylised depiction of nature was to lay the cornerstone of the Rinpa style. The elephants below by Sotatsu, painted on sliding doors in a temple in Kyoto showcase his bold style.

Tawaraya Sotatsu, 'Elephants', sliding doors, in Yogen-in Temple, Kyoto

Sotatsu would never have seen an elephant, but he would have seen depictions of them in Buddhist art where tamed elephants (usually ridden by a Bodhisattva) symbolise a mind disciplined through meditation: stable, and majestic in its power. The Buddha himself was thought to have been issued from his mother's side in the form of a white elephant. Woodblock printed books and possibly porcelain imported from China (itself copying woodblock printed books) would have been another major source for elephant imagery.

China, Brush Pot with Scene of Washing an Elephant, mid-17th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Found in paintings as well as the decorative arts, the theme of figures washing an elephant, or sao xiang (扫象), is a pun on the Buddhist notion of the illusionary nature of the phenomenal world (xiang 象, means literally elephant, but also 'image' or the 'phenomenal' world that we see).

2) Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800)

Ito Jakuchu is usually classed as an ‘eccentric’ artist because he doesn’t neatly fit into any school or artistic tradition. He actually came from a family of vegetable wholesalers at Nishiki market in Kyoto which still exists to this day. He was a businessman dealing with the issues of the market for most of his life, but he always loved painting. It was only until he was 60 that he could retire and devote himself entirely to painting. he is most famous for his paintings of vegetables and chickens which were lovingly observed with great detail from life.

Jakuchu's elephants however, are still more stylised rather than realistic, but as a boy it is possible that he saw an elephant. In 1728, when Jakuchu was 12, a ship brought a pair of elephants from Annam (present day Vietnam). Below I will describe the elephant's journey in Japan...

Ito Jakuchu, 'Elephant', late 18th century

Unfortunately the female elephant died a few months after arrival, but before long plans were underway to move the surviving male to Edo. The greatest of care was taken with the beast's presumed sensibilities. All along the route directions were issued to make sure that the elephant would not be disturbed or panicked. People were to be allowed to gather to see him at intersections, but not along the roads. It was permissible to follow the procession, but not to get in front of it. No one was to look down on the animal from a second-story window or balcony. Quiet was to be maintained. Ironically, we know that as social animals, elephants need to hear some noise - absolute quiet stresses them and leads to a quicker death.

When the elephant reached Kyoto arrangements were made so that the curious emperor could see this marvellous animal. This entailed a problem, however, since no one without court rank could be received in an audience. The solution was to grant the elephant Fourth Imperial Rank (a status that put him higher than most daimyo) with the designation "Annam White Elephant, Fourth Rank". Now ennobled, the beast could perform the obeisance in which his handlers had coached him. He was rewarded with sake, a hundred-odd bean-jam buns, and a hundred tangerines. Court nobles vied to greet the event with poems, and the procession lumbered on to Edo.

Jakuchu, 'Elephant and Whale Screens', Miho Museum, Koka, Shiga, Japan

In Edo the elephant was put up in the Hama Detached Palace grounds before being led to Chiyoda Castle with proper pomp for a visit with Shogun Yoshimune. In the few months of life that remained to him - he died in 1730 - the elephant was the talk of the town, the subject of admiration for artists, writers and their publishers, and a source of income for enterprising vendors, who concocted cure-all potions from his waste.

3) Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)

Hokusai, designer of the great wave is an artist that needs no introduction. Before he did his famous '36 Views of Mt Fuji' however, his most celebrated work was a series of books called the Hokusai Manga - a collection of random drawings that could instruct future painters but also act as an educational encyclopaedia. Below, Hokusai illustrated the ancient Indian story of blind men trying to describe an elephant.

Katsushika Hokusai, 'Blind Men', Hokusai Manga

In summary, it is a story of a group of blind men who have never come across an elephant before and who learn and imagine what the elephant is like by touching it. Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant's body, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then describe the elephant based on their limited experience and their descriptions of the elephant are naturally different from each other.

Hokusai's elephants are also stylised but they have an added human feeling. The elephant's eyes say it all: 'lets just get this over with'. Its also the model for other elephants he drew.

Hokusai, 'Elephant and Mahout', from the Picture Book of Everything, British Museum, London

4) Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861)

Kuniyoshi is famous for his designs of warriors, but he also experimented with Western shading as can be seen below. The story describes Taishun and the elephants: one story from a series of Twenty-four examples of filial piety. In this case the virtuous Emperor Yao was seeking an heir to his kingdom and was told about a young man who was terribly abused by his stepmother’s family yet continued to tend the fields tirelessly and singlehandedly. His virtue was such that even the elephants and birds assisted him:

The elephants came down from the mountains to plough the furrows for this young man; in the Spring you could see them line up and use their tusks to dig the earth. In the Summer the crows and magpies flocked down to pull up the weeds with their beaks. Nature itself approves of his righteous attitude, especially in the face of hardship, as in the case of his impossible family situation.

The Emperor was so moved by the story that he granted the kingdom to the young man.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 'Taishun and the Elephants'

One wonders if the elephant in the background was at all influenced by Dutch copper engravings, such as Rembrandt's depiction of the elephant Hansken? As can be seen below in a detail from Adam and Eve.

Rembrandt, detail of elephant from 'Adam and Eve'

5) Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889)

Kyosai is another eccentric artist who doesn't fit neatly into any category or school. He was briefly a student of Kuniyoshi above, but left for unexplained reasons to study with a Kano school master (The tiger in the print shows definite Kano school influences). Kyosai considered himself to be the artistic inheritor of Hokusai, and a similar sense of playfulness that pervades the Hokusai Manga can be seen in Kyosai's designs too. Below, elephants play among Chinese with long queues as well as Westerners, emphasising the overall exoticism of elephants.

Kawanabe Kyosai, 'Famous Elephants Imported from India at Play', 1862, Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art, Washington

The overall bizarreness of funny foreigners and exotic elephants pretending to be human is perhaps a humorous diffusion of pent up fears and anxieties related to identity. Not that Kyosai was perhaps even conscious of this, but this print was created against a backdrop of reluctant opening up to the outside world. Foreigners were held in both fascination and fear by many, who saw that they challenged their way of life and being. Indeed, by forceful opening up of Japan in 1853, foreigners would inadvertently perhaps, begin a chain of events that would turn the world of traditional Japan upside down and lead to the collapse of the Shogunate in 1868.

This is just my theory and opinion, and it is not to say that Kyosai was xenophobic in any way - he wasn't - he later had foreign students and studied Western art closely. But I suspect he was simply sceptical of wholesale, uncritical, imitation of the West that would lose those elements of Japanese culture he deemed valuable. Japan's opening up to the West led to a trauma and identity crisis of sorts: how much should Japan adopt from the West and how much should Japan retain of its traditional way of life that was suddenly deemed 'wrong' after hundreds of years. Using animals in this humorous way was a useful and politically safe way to vent anxieties and frustrations about 'foreignness', as was the case of the writer Soseki Natsume's cat in 'I Am A Cat'. Viewed in this way, I believe the treatment of elephants and foreigners here in this print is similar to those of yokai, ghosts and demons in Japanese art: by turning it into something somewhat comical, you take away what makes it scary and relieve anxieties.

Edward with an elephant in Laos

Shout out which of the above is your favourite elephant? :)

For me, Jakuchu's forward-facing elephant is the winner



bottom of page