"Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No Evil."
It's such a cliche, right? Appropriated by famous artists and tattoo junkies alike, the Three Wise Monkeys are ubiquitous. Is there anyone who hasn't seen the ear-covering, eye-covering, mouth-covering simians? Originating in the Confucian moral code, the Wise Monkeys' philosophy most likely made its way from China to Japan during the Nara Period. From Japan, the Wise Monkeys traveled to both international ethics (one of Gandhi's only possessions was a small, Three Wise Monkeys sculpture) and modern, pop culture. But why are the Wise Ones monkeys?
If you visit Japan, Nikko is a city not to be missed. The shrines and temples of Nikko have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nine buildings are National Treasures Of Japan, with a remaining 94 designated as Important Cultural Properties. A visit to Nikko is kind of a big deal. When visiting Nikko, you can't miss the Tōshō-gū Shrine. Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founding shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, is buried here. To honor his dying wish that he be enshrined in Nikko- that his spirit may forever protect Japan from her enemies- the enormous and ornate Tōshō-gū Shrine was built.
When you visit the Tōshō-gū Shrine, enter the first torii gate and turn left. Just up ahead, on your left-hand side, is the stable for the shrine's sacred horse. Above the doors, carved and painted in ornate detail, are the original, Three Wise Monkeys.
In Japanese, monkey and not are homophones (same word, different meaning). Japanese dictionaries also define the Japanese word, saru, as meaning "to leave, go away." A clever, Japanese word play, the Three Wise Monkeys of Nikko are also the very first, illustrated example of "See No Evil, Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil." Ta da!
The original artist probably had no idea how many tattoos and tchotchkes he would eventually inspire!
Disclaimer: I do my best to make sure all my information is accurate. However, details may change or I may just be flat-out wrong. Please let me know if something needs a correction. Thank-you!