From delicate Japanese Chins and foxlike Shibas to large and dignified Akitas, dogs—or inu— abound in Japan’s daily life, so it’s no surprise that they have also made many appearances in its art across the centuries.
In Empire of Dogs, author Aaron Herald Skabelund observes that dogs’ “physical mobility creates symbolic ambiguity, positioning canines between culture and nature,” a characteristic that fits neatly within the Japanese artistic tradition of showing animals in a natural context and often in association with people.
Factor in the country’s bedrock belief system, Shintoism—as old as Japan itself—with its many animals serving as messengers to the kami, or divine beings, and the prevalence of dogs is easy to understand. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find a pair of lion dog statues guarding an entrance to a Shinto shrine, where their job is to ward off evil spirits.
Haniwa dogs, small, unglazed terracotta figures made as grave offerings, are among the earliest artistic examples of canines’ place in Japanese culture. Dating from about the second to the seventh century, these figures were placed near or on top of a tomb. While their purpose is unknown, scholars think they were put there to protect the deceased, and perhaps to protect the living from the spirit of the deceased as well.
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The long and productive Edo period (1603 to 1868), which came to an end with the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate, produced a rich trove of dog-themed art. During this time, Japan enjoyed relative peace and stability, which gave art room to expand in both the types of objects produced and the number of people who could afford it. This was the era of gilded papier-mâché dogs, painted wooden dogs, glazed porcelain dogs, cared ivory dogs, dogs on scrolls, on kimonos, in woodblock prints—even sculpted into sword handles. Much of the art we think of as traditionally Japanese is from this time.
From the days of shoguns and samurai to modern Japan, dogs continue to romp through the country’s art. But now, they’re often large and bold, pure white or painted in bright colors, some with a sort of cartoonish aspect—nothing like the living four-legged varieties seen lounging on the verandahs of country homes or being walked on city streets.
Not surprisingly, dogs can be found throughout The Life of Animals in Japanese Art, the groundbreaking exhibition now on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which includes works from the sixth century to the present day. In the book that accompanies the exhibition, Barbara R. Ambros, professor of East Asian Religions at the University of North Carolina, describes dogs as “resilient animals,” a perfect epitaph and an excellent explanation of their enduring presence in Japanese culture across the centuries.
The Life of Animals in Japanese Art
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Through August 18, 2019
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
September 22–December 8, 2019