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Three wise monkeys

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The three wise monkeys at the Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō, Japan

The three wise monkeys are a Japanese pictorial maxim, embodying the proverbial principle "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil".[1] The three monkeys are

  • Mizaru (見ざる), "does not see", covering his eyes
  • Kikazaru (聞かざる), "does not hear", covering his ears
  • Iwazaru (言わざる), "does not speak", covering his mouth.[2]

Lafcadio Hearn refers to them as the three mystic apes.[3]

There are at least two divergent interpretations of the maxim: in Buddhist tradition, it is about avoiding evil thoughts and deeds. In the West, however, it is often interpreted as dealing with impropriety by turning a blind eye.[4]

Outside Japan the monkeys' names are sometimes given as Mizaru, Mikazaru[5] and Mazaru,[6] as the last two names were corrupted from the Japanese originals.[7][8] The monkeys are Japanese macaques, a common species in Japan.


Tōshō-gū shrine stable

The source that popularized this pictorial maxim is a 17th-century carving over a door of a stable of the Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō, Japan. The carvings at Tōshō-gū Shrine were carved by Hidari Jingoro, and are believed to have incorporated Confucius’ Code of Conduct, using the monkey as a way to depict man’s life cycle. There are a total of eight panels, and the iconic three wise monkeys picture comes from panel 2. The philosophy, however, probably originally came to Japan with a Tendai-Buddhist legend, from China in the 8th century (Nara Period). It has been suggested that the figures represent the three dogmas of the so-called middle school of the sect.

In Chinese, two similar phrases exist: one is in the late Analects of Confucius (from 4th to 2nd century BCE), that reads: "Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement which is contrary to propriety" (非禮勿視,非禮勿聽,非禮勿言,非禮勿動);[9] the other is in the book Xunzi (from the 3rd century BCE), which reads: "[The gentleman] makes his eyes not want to see what is not right, makes his ears not want to hear what is not right, makes his mouth not want to speak what is not right, and makes his heart not want to deliberate over what is not right" (使目非是無欲見也,使耳非是無欲聞也,使口非是無欲言也,使心非是無欲慮也).[10][11] Those may be the inspiration for the pictorial maxim after Chinese works were brought into Japan.

Kōshin scroll with the three monkeys

It is through the Kōshin rite of folk religion that the most significant examples are presented. The Kōshin belief or practice is a Japanese folk religion with Chinese Taoism origins and ancient Shinto influence. It was founded by Tendai Buddhist monks in the late 10th century. A considerable number of stone monuments can be found all over the eastern part of Japan around Tokyo. During the later part of the Muromachi period, it was customary to display stone pillars depicting the three monkeys during the observance of Kōshin.

Though the teaching had nothing to do with monkeys, the concept of the three monkeys originated from a simple play on words. The saying in Japanese is mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru (見ざる, 聞かざる, 言わざる) "see not, hear not, speak not", where the -zaru is a negative conjugation on the three verbs, matching zaru, the modified form of saru () "monkey" used in compounds. Thus the saying (which does not include any specific reference to "evil") can also be interpreted as referring to three monkeys.

The shrine at Nikko is a Shinto shrine, and the monkey is an extremely important being in the Shinto religion. The monkey is believed to be the messenger of the Hie Shinto shrines, which also have connections with Tendai Buddhism. There are even important festivals that are celebrated during the year of the Monkey (occurring every twelve years) and a special festival is celebrated every sixteenth year of the Kōshin.

"The Three Mystic Apes" (Sambiki Saru) were described as "the attendants of Saruta Hito no Mikoto or Kōshin, the God of the Roads".[12] The Kōshin festival was held on the 60th day of the calendar. It has been suggested that during the Kōshin festival, according to old beliefs, one's bad deeds might be reported to heaven "unless avoidance actions were taken…". It has been theorized that the three Mystic Apes, Not Seeing, Hearing, or Speaking, may have been the "things that one has done wrong in the last 59 days".

According to other accounts, the monkeys caused the Sanshi and Ten-Tei not to see, say or hear the bad deeds of a person. The Sanshi (三尸) are the Three Corpses living in everyone's body. The Sanshi keep track of the good deeds and particularly the bad deeds of the person they inhabit. Every 60 days, on the night called Kōshin-Machi (庚申待), if the person sleeps, the Sanshi will leave the body and go to Ten-Tei (天帝), the Heavenly God, to report about the deeds of that person. Ten-Tei will then decide to punish bad people, making them ill, shortening their time alive, and in extreme cases putting an end to their lives. Those believers of Kōshin who have reason to fear will try to stay awake during Kōshin nights. This is the only way to prevent the Sanshi from leaving their body and reporting to Ten-Tei.

Meaning of the proverb[edit]

Just as there is disagreement about the origin of the phrase, there are differing explanations of the meaning of "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil".

  • In Buddhist tradition, the tenets of the proverb are about not dwelling on evil thoughts.
  • The proverb and the image are often used to refer to a lack of moral responsibility on the part of people who refuse to acknowledge impropriety, looking the other way or feigning ignorance.[13]


Sculpture of four monkeys, the fourth monkey is covering its genitals

Sometimes there is a fourth monkey depicted, Sezaru, who symbolizes the principle of "do no evil", which fits with the full quote from Analects of Confucius. The monkey may be shown crossing its arms or covering its genitals. Yet another variation has the fourth monkey hold its nose to avoid a stench and has been dubbed "smell no evil" accordingly.[4]

Three wise monkeys variation : "Hear, see, speak only good"

The opposite version of the three wise monkeys can also be found. In this case, one monkey holds its hands to its eyes to focus vision, the second monkey cups its hands around its ears to improve hearing, and the third monkey holds its hands to its mouth like a bullhorn. Another modern interpretation is "Hear, see, and speak out loud for what you stand for".

Cultural influences[edit]

A World War II poster directed at participants in the Manhattan Project

The three wise monkeys, and the associated proverb, are known throughout Asia and outside Asia. They have been a motif in pictures, such as the ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock printings) by Keisai Eisen, and are frequently represented in modern culture.

Representation of Mahatma Gandhi's smaller statue of the three monkeys Bapu (Mizaru), Ketan (Kikazaru) and Bandar (Iwazaru), at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India

Mahatma Gandhi's main exception to his lifestyle of non-possession was a small statue of the three monkeys - Bapu, Ketan and Bandar - which was gifted to him by Nichidatsu Fujii.[14] Today, a larger representation of the three monkeys is prominently displayed at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, where Gandhi lived from 1915 to 1930 and from where he departed on his famous salt march. Gandhi's statue also inspired a 2008 artwork by Subodh Gupta, Gandhi's Three Monkeys.[15]

The three monkeys are depicted in the trial scene in the 1968 film Planet of the Apes. In an example of semiotics, the judges mimic the "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" monkeys.[16]

In a spoof of this saying, Bob Dole quipped about a meeting of former US Presidents: "Carter, Ford and Nixon: see no evil, hear no evil and evil."[17]

The maxim inspired an award-winning 2008 Turkish film by director Nuri Bilge Ceylan called Three Monkeys (Üç Maymun).

A depiction of the Three Wise Monkeys can be seen carved into a faux tree behind the service counter at Bengal Barbecue in Disneyland's Adventureland across from Indiana Jones Adventure.[18]

Unicode characters[edit]

Unicode provides emoji representations of the monkeys in the Emoticons block as follows:[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wolfgang Mieder. 1981. "The Proverbial Three Wise Monkeys," Midwestern Journal of Language and Folklore, 7: 5- 38.
  2. ^ Oldest reference to the correct monkey names in English. Source:
    • Japan Society of London (1893). Transactions and proceedings of the Japan Society, London, Volume 1. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co. p. 98.
  3. ^ Lafcadio Hearn (1894). Glimpses of unfamiliar Japan, volume 2, p. 127.
  4. ^ a b Pornpimol Kanchanalak (21 April 2011). "Searching for the fourth monkey in a corrupted world". The Nation. Thailand. Archived from the original on 28 August 2015. Retrieved 19 June 2017.
  5. ^ "Mikazaru - Google Search". www.google.com.
  6. ^ Oldest reference of the incorrect Mazaru in Google Books. Source:
  7. ^ Worth, Fred L. (1974). The Trivia Encyclopedia. Brooke House. p. 262. ISBN 978-0-912588-12-4.
  8. ^ Shipley, Joseph Twadell (2001). The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 249. ISBN 978-0-8018-6784-2.
  9. ^ Original text: 論語 (in Chinese), Analects (in English)
  10. ^ Original text in Sibu Congkan, "Vol. 312". pages 32-33 of 156
  11. ^ Xun Kuang (2014). Xunzi - The Complete Text. Translated by Eric L. Hutton. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 8.
  12. ^ Joly, Henri L. (1908). "Legend in Japanese Art". London, New York: J. Lane. p. 10. Retrieved 13 December 2011.
  13. ^ Tom Oleson (29 October 2011). "How about monkey see, monkey DON'T do next time?". Winnipeg Free Press. Retrieved 25 July 2012.
  14. ^ NATARAJAN, NARGIS (2023-04-02). "Bapu, Ketan, Bandar — And Then There Is The Fourth Monkey". www.thecitizen.in. Retrieved 2023-09-21.
  15. ^ "QMA unveils Gandhi's 'Three Monkeys' at Katara". Qatar Tribune. 28 May 2012. Archived from the original on 6 June 2012. Retrieved 21 June 2012.
  16. ^ Russo, Joe; Landsman, Larry; Gross, Edward (2001). Planet of the Apes Revisited: The Behind-The Scenes Story of the Classic Science Fiction Saga (1st ed.). New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Griffin. p. 71. ISBN 0312252390.
  17. ^ "Liberties;Let Dole Be Dole". New York Times. 7 March 1996. Retrieved 9 March 2019.
  18. ^ Shaffer, Joshua C (July 17, 2017). Discovering the Magic Kingdom: An Unofficial Disneyland Vacation Guide - Second Edition. Synergy Book Publishing. p. 454. ISBN 978-0-9991664-0-6.
  19. ^ Unicode 6.0.0 characters in Emoticons block: SEE-NO-EVIL MONKEY ‹🙈›, HEAR-NO-EVIL MONKEY ‹🙉› and SPEAK-NO-EVIL MONKEY ‹🙊›.


  • Titelman, Gregory Y. (2000). Random House Dictionary of America's Popular Proverbs and Sayings (second ed.). New York: Random House. ISBN 978-0-375-70584-7.
  • Archer Taylor, "Audi, Vidi, Tace" and the three monkeys
  • A. W. Smith, Folklore, Vol. 104, No. ½ pp. 144–150 "On the Ambiguity of the Three Wise Monkeys"

External links[edit]