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Frequently asked questions

about the three wise monkeys that hear, see and speak no evil.

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This page is part of www.three-monkeys.info, a website entirely dedicated

to the three wise monkeys that hear, see and speak no evil

 

 

Questions

(Click on the questions)

 

 

Q01.  What is the origin of the three monkeys?

 

Q02.  What is the meaning of the three monkeys?

 

Q03.  How old are the three monkeys?

 

Q04.  Why is there so much confusion about the origin of the 3 monkeys?

 

Q05.  What are the names of the 3 monkeys?

 

Q06.  Are the three monkeys connected with the god of the roads? 

 

Q07.  Is the three monkeys sculpture in Nikko Japan “the original”?

 

Q08.  Sometimes it is said that the 3 monkeys originate from Africa?

 

Q09.  Sometimes I see a figurine with four monkeys. What is the idea?

 

Q10.  I own a set of three monkeys, what is it worth?

 

Q11.  Are many people collecting three monkeys?

 

Q12.  Why are the 3 monkeys so popular in the Netherlands?

 

Q13.  How can I join a collectors group?

 

Q14.  Where and when are the next 3-monkeys-collectors’ meetings?

 

Q15.  What is the official order of the 3 monkeys?

 

Q16.  I would like advice about how to start collecting the 3 wise monkeys.

 

Q17.  How are the Japanese/Chinese characters for hear, see and speak no evil?

 

Q18.  I have a question that is not listed.

 

 

 

Answers

 

A01     What is the origin of the three monkeys?

 

It is widely believed that the three monkeys, that keep eyes, ears and mouth closed, originate from Japan. During the Japanese Moromachi period this unique symbol of don’t hear, don’t see and don’t speak (evil), has become part of a Japanese folk religion called Koshin.

This belief basically is about staying healthy by behaving well. The original idea of the Koshin belief is very old and it is assumed that this folk religion by itself, (but not necessarily the 3 monkeys!) has its roots in China or India.

 

Consider the following:

1.   In Japan, still hundreds, if not thousands of Koshin-to (Stone slabs, many of them with the three monkeys’ symbol) and other religious artifacts such as Koshin scrolls can be found.

2.   If the 3 monkeys would have originated from China or India, why are there hardly any old statues or sculptures to be found in those countries?

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A02     What is the meaning of the three monkeys?

 

It is best to say that the role of the three monkeys is that of messengers. To understand their meaning, it is important to know more about the Koshin belief. 

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A03      How old are the three monkeys?

 

The oldest items depicting the three monkeys are:

o   stone slabs, also called Koshin stone monuments (Koshin-to)

o   religious paper scrolls used in Koshin ceremonies and

o   wood carvings in temples and shrines in Japan

The most famous three monkeys’ carving is found in Nikko Japan. As of today this also is the oldest item as far as exact dating back is concerned (1636 A.D.).

There are several Koshin-tos in Japan that are older than this date, but it is hard to determine the exact year. The oldest Koshin stone monument in the Kamakura area with a monkey (not the 3 monkeys) dates back to 1559, but this one does not have the inscription of the word "Koshin“. There is another one from 1628 which has both the inscriptions of a monkey and Koshin.

An educated guess is that the three monkeys’ symbol is approx. 400 - 500 years old.

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A04.  Why is there so much confusion about the origin of the 3 monkeys?

 

The confusion is caused by the fact that the Koshin belief and the representation of the 3 monkeys are being mixed up. The Koshin belief by itself (staying awake at night to avoid reporting of bad deeds to the heavenly god) is very old and probably has its roots in China.

When the Japanese monk Ennin wrote in 838 AD that during his visit to China he had seen similar practices as he was familiar with in Japan (staying awake at night), he was referring to the belief, but not to the monkeys.

The three monkeys only became part of the Koshin belief in Japan some time during the 14th or the 15th century and the symbol has spread over the country and been there during the past 4 to 5 centuries. Initially one or two monkeys were depicted on scrolls and stone monuments and later came the 3 monkeys doing the no evil gesture.

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A05.   What are the names of the 3 monkeys?

 

In Japanese language, the three see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil monkeys are called

 

sanzaru (三猿)

or

sanbiki no saru (三匹の猿).

 

The names of the individual monkeys are:

 

mizaru (see no monkey) (見猿)

kikazaru (hear no monkey) (聞か猿)

iwazaru (speak no monkey) (言わ猿)

 

The Japanese word for monkey is “saru", which sounds very similar to the verb-ending “zaru", which means “not”.  In addition, “saru” also means “go away”, which can be related to the “evil”.

It is not impossible that the appearance of the 3 monkeys in the Koshin belief may have originated from a play on words.

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A06.    Are the three monkeys connected with the god of the roads?

 

There are several internet pages suggesting this, but Shoumen Kongou, mostly with the 3 monkeys, is undoubtedly the principal image of the Koshin belief. However, Japanese are rather open to accept beliefs from different sources merge them and then modify them to their own needs. In some areas of Japan Dosojin (god of the roads) and sometimes also Sarutahiko have been introduced in the Koshin belief, but this has never become widespread.

 

*In fact Dosojin is the god for everyone who is “on the road” (or in transit) and therefore also for the unborn baby in its mothers womb.

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A07.   Is the three monkeys sculpture in Nikko Japan “the original”?

 

See answer A03. The 3 monkeys in Nikko are not “the original”, but of this carving it is known that it was there when the Nikko shrine was completed, which was in the year 1636 A.D.

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 A08.   Sometimes it is said that the 3 monkeys originate from Africa?

 

The majority of 3-monkeys figurines originating from African countries are being produced for the souvenir industry, but there are a few items that certainly could give the impression that the three monkeys have been part of some African cultures for a longer period of time. Click here for a few examples. It needs much more research to find out how and when the 3-monkeys adage was introduced to Africa. 

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A09.  Sometimes I see a figurine with 4 monkeys. What is the idea?

 

A fourth monkey (usually called “Do no Evil, Have no Fun or Have no Sex”) is a later addition to the well-known trio, but has nothing to do with the original Koshin belief. Monkey number 4 most probably has been added by the souvenir industry.

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A10.     I own a set of three monkeys, what is it worth?

                          

Some kinds of three monkeys’ figurines have been produced in huge quantities and can be found all over the world. Other items can be quite rare and consequently have a higher collector’s value. If you are interested in the value of your item, it is a good idea to have a look in internet auction houses, like eBay, whether similar sets are offered for sale. For a start, the best search word is “no evil”.

 

You can also email us with pictures and details about size, material and other relevant information and we will give you an estimate about possible value and other particulars. This service is free and without any obligations from both sides. Click here for more information. To view all earlier valuations, click here.

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A11.     Are many people collecting three monkeys?

 

It is assumed that more than 300 collectors from all over the world are actively searching the internet for 3 monkeys, but there must be many more that don’t have or don’t want internet services.

 

During the early 1990’s, initiated by several newspaper articles, a few three-monkey collectors in the Netherlands became aware that they were not alone with their hobby. They contacted each other and decided to meet. That was in 1993 and since then yearly meetings have been organized, mainly in the Netherlands. Today the mailing list of No Evil collectors, just in Holland and Belgium, exceeds 100 persons.

 

A few years later, when internet auctions came up (especially eBay), it was through this platform that 3 monkey-collectors in the USA and in other countries discovered that there were more people interested in the No Evils. They were outbidding each other to such an extent that part of the eBay community (small at that time) was very closely watching all what was happening in the “No Evil Monkeys” sector. In spite of this heavy competing, the No Evil enthusiasts contacted each other and decided to hold meetings, like the European collectors. The first meeting was in 2001 in St. Louis, MO. The mailing list of US collectors presently includes approx. 40 persons.

 

As mentioned before, we guess that there probably are about 300 three-monkey collectors worldwide known or active on the internet: one hundred in the USA, about one hundred in Holland & Belgium and another hundred in the rest of the world. These figures are an assumption, also based on researching the internet and eBay for many years. The validity of this figure stands or falls with the definition “active collector” of course.

 

Also see the next Q&A 12, Why are the 3 monkeys so popular in the Netherlands?

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A12.    Why are the 3 monkeys so popular in the Netherlands?

 

Here is a possible explanation: From the early 1600’s to the middle of the 19th century, Japan was practically closed to foreigners. The only Westerners allowed to stay in Japan and engage in trade were the Dutch. They had to submit to very strict regulations and were only allowed to live on Deshima (or Dejima), a Dutch settlement in Nagasaki that became Japan's sole window to the western world when Japan isolated itself.

 

It is not unlikely that during these almost 250 years of exclusive trade between the Dutch and the Japanese, the three-monkey symbol has become known and also popular in the Netherlands, earlier than in any other place of the world outside of Japan. There is no proof for this statement yet. It is just an assumption.

 

If you want to read more about the Dutch in Japan, click here for a page with several very interesting links.

 

In any case, in the Netherlands, with a population of 16.5 million, almost 100 No Evil collectors are known. Add some for unknown*, that would mean that about one out of 150,000 people there collects the Three Monkeys.

 

If we use this figure for the USA with a population of over 300 million, we would come to 2,000 No Evil collectors in the United States only, which is extremely unlikely.

 

* Unknowns: the No Evil Collectors Group in the Netherlands is quite active, also with acquiring new members and there won’t be too many “unknowns” anymore.

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A13.   How can I join a collectors group?

 

That is very simple. Just inform us of your interest and we will be pleased to add your name to our mailing list. You can also keep track of the upcoming conferences by clicking here.

 

Both in Europe and the USA newcomers will be welcomed by a nice bunch of people, that all share the same interest of collecting the No Evils.

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A14.   Where and when are the next 3-monkey-collectors’ meetings?

 

Information about past and future meetings in Europe and the USA can be found on the following page. Just click here.

If you would like to stay informed about everything new in the field of collecting No Evils, it is best to subscribe to our free Newsletter now. Click here.

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A15.    What is the official order of the 3 monkeys?

 

To my knowledge, there is no official order or sequence of the three monkeys.

In Japan, the origin of the 3 monkeys, the sequence on Koshin stones and on Koshin scrolls is erratic.

For example the famous 3 monkeys of the temple in Nikko are in the sequence: hear - speak - see

In my collection of over 3500 items there also is no fix pattern.

 

However, in spoken and written form, the sequence hear - see - speak is most commonly used, not only in English, but also in many other languages.

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A16.   I would like advice about how to start collecting the 3 wise monkeys.

 

There is a lot to say about collecting the 3 wise monkeys and I  just write down what comes to my mind (after more than 30 years of collecting them).

 

In the beginning I could not imagine that so many different 3 monkeys’ items would exist, so I collected everything that I could find. My collection now includes over 3500 different sets (after a “clean-up”) and if I could start all over again I would consider the following:

 

- Just collect monkeys and no other animals or people that keep eyes, ears and mouth closed.

- Some kinds of figurines exist in different sizes, materials or colors, but basically are all of the same design. Keep one and ignore the rest.

- Concentrate on three monkeys only and forget about 4-monkey sets.

- It could also be an idea to collect figurines only and no utility items with the three monkeys, like ashtrays or T-shirts.

- Some people collect “attached” sets of 3 monkeys only, rather than “three piece sets”.

 

In any case, put a sticker with a number to every item and note down where, from whom, when and at what price you obtained it. In the beginning this may seem unnecessary, but after some time one cannot remember all details. Part of the fun of collecting is the "story" that belongs to every item.

 

Try to get an opportunity to meet with other collectors and see other collections. I always found this very inspiring. If you tell me your location, I hope to be able to get you into contact with a collector that lives near your area. Otherwise it is an excellent idea to join one of the next Three-Monkeys-Collectors-Conferences.

 

Three monkeys’ collectibles can be found on flea markets and in antique malls. Other possible sources are souvenir- or gift shops.

Sources on the internet are auction houses like eBay. Start with searching for "no evil" and see for yourself. You can also try other search words of course.

Another option is internet shops, but these usually offer new items only.

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A17.  How do the Japanese/Chinese characters for hear see and speak no evil look like?

 

This question is frequently asked by people that are interested in getting a tattoo made. The answer is here below.

 

The “problem” is that in Japan or China the expression “no evil” is not used in connection with the three monkeys. It is either “three monkeys” or “hear no monkey, see no monkey and speak no monkey”.

 

Here below are the options. Should you be interested in getting a tattoo made, you will first have to find someone who is mastering Japanese calligraphy, so that the symbols will look nice.

 

Character

Pronunciation

English

聞猿  見猿  言猿  

kikazaru, mizaru, iwazaru

hear no monkey, see no monkey, speak no monkey

聞かざる  見ざる  言わざる

kikazaru, mizaru, iwazaru

hear no monkey, see no monkey, speak no monkey

三猿

sanzaru

three monkeys

三匹の猿

sanbiki no saru

three monkeys

In case you cannot see the Chinese/Japanese characters in the above frame, but maybe only little squares, then your computer is not equipped for viewing such characters. In that case it would be best to visit a library or an internet café, because those usually have the necessary software and there you can see how these characters look like

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A18.    I have a question that is not listed.

 

We welcome any questions. We like to hear what you are interested in and will be pleased to share our knowledge.

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