Japanese Ema and the three monkeys that hear, see and speak no evil



image002 Presentation by Emil Schuttenhelm during the Three-Monkeys Collectors Day on October 4, 2008 in Eerbeek, the Netherlands.

image003Nederlandse versie.

Maybe some of you already have this little board with the three monkeys in your collection or you have seen something similar. Or something similar, but with a different image or with Japanese letters. And you wondered what it actually represents.

These are religious wish boards and they are the result of a mixture of two Japanese religions, Shintoism and Buddhism. In Japan these boards are called “Ema”, which literally means: picture of a horse.

This sounds quite confusing and in this presentation I want to try to tell you a little bit more about it. The first part is about Ema in general and the second part is about Ema with the three monkeys.

"EMA" = picture of a horse




More than a thousand years ago, it was a custom in Japan for wealthy people to offer live horses to the gods in exchange for blessings. Horses were considered sacred animals and the gods would love to ride them. The stable at the shrine in Nikko in Japan, where the most famous image of the 3 monkeys can be seen, was therefore intended for such offerings.

Live horses were not only expensive sacrifices, but they were also expensive for the shrine to maintain. For these practical reasons, the horses were replaced over the years by horses made of clay or wood. And later still through images of horses. Exactly, the Ema, as already said, the image of a horse.

It was a tradition for many years to offer a black horse to the gods in times of drought and a white horse after long periods of rain.

Mix of Shinto and Buddhism





In the course of time other images appeared on the Ema, not only horses, but also other animals or people or also just texts.

When believers go to Shinto shrines, they tell their wishes to the gods and they write them on these Ema boards. It is not quite the same as our “praying”, but it is a bit like it.

Ema are still found in Japan





The Ema with the wishes are hung in the best possible place, usually outside the temple, so that the gods can see them better. But as you can see, the gods must have good eyes and take enough time to read them all.

Usually in temples and shrines





In most shrines and temples in Japan, Ema can still be bought for about $ 5, so you can write something on them and hang them, but very often they are also simply bought as a souvenir and taken home.

Ema = religious sign

Over the years, two types of Ema have emerged: Small boards, like the ones you see here, used by believers asking for help from a god or for perseverance in fulfilling a promise. Often the image is directly involved in the wish or problem. Tigers are said to protect against cholera and pigs (actually wild boars) mean sincerity and patience.

The three monkeys who see, hear and speak no evil are the messengers of the koshin faith and monkeys in general signify problem solvers, innovators, inventors or intellectuals.

Examples of wishes that occur on Ema

Happiness in general

Fertility in agriculture, prosperity in business or ability in art.

Prosperity and good growing up of children

Recovery from illness

Sincerity and faithfulness in a relationship

Abstinence from alcohol, tobacco and gambling

A recent study has shown that over the past few decades, many Ema have been made by men who pledged to be faithful to their wives forever or at least for some time. It is interesting that there are hardly any Ema to be found by women who wish the same with their husbands.

Be that as it may, fidelity turns out to be a disappearing topic. Many of the Ema are now written by young people, especially girls. They often wish for good results in school, but topics such as love and marriage are also quite popular.

Elderly people usually ask for good health or often financial matters are concerned.

It is striking that purely religious themes, such as gratitude or praise to the gods, have practically disappeared completely.






A lot of Ema are about health. The two top ones about feet, bottom left about an injured arm and bottom right is a general, rather abstract Ema about health and longevity.

Faithfulness in a relationship

Here is an example of a woman who wants sincerity and fidelity from her partner


As mentioned, money is also a hot topic, especially with older people.

Ema with the promise to stop smoking and drinking

Ema in which the writer promises to stop drinking and smoking. This one comes from the Shinto Museum in Japan.

Prayer for a sick person

Some Ema are true works of art

Enough milk for breastfeeding

Here is an example of a mother hoping for enough milk for her child.

No idea what this is

I don't know much about this wish, but it may have something to do with music or so.

Part 2

Ema with an image of the 3 monkeys.

So now comes the second part of this presentation about Ema with the three monkeys. These are often hung in Koshin-do (Koshin shrines), usually as a wish for a long and healthy life. The core of the Koshin belief is to live long and healthy by avoiding all bad things. In fact, this is nothing new and occurs in almost all religions. The special thing about the Koshin faith is that it uses “our” three monkeys as a symbol. The three monkeys are considered messengers between the gods and the humans.

First below is an image of an antique ema from the 17th - 18th century about the Koshin faith with Shoumen Kongou and the three monkeys. This is the same kind of image as can be seen on antique paper rolls or on Koshin monuments.

Translation from Japanese



To expel evil (sickness)





Man born in the year of the sheep

Translation from Japanese




all wishes to be fulfilled




Name of Koshin-do

(location not known)

Illustration # 19 from the book “Ko Ema” by Hiromi Iwai, published in 1966 by the company San Sai Sha in Japan.

Info: Michio Iida, Kyoto

The following Ema are all from this or the last century.






These Ema above are still made in larger quantities.





These too are from serial productions and are still for sale in shrines and temples.





The top two come from souvenir shops in Nikko Japan. In the image at the bottom right, monkeys are apparently not yet in agreement about who actually wants to hear, see or silence.





These Ema here are all hand painted and therefore unique







These six Ema are all hand painted as well.





The top two are with clay bells, as used in religious ceremonies. The other two are partially or completely ceramic.







Here are some more special Ema. In Japan, only monkeys are used for the No Evil symbol. In the center left, as a great exception, three Shinto priests are depicted covering their eyes, ears and mouth.





Here are four more current Ema, which I got from a friend, who recently visited temples in Kyoto and Osaka.

Kawasaki Daishi Temple

This is an example of a large Ema and it can be seen in a temple in Kawasaki, south of Tokyo. This city is famous for the Kanamara festival in the spring, also called the “fertility festival”. The slogan of this Ema, which points to the avoidance of venereal diseases, is therefore very appropriate.

Thanks to Michio Iida in Japan for photos and information to make this presentation possible.


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