unsigned ivory netsuke

19th century

monkey and octopus

1 5/8 in., 4 cm

the seated octopus clad in a haori decorated with a tie-dyed star pattern on the back looks down at the monkey, with one tentacle extended outwards to the animal while another reaches up to the top of his bulbous head and curls around the top in a gesture that suggests puzzlement, the himotoshi formed in a circular opening in the 'lap' formed by the tentacles; the monkey squats before him and reaches up to hold one of the octopus' extended tentacles; the eyes of both inlaid

In Japanese mythology the octopus is attributed with healing powers, while the monkey is often portrayed as a clever imp. This netsuke illustrates a famous episode in which the two meet. Ryujin, the Dragon King of the Sea, calls upon his physician, an octopus (well-dressed here in his haori), to attend to his daughter who has taken ill. The octopus prescribes the liver of a monkey as a remedy. According to the legend, the octopus dispatches his rival, a jellyfish (who at the time had bones and a carapace, much like a tortoise) to capture a monkey. The jellyfish obliges, but en route back to the King, the monkey persuades the jellyfish that he didn't have his liver on him at the moment, but if they could return to the shore, they could surely retrieve it. The monkey escapes and when the jellyfish returns to the palace, Ryujin soundly beats all of the bones out of the jellyfish. This netsuke by-passes the role of the poor jellyfish in the story, and instead shows the captured monkey placing his hand on the tentacle of the octopus as if to say, 'oh no, I'm sorry I don't have a liver at all!' while the octopus-physician contemplates the monkey's compelling claim.

another view


Scholten Japanese Art is open Monday - Friday, and some Saturdays by appointment only

Contact Katherine Martin at
(212) 585-0474 or email
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site last updated
October 21, 2021

Scholten Japanese Art
145 West 58th Street, suite 6D
New York, New York 10019
ph: (212) 585-0474
fx: (212) 585-0475