13 Medieval Scavengers: Dogs in Japanese Handscrolls

In: Our Dogs, Our Selves


This essay seeks to explain the role of dogs in Japan’s medieval period (twelfth–fifteenth centuries) through an examination of contemporary written records and images in illustrated handscrolls. In the late twelfth century, when Japan’s ruling military elite reshaped the politics of the country, they also reconfigured the role of dogs to suit their needs and interests. Dogs in texts and paintings sponsored by the military elite became associated with fighting and blood sports, such as inu-ō-mono, where dogs were confined within an enclosure surrounded by a bamboo fence, pursued by men on horseback, and killed with arrows, activities which also served as tactical and weapon training for the warriors. But dogs also remained part of the medieval cosmology of the satoyama (farm village) landscape, which appears both in the writings of low-ranking aristocrats and Buddhist priests and in illustrated handscrolls they commissioned. The satoyama included both the sato (human settlement) and the yama (surrounding hills). While animals that lived in the foothills—mainly foxes, badgers, and monkeys—populate the folk literature of Japan and frequently appear as local gods (kami), dogs lived in the human settlements and are found in illustrations of commoner settings, temple environs, and scenes associated with illness and death. This essay examines the relationship between the context in which dogs appear in medieval handscrolls and the social status of their patrons.

Our Dogs, Our Selves

Dogs in Medieval and Early Modern Art, Literature, and Society