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Three wise monkeys

The three wise monkeys (Japanese: , san'en or sanzaru, or , sanbiki no saru, literally "three monkeys") are a pictorial maxim. Together they embody the proverbial principle to "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil". The three monkeys are Mizaru, covering his eyes, who sees no evil; Kikazaru, covering his ears, who hears no evil; and Iwazaru, covering his mouth, who speaks no evil. Sometimes there is a fourth monkey depicted with the three others; the last one, Shizaru, symbolizes the principle of "do no evil". He may be shown covering his abdomen or genital area, or crossing his arms.


There are various meanings ascribed to the monkeys and the proverb including associations with being of good mind, speech and action. In the western world the phrase is often used to refer to those who deal with impropriety by looking the other way, refusing to acknowledge it, or feigning ignorance.



The source that popularized this pictorial maxim is a 17th century carving over a door of the famous Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō, Japan. The philosophy, however, probably originally came to Japan with a Tendai-Buddhist legend, from China in the 8th century (Nara Period).


In Chinese, a similar phrase exists in the Analects of Confucius: "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). It may be that this phrase was shortened and simplified after it was brought into Japan.


Though the teaching had nothing to do with monkeys, the concept of the three monkeys originated from a word play. The saying in Japanese is "mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru" (, , , or with the suffix in kanji, , , ), literally "don't see, don't hear, don't speak". Shizaru is likewise written , "don't do". In Japanese, zaru, which is an archaic negative verb conjugation, is the same as zaru, the vocalized suffix for saru meaning monkey (it is one reading of , the kanji for monkey). Therefore, it is evident how the monkeys may have originated from what one would see as an amusing play on words.


In English, the monkeys' names are often given as Mizaru, Mikazaru, and Mazaru. It is unclear how the last two names changed from the Japanese originals.


This text was taken from the Wikipedia article "Three wise Monkeys" and is available under a CC-BY-SA license.

The image of the three monkeys is based on a photo by Anderson Mancini, available under a CC-BY license.



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