Kudan versus Hakutaku

by Rosemary Bandini

Since a great deal of my working life is spent ‘on the road’, travelling all over the globe, I am lucky enough to meet a lot of collectors and fellow dealers, with whom all sorts of exchanges of ideas and viewpoints constantly serve as an inspiration. Frequently the spark of an idea for an article gets logged on my computer, but time is a luxury which I don’t always have – so thought-provoking conversations go no further.

This blog gives me the opportunity to moot a subject and open it up to discussion, or to examine in depth a particular netsuke or artist. Some of the things I write about will meet with stiff resistance from those who have studied netsuke for years and may recoil from the idea that the whole of our community may be guilty of perpetuating erroneous ‘facts’. But knowledge is not a static thing and we must have the humility not only to acknowledge past mistakes, but also to keep our minds open to new information. After all, this is not a competition, but a community.


Talking with Princess Takamado earlier in the year she told me that we Westerners are mistaken in our attribution of the name KUDAN to the nine-eyed creature which appears so rarely and enigmatically in netsuke. I left perplexed – how did we get it so wrong? Then I took up the conversation again with Nori Watanabe, who replied: I am curious to know why it is called kudan in the West.

The KUDAN, he explained, is an imaginary creature with the body of a cow, or ox and the head of a human, seemingly an fantasy chimera thought up in the early 19th century, and he supplied me with several images, all labelled kudan in Japanese:

The first image here dates back to 1836:

The second is by Utagawa Yoshimuri (1830-1885), a pupil of Kuniyoshi:
Utagawa Yoshimuri

Neither has the sets of three eyes on its flanks, nor the extra eye on its brow.

The HAKUTAKU, Nori explained, is much earlier in date, and like many mythological creatures in Japanese legend, has its origins in China.

This painting of an imaginary animal by the Zen priest Hakuin (1685-1768) belongs to the Dairyuji temple in Gifu. Exhibited in the Bunkamura Museum in Shibuya between December 2012 and February 2013, it is clearly described in the catalogue as a Chinese imaginary animal with the body of a cow, face of a human, having three eyes on its face and additional six eyes on its body, two horns on his head and two or three horns on each side of its trunk. The word “hakutaku” is circled in red at the end of the forth line of the inscriptions on the right side of the painting. It is believed to have been painted by Hakuin when he visited the city in 1758 and is now designated an important cultural property of the prefecture:

Which makes me think of this (could Masanao have seen the painting?):

British Museum F816 British Museum F816
British Museum, Franks bequest F816

Nori provided further historical evidence in the form of original imagery, all are labelled hakutaku.

They include a Chinese illustration:

Gusukuma Seiho (1614-1644):

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849):

And a cover of a book published in 2008 by Adashino Rin (Kodansha):

For me, the evidence is compelling and leaves no doubt that our traditional label of Kudan has been confused with that for the 19th century creature depicted at the beginning of this blog.

My thanks are due to Masanori Watanabe for this material.

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