2020 is the Year of the Rat according to the Chinese zodiac. In fact, the rat is the first animal in the twelve-year cycle. Why are rats and mice, which are more commonly thought of as pesky varmints portrayed so positively on works of art?
In Japan, the mouse (rat) has been regarded as a divine messenger making it an auspicious animal. Originally, the mouse was associated with the deity Ōkuninushi, since Japanese myths tell that a mouse saved this deity’s life. When Daikoku, the god of wealth with Hindu origins, was brought into Japan, he was identified with Ōkuninushi because the Chinese characters for Ōkuni could also be pronounced “Daikoku.” Hence the mouse became the messenger of this syncretic god. In addition, mice are prolific breeders, making them a symbol of fertility. Moreover, during the Edo period (1615–1868), rats and mice were popular pets. Manuals on breeding rare species were widely circulated and produced some calm rats and mice that like people. In the Japanese court, a New Year’s event to bolster longevity was held on the First Day of the Rat (hatsune). This is elegantly described in “The Warbler’s First Song” (Hatsune), a well-known chapter from The Tale of Genji (11th c.), which itself inspired numerous celebratory artistic motifs.
This exhibition celebrates the New Year with outstanding representations of this robust yet charming creature.