Japanese Macaque Symbolism and Meaning

Japanese Macaques in the cold and snowo on Honshu island.

The Japanese macaque, also known as the snow monkey or snow monkey, is a species of non-human primate native to Japan. These fascinating creatures have long been a part of Japanese culture and folklore, symbolizing various meanings and holding significant importance in the country’s history and tradition. In this article, we will explore the symbolism and meaning behind these unique animals and their connection to Japanese society.


The Japanese macaque is not just an ordinary primate; it holds a special place in the hearts of the people of Japan. This species has been a part of their culture for centuries, representing different aspects of life, nature, and spirituality. From mythology to art, these creatures have left their mark on various aspects of Japanese society. Let’s dive into the symbolism and meaning behind this fascinating animal.

Symbolism in Mythology

In Japanese folklore, the macaque is often associated with the sun goddess Amaterasu, who is believed to be responsible for creating the world. According to legend, these monkeys were created by the goddess to serve her and protect her shrine at Ise Grand Shrine. They are considered sacred animals due to their connection with the divine. In some stories, they even have the power to bring good luck and prosperity when seen in groups of three or more. The macaque is also linked to the mythical creature called “Saru,” which can transform into humans at will. This association with deities makes them a symbol of divinity and spirituality.

Japanese Macaque (Macaca fuscata) in the winter snow, Joshin-etsu National Park, Honshu, Japan.
Japanese Macaque (Macaca fuscata) in the winter snow, Joshin-etsu National Park, Honshu, Japan.

Symbolism in Art

Japanese art often features these monkeys, particularly in woodblock prints known as ukiyo-e. They are depicted playing musical instruments or engaging in human activities like bathing in hot springs, reflecting their intelligence and social behavior. The famous Hokusai’s “Great Wave off Kanagawa” painting includes a macaque on the shore, symbolizing nature’s harmony with humans. Their presence adds depth to these artworks, showcasing their importance in Japanese culture.

Symbolism in Nature

Japanese macaques are known for their ability to adapt to cold climates, living in snowy regions like Mount Yudono and Jigokudani Monkey Park. They’re seen as symbols of resilience and survival against harsh conditions. Their behavior during winter months, when they cover themselves with snow, is a representation of endurance and strength. This symbolizes the ability to thrive despite adversity, inspiring people to face challenges head-on.

Symbolism in Society

In Japanese society, macaques are seen as symbols of wisdom and intelligence. They’re often associated with the concept of “monkey see, monkey do,” meaning imitation or mimicry. This phrase is used when someone copies another person’s actions without understanding their intentions. However, it also signifies adaptability and learning from others.

Symbolism in Religion

Macaques are revered in Shinto religion as messengers of the gods. They’re believed to carry messages between humans and deities, making them symbols of communication and connection with the divine realm. In Buddhism, they represent enlightenment and spiritual growth.

Symbolism in Pop Culture

Macaques are popular mascots for various products due to their cute appearance and playful nature. They’re used in advertising campaigns, adding charm and cuteness factor. The famous Sanrio character “Hello Kitty” is a macaque-inspired design, showcasing their cultural significance.

Symbolism in Science

Macaques are studied for their unique adaptability to cold climates, providing insights into human evolution. Their behavioral patterns offer valuable information about social structures and problem-solving skills.


The Japanese macaque’s symbolism extends beyond just being primates; they represent resilience, intelligence, adaptability, spirituality, and cultural significance. They embody wisdom, communication, and survival instincts. These monkeys are more than just animals – they’re an integral part of Japan’s culture, history, and beliefs. Their presence in various aspects of life highlights their importance in society and nature. Understanding these symbols helps us appreciate the depth of Japanese culture better.

Frequently Asked Questions about Japanese Macaques

What is the scientific name of the Japanese macaque?

The scientific name of the Japanese macaque is Macaca fuscata. It is also known as the snow monkey.

Where are Japanese macaques found?

Japanese macaques are native to Japan and are found on three of the four main Japanese islands: Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu.

What is the average lifespan of Japanese macaques?

The lifespan of Japanese macaques is up to 32 years for females and up to 28 years for males, which is relatively high compared to other macaque species.

What is the behavior of Japanese macaques like?

Japanese macaques live in matrilineal societies, with females staying in their natal groups for life, while males move out before they are sexually mature. They are known for their grooming behavior and complex social structures.

What is the diet of Japanese macaques?

Japanese macaques are omnivorous and eat a variety of foods, including more than 213 species of plants, insects, bark, soil, and other parts of plants. Their diet varies seasonally and according to their habitat.

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