Runaway Horses: Art in the Kodokan – The Kano Chronicles®

Kanō shihan was not described as an aficionado of the arts, but he owned one piece of art that seems to have captured his imagination: a large pair of traditional Japanese byobu screens depicting five madly galloping, runaway horses.  These screens can be seen in years of photographs of the Kodokan, displayed to either side of his ever present (and still displayed) seat and desk at the front of the Dai Dōjō, where they are still displayed today in the new Kodokan Great Dojo.

In 1906 Kanō saw an exhibit by young artist Konoshima Okoku[1] and tried to buy one of his screens on display. Okoku responded that those works on display were not for sale, so Kanō  commissioned him to make a remarkable painting—a huge two eight-panel screen set showing five madly galloping horses. The massive 奔馬 Honba ‘Runaway Horses’ screen set became a fixture in the Kōdōkan, displayed in the Dai Dōjō during important events but normally displayed in Kano’s kanchō institute head’s office in the Kodokan.

They can be seen here, in the Dai Dojo of the old Kodokan, during a kagamibiraki New Year ceremony, a tradition still followed today.

Kagami Biraki Kodokan date unknown

Other points of interest in the photo are the name boards and the hanging scroll in the alcove. The box formats correspond to the margin notes.

Screen Shot 2020-01-13 at 13.16.45

The set is huge; note how they tower over the seated Kano in the photo above.

Below is a photo of the two screens stacked, fully open flat (they were normally displayed separated left and right, in a partial fold, the normal display method for free standing screens).  The top two-horse screen is shown to the left above.

(Image courtesy Oukoku Bunko, Kyoto, Japan, the NPO that owns the museum housing Okoku’s works, former home and workshop.)

Okoku Honba Runaway Horses

The screens were both lost when the Kodokan was partially destroyed during a 1945 firebomb raid (see The Firebombing of the Kodokan 1945 for details) and part of the Dai Dojo and the kancho office burned. A napalm bomblet landed on the Kodokan roof just above the far wall in the photo above and burned through the rood and into the Dai Dojo below.

In a final bit of irony, Kano shihan was noted as a less than expert horseman, apparently having fallen off horses with some regularity, at least once while riding to the Kodokan. While his personal interviews apparently do not mention it, a number of contemporary accounts refer to his mishaps.

[1]  See

Oukoku Bunkō English website

Oukoku  Bunko Address:  56  Higashi-machi, Tojiin,  Kita-Ward,  Kyoto,  603-8343  Japan


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Lance Gatling
Author / Lecturer
The Kanō Chronicles
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©Copyright 2020 Lance Gatling – The Kanō Chronicles

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