MANY small sculptures of animals and birds were created by Japanese craftsmen to decorate private homes of the wealthy rulers of the Edo period - the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century. In 1640, Japan adopted a very radical policy of seclusion and exclusion. Japanese were prohibited from traveling abroad, and foreigners were not allowed to enter the country. For more than two centuries, the Japanese lived unto themselves on islands seemingly at the margin of the world. Nature was the principal diversion, regarded with profound understanding and admiration.

The Emperor and his court retired to Kyoto, the old capital, which became a religious center. Tokyo (then Edo) developed as the political heart of the country under hereditary military rulers, the shoguns, who eventually obtained kingly powers. They required that immediate subordinates - the leaders of the already existing 260 divisions of Japan - live one year out of two in Tokyo. This arrangement necessitated that each leader maintain dual luxury mansions - and in the upgrading of their own subalterns, who stayed at home to do the daily work.

Culture and education gradually trickled down to the common people, and the tastes of the aristocracy, especially for the tea ceremony, collections of small objects of art, and the habit of meditating, were gradually adopted by all levels of society.

The Japanese, today's most avid tourists, have always loved to make pilgrimages, even solitary strolls, to commune with trees, mountains, snow, flowers, creatures large and small. These were also used to decorate their homes; the first as prints, the last as sculpture.

Never vulgar, easy, a joke, or a caricature, animal art in Japan is full of style, exquisitely crafted, lyrical, at some times true to life, at others quite fanciful. It presents to man a subtle and charming knowledge of the world around him. The sculpture shown here is realistic but with an overall sense of poetry. The dog, a good friend of man, was supposed to have magic powers - its barkings were thought to drive away evil-intentioned spirits. Our well-fed puppy is cast in bronze with a thin wash of gold.

Japan opened its doors to the world again after the middle of the 19th century. In this transition, leaders lost power and homes were shuffled around, which led - among other things - to a general surplus of decorative art. In 1871 and '72, when Frenchman Henry Cernuschi, on a round-the-world trip, arrived in Tokyo, he was amazed by the quantities of exquisite small animal sculptures available; he carefully selected and purchased literally hundreds of them. They were placed in his villa and eventually donated to the city of Paris, which for many years has operated the home as the Mus'ee Cernuschi. The collection, without doubt one of the most valuable of its kind, was presented at a grand showing in 1986, sponsored by the mayor of Paris. Especially honored was the governor of Tokyo, who, accompanied by the ambassador of Japan to France, attended the ceremonial opening as part of the celebration of the ``Season of Tokyo'' in Paris.

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