Small statuettes of three monkeys, one covering his eyes, another his ears, and another his mouth, have been popular in Britain since (probably) the 1900s; they are known to have been carried as lucky charms by soldiers in the First World War. They are identified with a proverbial saying, ‘See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’, first recorded in 1926 and now generally used sarcastically against those who, through selfishness or cowardice, choose to ignore some wrongdoing. A few figurines show the first two monkeys peeping and listening, while the third has a finger on his lips; these may reflect the proverb ‘Hear all, see all, say nowt’, known since the late Middle Ages.
The Wise Monkeys originated in Japan, where they have been known since the 16th century; statues of them are set at crossroads in honour of Koshin, the God of Roads, whose attendants they are. There, their slogan is Mi-zaru, kika-zaru, iwa-zaru, ‘No seeing, no hearing, no speaking’, with a pun on saru, Japanese for ‘Monkey’, and it is used seriously to teach prudence and purity.
Wolfgang Mieder, Tradition and Innovation in Folk Literature (1987), 157–77;A. W. Smith, Folklore 104 (1993), 144–50.