NIKKO, Tochigi Prefecture--The famed monkey carvings at Nikko Toshogu shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage site, are not living up to their reputation following the latest restoration work in 44 years.

“Sanzaru,” or three wise monkeys, shows a monkey covering its eyes with its paws to see no evil, another covering its mouth to speak no evil, and one covering its ears to hear no evil.

But the repairs are drawing unwanted attention amid complaints that the intentions of the original painter centuries ago and later restorations have been botched.

When the repaired panel was revealed in March, the two monkeys whose eyes are visible quickly triggered criticism online. Many perceived the eyes as being wider with bigger irises and pupils, which led to complaints that the makeover was not in tune with the past.

Even a heritage building expert expressed doubts that the repairs were a faithful rendering of the earlier paint jobs.

The three monkeys have been repaired five times since the Meiji Era (1868-1912), in 1900, 1923, 1951, 1973 and now this time.

The latest repair was undertaken by the Association for the Preservation of the Nikko World Heritage Site Shrines and Temples, which is made of two major shrines and a temple in the Nikko district. Its predecessor organization was in charge of the previous two repairs.

The shrine, constructed in 1617 and dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder and the first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, is a hugely popular tourist destination.

The Asahi Shimbun asked Shigeru Kubodera, former chief of the Architectural History Section of the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties and an expert on painted works on heritage buildings, to evaluate the latest restoration work.

To make an objective assessment, Kubodera analyzed past photographs of the width of the eyes of the “Iwazaru” monkey that speaks no evil with current images.

According to Kubodera, the 1951 repairs reduced the width of the eyes by 20 percent from the makeover carried out in 1923.

In the 1973 repair, he said the size returned to the same as in 1923, and that the eyes appeared more realistic with sharper corners.

In the latest makeover, the eyes are rounder again, and the width has increased by 30 percent.

The preservation association was aware of the problem of the ever-changing depiction of the monkeys’ eyes, as its repair policy is to “reproduce the earliest example after a fresh repair.”

However, the oldest photo it has of the carving was taken just before the 1951 repainting, when many of the colors applied in 1923 had already peeled off.

So the association decided to base the work on a full-color sketch of the panel that was produced by an artist, who knew of the state of the painting prior to the 1951 repair, but is now deceased.

The round eyes depicted in the sketch match the concept of the monkeys being youngsters. Thus, it is “highly likely that the sketch is faithful to the older paint job,” the association concluded.

But in this latest makeover, the eyes are 30 percent bigger than the ones in the sketch.

The association explained the shift is the result of the restorer taking into consideration the preference for “large bright eyes” of the sketch artist, who was his mentor.

Kubodera said that the use of the sketch as reference materials "was appropriate.” However, he was critical of the change in the size of the eyes, which he condemned as an “expression of the restorer’s thoughts on a heritage item” and called problematic.

The repair work was funded by the Agency of Cultural Affairs, and the agency officer who checked the report of the project, said it considers the change is “within a margin of error for a manual work.”

The sanzaru sculpture measures 142 centimeters by 44 cm.