Birds in Shinto and Japanese Culture

ShintoRooster

Daylight had long faded to memory. The world seemed consumed by a never-ending darkness. Despite waiting and waiting… and more waiting… morning never came. The sun goddess Amaterasu refused to emerge from her cave.

The other deities and spirits realized that something had to be done, for an earth without light was becoming too much to bear. These beings, referred to as kami, deliberated on a way to lure the goddess out again. Eventually, after devising a plan, they brought all components into place. The strategy included aiming a mirror towards the grotto-housed Amaterasu (in order to catch her reflection) while roosters crowed nearby.

Soon the great solar goddess, hearing the cocks’ daybreak song, noticed the glowing cavern entrance. She was puzzled, her interest piqued. The scheme appeared to be working. Finally stepping out to investigate, the goddess did what she had resolved to not do—Amaterasu brought sunlight back again into the world (1, 2, 3). The most revered deity in the Shinto pantheon, thus, had been tricked in part by some roosters.

Today these creatures are kept at some Shinto shrines, while the torii, those gate-like structures at temple entrances, are deemed the birds’ honorable perches (4). Although the cock is highly regarded, several other birds also figure prominently within this religion and throughout Japan’s culture.

Monsters, Messengers, and More

Birds are noted in the Kojiki and other ancient texts regarding the history of the Japanese people and their land. Several tales involve a great hero referred to as Jimmu Tenno, who’s depicted as Japan’s first emperor and a descendant of the goddess Amaterasu. For instance, before Jimmu’s conquest of Japan, he sighted a falcon near or on his ship, interpreting the bird’s appearance as an auspicious sign (5, 6). Later, in a dream, Amaterasu revealed her plans to dispatch Yatagarasu, a special three-legged crow and messenger. The vision turned out to be prophetic, for the great kami-bird soon materialized and contributed to Jimmu’s victory (7).

Like many ancient civilizations, the early Japanese also commonly associated death and the hereafter with avian creatures. Archeological remains and artwork discovered at funeral mounds, for instance, suggest birds were considered psychopomps, guiding the dead towards the afterworld (8, 9). In many cases, too, the human spirit was recognized as a bird. A popular story about Yamato Takeru, another of the nation’s storied heroes of antiquity, illustrates this belief. The Kojiki states that upon death he transformed into a white-feathered bird. The exact kind is not clear; however, speculation posits types ranging from a sandpiper to a swan (10).

Other avian creatures, too, continue to remain popular in lore related to death and rebirth. In some circles today, people believe that the dead can return as ravens (11). One Japanese tradition holds that certain individuals, usually Buddhist monks and mountain ascetics tainted with spiritual pride, are reborn as kami-like beings with avian features (e.g., wings and claws, heads of a kite or crow, etc.). Known as tengu, these monstrous figures are believed to reside in the forest highlands where they wreak mischief on nearby hermits. But not all tengu look or act similarly, and some do not resemble birds (12, 13). Also, a few, rather than haunting holy men or abducting children, reportedly offer individuals martial arts instruction. For example, popular stories indicate that tengu trained the legendary 12th-century warrior and general Minamoto no Yoshitsune (14). Overall, while these mythical creatures may have originated in spooky woodland lore, today they have taken off in the Japanese entertainment industry. One regularly finds tengu in the country’s comics (manga) and animated films (anime) (15).

Iconic Creatures

Featured in Japanese art and folklore, cranes abound among the nation’s most beloved animals. At least a couple of the Seven Gods of Good Luck are portrayed alongside these creatures. Depictions of the sages Fukurokuju and Jurojin, both of whom represent long life, include cranes (16, 17). Ideas associating such deities and these birds with longevity likely stem from Taoist influences (18, 19). As noted in a prior post, cranes do figure prominently in that Chinese religion. They also are significant in origami, the centuries-old art form of Japanese paper folding. Custom holds that a person capable of creating 1,000 paper cranes will be granted health and longevity (20). This idea probably accounts, too, for the origami birds’ popularity as a wedding gift, interpreted as a symbolic wish for the new couple’s marriage to be long and happy.

Besides the crane, a couple other winged creatures deserve mention. The first is the cormorant, a bird particularly important centuries ago. The Kojiki, for instance, refers to allies of Jimmu Tenno as folks who fished with trained cormorants (21). This practice likely originated in China, but is most famous in Japan. If you’re wondering exactly how such a process worked, the key lies with a string-like apparatus. This cord is fixed around the bird’s long neck, enabling fishermen to regurgitate catches restricted within the cormorant’s esophagus. In fact, such a method is still practiced today, but primarily as a reminder of Japan’s cultural heritage (22). Then there’s another feathered favorite, the pheasant. This close relative of the junglefowl rooster is depicted as the messenger of deities such as Amaterasu (23). While the green pheasant is thought of as Japan’s national bird (24), the albino version held significance for the imperial court. According to the eighth-century Nihongi text, sightings of a white pheasant indicated that the kami were pleased with the emperor (25).

Summary                                                                                                             

Much has changed in Japan since the unification of this archipelago nation many centuries ago. Just in the past one hundred years alone, the country has relegated its imperial figures to a ceremonial role and grown into a tech industry powerhouse. Commercial fishing is also thriving—but without the cormorants. Yet, as this post attempts to demonstrate, birds still remain integral to Japanese culture and religious life, from aspects of origami and manga to the symbolism on display at Shinto temples.

Sources:

  1. Roberts, J. Japanese Mythology A to Z. New York: Jim DeFelice, Chelsea House, 2010. p. 5.
  2. Sun, RQ. The Asian Animal Zodiac. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1974. p. 162.
  3. Horne, CF et al. The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East: Volume XIII: Japan. New York: Parke, Austin, and Lipscomb, 1917. pp. 37-40, 164.
  4. Sun, RQ. p. 162.
  5. Frédéric, L. Japan Encyclopedia. Roth, K. (translator). Boston: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002. pp. 420-421.
  6. Martin, LC. The Folklore of Birds. Old Saybrook, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 1993. p. 55.
  7. Volker, T. The Animal in Far Eastern Art and Especially in the Art of the Japanese Netsuke: With References to Chinese Origins, Traditions, Legends, and Art. Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1975. pp. 38-39.
  8. Bonnefoy, Y. (compiler). Asian Mythologies. Doniger, W. (translator). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. pp. 270-272.
  9. Hoffmann, Y. Japanese Death Poems. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1986. p. 34.
  10. Horne, CF et al. pp. 60-61.
  11. Hoffmann, Y. p. 34.
  12. Bonnefoy, Y. pp. 285-287.
  13. Foster, MD. The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015. pp. 130-139.
  14. Foster, MD. pp. 133-135.
  15. Kimbrough, RK., “Tengu”, The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters. Weinstock, JA. (editor). Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2014. pp. 529-531.
  16. Roberts, J. pp. 42-43.
  17. Frédéric, L. p. 438.
  18. Renard, J. 101 Questions & Answers on Confucianism, Daoism, and Shinto. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002. p. 23.
  19. Mak, R. “Japanese Mythology”. Bullen, M, et al. National Geographic: Essential Visual History of World Mythology. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2008. p. 365.
  20. Mackenzie, D. “Exploring Origami”. Exploratorium Magazine Online (Volume 23, Number 2): http://www.exploratorium.edu/exploring/paper/paper2.html.
  21. Horne, CF et al. pp. 85, 92.
  22. Gabriel, O, et al (editors). Von Brandt’s Fish Catching Methods of the World (Fourth Edition). Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. pp. 34-36.
  23. Horne, CF et al. p. 170.
  24. Lederer, R. Amazing Birds: A Treasury of Facts and Trivia about the Avian World. London: Quarto Publishing, 2007. p. 50.
  25. Horne, CF et al. p. 142.
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22 thoughts on “Birds in Shinto and Japanese Culture

  1. Michael, I found this to be of particular interest as I lived in Japan from 1967-1969. As always it is so well-written and Jenn’s illustration is superb! What a team the two of you are!

    Love Bonnie

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    1. Bonnie, many thanks for your kind words! Jenn mentioned that you had lived in Japan. It’s one of those places I definitely want to visit. And I’d love to hear sometime about your experiences there. You all take care!

      1. That would be great. However, I was talking about my including a link on this “Birds in Shinto and Japanese Culture” post that would connect readers to your tengu post, if that’s okay.

  2. Very interesting and well written blog Michael. It brought back memories of studying the different forms of Japanese poetry, and art. Thank you for posting it.

    Connie

    1. Thanks, Connie! Although familiar with Soto Zen Buddhism, I knew very little about Shinto before writing that post. What I learned was fascinating. I do hope to someday visit Japan. Any recommendations on sites, specific poets, artists?

  3. I love that chicken of your wife’s!! Recently we had our boat at a dock in Plantation, Florida. The boat across the dock from us has a rooster that walks the plank onto the dock in the morning, struts for awhile and crows!! It is the cutest thing and it looks a bit like the drawing above. I took its portrait two weeks ago and gave it to the chicken on Saturday. I think it liked it!!

    1. Thanks, Judy—I’ll let her know. A rooster walking the plank . . . now that’s not something you see every day. Well, at least not here. Very cool! Did you happen to post that photo on your blog? I’d really like to see that!

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