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Newsletter: Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition

Delivered on April 24, 2020
Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition [Issue 113] April 24, 2020

Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition [Issue 113]
April 24, 2020
Japanese Traditional Culture Promotion & Development Organization


1. Seasonal creature:
A symbol of family happiness: Sparrow

:: 1. Seasonal creature

Here is a Tanka, Japanese traditional poem, from "The Yoshitada
Collection" written by SONE no Yoshitada who was a poet in the Heian
era in 11c.

"Neyano ueni Suzumeno koezo Sudakunaru Idetachigatani Koya narinuran"

Interpretation: The songs from the sparrows living above my bedroom
are getting more and more vibrant. It must be the time that the chicks
are ready to leave their nest.

The sparrow has always been familiar to Japanese people. It has been
a bird which makes people feel at peace with its adorable figure and
also carries out the role of letting people know the dawn all year
round. It is a parenting season for sparrows from spring to summer.
Although it only inhabits the rural areas in Europe, it can be seen
anywhere in Japan.

Unlike the Japanese bush warbler or the wild goose, the sparrow hasn't
featured in seasonal poems much. The reason is perhaps that sparrows
are always around throughout the year. Therefore it usually appears
to depict people's ordinary lives in Japanese classical literature like
the poem in the opening paragraph.

It seems the same as now, at this time of year people in old times
rescued sparrow chicks that had fallen from their nest under the eaves.
In "The Pillow Book" written by Sei Shonagon in 11c, the sparrow is
categorized as one of beautiful things and is described as "If I imitate
sound of a squeaking mouse, a sparrow chick comes jumping up and down
toward me". It is said nowadays that it is not a good idea to pick up
sparrow chicks on the ground as its parent birds might be watching.
However, people must still have the same human impulse to help the
little chicks now as they did back then.

As it is a familiar bird to Japanese people, there are many idioms sung
about it. For example, "the tear of sparrow" has the meaning of little
or small. And also in the idioms, "pricking a needle to sparrow" and
"squeezing blood from a sparrow's shin", the sparrow is used as a figure
of being weak or powerless. And more, the person who knows a lot of
gossip is called "Edo (former name of Tokyo) sparrow" or "Kyoto sparrow".
"Sparrow's drinking bout" means lively and noisy things. We can see
what Japanese people have been seeing in sparrows and their habits in
their daily lives from those idioms reflecting their impressions.

The sparrow has been used as a design on family crests commonly with
the image of the sparrows spreading their wings. There are many temples
in Sanuki in Kagawa prefecture whose crest depicts three sparrows.
It was because there was a rule about the numbers of sparrows that had
to be used in a temple's crest which was three whereas in samurai
families it was two. The sparrow design is often combined with a bamboo
tree or bamboo leaves. There were famous warlords called UESUGI and
DATE whose clan dominated the Hokuriku region and the Tohoku region.
They had a crest with two sparrows with bamboo leaves. The sparrow was
regarded as a bird which pecks bad luck. Since it also flocks as a
group, it was a symbol of family success and safety too. The sparrow
was mentioned in the well-known old tale, "Shitakiri Suzume (tongue
cut sparrow)", as it lives in bamboo thickets. It is because the birds
flock to go back to their nests in bamboo thickets in the evening.
From the behaviour, people found the connection between the auspicious
sparrow and the strong vitality of bamboo which takes root firmly under
ground. The crest of sparrow and bamboo was created from their wish
for family success.

Although it has been recognized as a good luck bird, it was still
thought of as a harmful bird for farming crops in the olden times
when the harvest was still unstable. Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine in
Kyoto prefecture is a shrine which worships abundant crops. There are
shops lining the road approaching the shrine which sell "Roast sparrow".
This popular speciality symbolizes exterminating sparrows. However,
sparrows in fact eat weeds' seeds and also prey on millions of harmful
insects during their parenting season to feed their chicks. According
to one study, sparrows are actually not an injurious bird after all.

The king, Frederick II in the Kingdom of Prussia (the north of Germany
to the west of Poland) who lived in the 18th century exterminated
several hundred thousands sparrows over two years to protect his
favourite food, cherries. However, it caused a huge outbreak of hairy
caterpillars and they made all the cherry trees completely bare. The
Chinese government after a war in the 20th century eliminated sparrows
as a pest bird too. They wanted to increase their harvest but what they
had soon after was a very poor crop. Humans shouldn't hold precious
fruits and vegetables all to ourselves, should they?

The song of the sparrow going "Chirp Chirp" is an indispensable part
of Japanese mornings. Do you greet to your mornings with this sound?
Or perhaps different songs sung by other birds?

Translation by: Hitomi Kochi, reviewed by Chan Yee Ting

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