7 Dec 2015

The Eyes of the Cormorant

Reed Cormorant (Microcarbo africanus) Photo: HIH Princess Takamado
Photo: HIH Princess Takamado
By HIH Princess Takamado

'Through the Lens', Fujingaho Magazine, December 2015

Click here to view pdf

Photos and text: Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado

English Translation: Asia Club, WBSJ Volunteer Group (Anna THOMAS & KASE Tomoko)

The first time I encountered the cormorant was in England, when I was about 14 years old. When I heard that the origin of English word “cormorant” was “corvus Marinus,” or “crow of the sea”, I felt like I’d gotten a lot smarter. The word cormorant in Japanese, however, is just one syllable: u (pron. “oo”). I felt sorry for cormorants because when someone spots one, in Japanese they’d just say “Oh, an u.” 

Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) Photo: HIH Princess Takamado

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There are about 40 species of cormorant in the world. In England, the cormorant is a nuisance for people who enjoy river fishing. The non-water repellant feathers of cormorants lead to less water resistance and are suitable for long and deep dives. Because the cormorants dive and then eat one fish after another, the fish population in England`s rivers is going down. Taking the time of raising fish and releasing them doesn’t solve anything, as the number of cormorants just goes up.

Traditional cormorant fishing in Asian countries such as Japan and China makes use of this mastery. Cormorants swallow what they eat whole, without chewing, so there’s no damage to the fish’s body or taste. You can see ukai, or cormorant fishing, in several places throughout Japan: one of these places is at the Nagara river, where imperial cormorant fishing is performed by masters of the Imperial Household Agency. Japanese word ukai(literally cormorant keeping) is very interesting to me because the focus is placed not on the bird doing the fishing but on the cormorant fishing masters.

Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) Photo: HIH Princess Takamado

Because cormorants swallow fish without chewing, as I wrote before, we call taking what someone says at face value and believing them without thinking “swallowing [a story] like a cormorant.” Looking at cormorants in the wild, we can see them swallow shockingly large fish. There’s also the expression “the eyes of a cormorant, the eyes of a hawk” from the sharp gaze of cormorants and hawks hunting for the prey. This describes their gaze or state of searching fervently, not missing a single thing. Often this phrase is used for people who look for others’ flaws or deficiencies, so it doesn’t give a good impression. “Swallowing like a cormorant” gives an impression of stupidity, while “eyes of a cormorant, eyes of a hawk” sounds sharp and disagreeable. Neither portray cormorants as likeable characters.

Watching cormorants closely, however, and you can find they’re rather charming birds with glossy feathers. The cormorant I encountered in South Africa on the first page had very pretty red eyes. The other three pictures are all of the Great Cormorant which is found in Japan and has clear green eyes.

Sometimes your impression of a person can change if you look into their eyes while talking to them. If you swallow rumors “like a cormorant” or try to find faults with the “eyes of a cormorant, eyes of a hawk” you may become an unlikeable character. I really feel that for every person, we have to make the effort to judge not just by appearances but by taking a good look in their eyes. 

Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) Photo: HIH Princess Takamado



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