1 Mar 2020

The Green Pheasant, the National Bird of Japan

Green Pheasant © HIH Princess Takamado
Green Pheasant © HIH Princess Takamado
By HIH Princess Takamado

'Through the Lens', Fujingaho Magazine, March, 2020

Click here to view pdf

Photos and text: Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado

English Translation: Asia Club, a WBSJ Volunteer Group (YOKOYAMA Kazuko, KASE Tomoko, Ueno Naohiro)

March 3 is the Girl's Festival, also known as the peach-blossom festival, so this month, I would like to write about the Green Pheasant Phasianus versicolor, which appears as one of the leading characters in our famous old tale, “Peach Boy”. It is a story about a boy born out of a large peach fruit which came floating down the stream. He was picked up and raised by an old man and woman. Later on, he rewarded them by defeating evildoers and re-capturing the treasure of the villagers with the help of a monkey, a dog and a pheasant. The remarkable appearance of the pheasant has been drawn in numerous pictures, and its resonant “kut-tuk, kut-tuk, kut-tuk” or “ke-nn, ke-nn” call has also been described in various poems. In my early days of marriage, I came across an ancient man-yo poem describing the scenery of Mount Takamado. It translates as: “At the foot of Mount Takamado male pheasants (kigishi) are calling, while cherry blossoms are falling and floating as if dancing. How much I wish anyone were watching it.” Then I learned for the first time that the ancient Japanese people called male and female pheasants different names: kigishi and kigisu.

Green Pheasant (male) © HIH Princess Takamado

In 1947 the Ornithological Society of Japan designated the Green Pheasant as the national bird for various reasons - for instance, it is endemic to Japan, it is mentioned in “Kojiki” and “Nihonshoki” (the two oldest Japanese history books), and people have been long familiar with the bird from folk tales like “Peach Boy”. The male has beautiful plumage and flies powerfully, while the female is called "the bird in the burning field", for it is so full of maternal love that it sacrifices its life to protect chicks and eggs, even when the nest is surrounded by fire. The Green Pheasant is rather large and considered the most suitable game bird and, in addition, its meat is delicious. It must be quite rare that the national bird is a game species, but historically speaking, the bird has been indispensable to the life of the Japanese people. It is even the tradition for the Imperial Family to drink pheasant liqueur on New Year’s Day.

In the famous legend, the pheasant joins Peach Boy’s party and is assigned a reconnaissance mission for its bravery. But in reality, it is the female that is said to be brave. She, while sitting on eggs, has a habit of never leaving its nest, whatever might happen or whoever might approach. Males fiercely fight against each other over territory, but generally they are very cautious and tend to run away from any danger. Pheasants have strong legs: they usually move around on foot, but can jump up vertically to avoid enemies, despite their heavy weight.

Two male pheasants are fighting over the territory © HIH Princess Takamado

While male pheasants are extremely colorful, females are rather plain. Why? It is common among such species that the females raise their chicks without any help from males. Females have evolved to be camouflaged so as not to attract attention to the chicks. On the other hand, being freed from the task of raising the family, males have become more showy so that they can attract as many females as possible.

In the animal world, it is common for females to choose males. Conversely, among humans, women dress themselves colorfully while men look nondescript. Some may say that women try to appeal to men to be chosen. Throughout human history, women have devoted themselves to raise children while dressing beautifully. However, nowadays women often choose men, and more men take part in child-raising. Such men are nicknamed “ikumen” - men who positively take part in child care and enjoy raising their children. I wonder how, in case of humans, several questions like whether men choose their mates or women do so, why women dress themselves up and at the same time can raise children, and how these behaviors may change in future, are to be explained ethologically and sociologically. It should not be discussed on the same basis as the pheasant, but it is still a somewhat preoccupying and interesting issue to me.

Green Pheasant (female) © HIH Princess Takamado