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Japanese Monkey (Part2), and Pheasant related stories

Date Published: Last Update:2015/05/14 Animal, Traditional Culture , , , ,

Monkey in Japan


-"Monkey" by Kansetsu Hashimoto (1940)-
Image from GATAG

Although “saru” is a general word for monkeys, I guess most of Japanese would think it refers to Nihon-zaru, Japanese monkey.
It has fluffy coat, red face and red butt.

There are many areas where wild monkeys live in Japan.
I’ve never seen one, but I saw a warning like “Be careful of wild monkeys”, and occasionally the news about them ruining crops.
The most famous place in Japan would be “Jigokudani Yaen-Koen”(Hell valley wild monkeys park), where you can see them bathing in a hot spring in winter.


-Bathing monkey-
Better life than me.
Photo from Ashinari


A monkey has been a very familiar animal for a long time.
Shows with a monkey doing tricks (“Saru-mawashi” in Japanese) is one of the oldest traditional entertainments.
It’s performed by duo of a human and a monkey.
In old times, a monkey was believed to be a guardian of a horse, so its performance was done mainly at a stable to pray for horses’ safety and health.
This custom is long gone, but you can still enjoy the show at several places.
There is an “izakaya” (Japanese pub) where you can meet a monkey waiter too, I don’t know if we can call it “Saru-mawashi” however.

A monkey is another sacred animal, there are shrines with monkey statues, carvings etc., treating it as a divine messenger.
“Saru” is the same pronunciation as “leave” in Japanese, so a monkey is related to the image of “Evil leaving”.
Also, “inu” (dog in English) has the meaning of “leave”, a bit old-fashioned way though.

Pheasant story


Photo from Ashinari

In “Momotarou”, the pheasant drawn is always a male than a female.
Maybe because it’s much more colourful and easier to recognise.

I can’t think of any other famous tales with pheasants, except a story related to a very well-known saying, “A pheasant wouldn’t have been shot dead if it hadn’t cried”.
(The mouth is the gate of evil)


In the old times, people had great difficulties to build a “Nagara” bridge in Osaka, so they decided to sacrifice somebody to appease the god.
A local rich man advised to choose a person wearing a patched “hakama”(Japanese skirt-like trousers).
Ironically, he was the one to be sacrificed, as his “hakama” was patched.

-Samurai wearing "hakama"-

-Samurai wearing "hakama"-
Illustration from Illust AC

That gave his daughter a great shock, she stopped speaking.
Because she didn’t say a word even after she got married, her husband planned to end their marriage.
On the way he sent her to her home, a pheasant flew out with a cry.
He swiftly shot it down, then his wife said, “My father was sacrificed for “Nagara” because of his words, the pheasant wouldn’t have been shot if it hadn’t cried”.

The present “Nagara” bridge is nothing to do with this story, the course of the river was different at that time, and the location of the original one is not known.
A temple “Daigan-ji” in Osaka is said to be built to pray for the sacrificed soul.


-The present Nagara bridge-
Photo from Photo AC


Okayama and pheasant

A pheasant is the national bird of Japan.
It was chosen partly because it is a good target for hunting and tastes good.

It is the bird of Okayama prefecture too, but only since 1994.
A lesser cuckoo was the first bird of Okayama in 1964, but locals didn’t have a sense of affinity for it, so the pheasant was chosen by a local vote.

We have a professional football (soccer) team in Okayama, named “Fagiano” (Italian for pheasant).
“Faji-maru”, the team mascot, is of course a pheasant motif.



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A Japanese living in Okayama. A proud "Otaku"! Loves animals, snacks, manga, games (PC, iPad, Nintendo DS, PSP), foreign TV dramas, traveling and football (soccer).

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