Japan's 72 Microseasons - #10
"Sparrows Build Their Nests" and the Vernal Equinox
March 21 - 25
すずめ はじめて すくう
Suzume hajimete sukū
Sparrows build their nests
While many seasonal periods go unnoticed and unmarked these days, there’s something about the equinoxes that still holds a bit of power. We may not have conversations at work or the dinner table about the year’s first haze—or, as in this kō, what the sparrows are up to—but an equinox? Rare for this day of equal sun and dark to pass unremarked on.1
The Vernal (Spring) Equinox, called Shunbun (春分) in Japanese, is our fourth sekki. As in many countries, this is the first day in Japan that is officially considered spring. It’s also a National Holiday. In addition to maybe getting the day off, it’s a day to welcome the coming of spring and leave winter in the rearview. A day to be outside and let your skin be warmed by the ever-increasing sunlight.
At the Imperial Palace and major Shinto shrines, the traditional ceremony of Shunki Kōreisai (春季皇霊祭) is carried out to honor past emperors and other imperial ancestors. In fact, the national holiday was originally set aside to allow for this observance, and was only changed to its current non-religious name, Vernal Equinox Day, after the adoption of the purposefully secular (and, more importantly, non-imperial) post-War Constitution. Still, the week around either equinox is even today called Higan (彼岸), a time of Buddhist rituals in Japanese sects. Many people will also take this time to visit and clean family graves and freshen up in-home ancestral shrines with offerings like botamochi/ohagi.
The proceedings at the Imperial Palace are, unsurprisingly, private, but here’s some nice videos from Kasuga Grand Shrine in Nara of this year’s Kōreisai and equinoctial ceremonies:
In modern Japanese society, this period is marked by reflection and change of a different type. These few weeks leading up to April are filled with school graduations and job changes. Staff are shuffled around offices and cities to, ostensibly, get a fresh start and offer a new perspective. Out with the old in with the new. Open the windows and air out the rooms.
If January 1st is the new calendar year, and Kō 1 is the new seasonal year, then Shunbun marks the new cultural, or perhaps spiritual, year in the hearts and minds of many people in Japan (and elsewhere2). On the bureaucratic side, Shunbun (more accurately, March 31st) marks the end of the financial year. Any projects from the previous year are to be wrapped up, and new budgets drawn.
We’ll talk about it again in 6 months' time, but if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere and dying to know: the Autumnal Equinox is (somewhat confusingly) called Shūbun (秋分)3. Both are periods of change, reflection, beginnings and endings.
This is just as true for the humble sparrow, if perhaps on a smaller, simpler scale that involves less paperwork. I don’t think there was any mystery on seeing this email what Kō 10 is about. So rather than define for you what a sparrow or a nest is, let’s instead look at some ways they’ve featured in Japanese art and culture.
Officially the Eurasian tree sparrow, the suzume is not only a frequent sight throughout Japan’s natural environment, but has long appeared in haiku, painting, folklore, music, and plenty of other cultural materials. Aside from their overall cuteness and genial nature, this familiarity comes from proximity—it’s not uncommon for sparrows to build their nests under the eaves of peoples’ homes, or local supermarkets. They’re also, to farmers’ dismay, big fans of rice grains.
Still, they remain an iconic and important part of the Japanese landscape, and have provided inspiration for artists and royalty alike. The suzume features on a number of family crests:
Their distinctive, darting wing movements provided the inspiration for Sendai’s folk dance, the Suzume-Odori, which was captured by the famous artist Hokusai:
And there’s no shortage of them in art ranging from classical paintings to modern anime:
So prominent are suzume in Japanese culture, they are even referred to as monosashi-dori (ものさし鳥): literally “measuring bird” and meaning that they form the basis for size and proportions against which other birds are compared.
Before we move to our seasonal items for Kō 10, a quick breakdown of the kanji character in its name: 雀 is our kanji for suzume/sparrow, 始 we’ve seen as recently as Kō 8 and means “first” or “to begin,” and finally 巣 is read su and means “nest.” The verb for building a nest? Sukū (巣くう). As for how these little guys get started building their nests? Like any wildlife well adapted to urban living, they find whatever they can get and make their own use of it (fabric, paper, grass, and their own feathers).
● Seasonal word natane-dzuyu, 菜種梅雨, early spring's long spells of rain ● Seasonal vegetable tsukushi, 土筆, the young shoots of the field horsetail ● Seasonal seafood shira-uo, 白魚, whitebait | hotate-gai, 帆立貝, Japanese scallop ●Seasonal flowers tanpopo, 蒲公英, dandelion
Sparrows are an exceedingly common bird to see not only in Japan, but in many countries. Yet, just because something is common doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable, or beautiful, or peaceful. I think the difference is just attention.
Even though Japan may be separated from some of you by distance, and the Koyomi is separated from all of us by time, there are some simple sights, like a sparrow building a new nest for its future family, that we can enjoy the same here or there, then or now.
See you next kō~
Keep up with the seasons
My first time seeing the “your email is too long” warning—apologies! Maybe next time I’ll split off the sekki into its own post
And if no one around you has mentioned it yet, it’s your time to shine!
Unsurprisingly the equinox is celebrated very similarly in China and other Asian countries that derive cultural influence from there, but this period is also the start of Ramadan, as well as the Iranian New Year, Nowruz (not to mention Easter’s Pagan origins, which lie in vernal equinox celebrations)
If you are south of the Equator and would like to read these in a more appropriate order, bookmark them and come back in half a year