Japan's 72 Microseasons - #65
"Moose (And Elk) Shed Their Antlers"
December 27 - 31
Sawashika no tsuno otsuru
”Moose/elk shed their antlers”
Sometimes, a refresh is the best approach. You can spend a year growing something then let it go. Starting over with a clean slate is a good way to get some weight off your chest, or, in the case of deer great and small, off your head. New year, new you.
Some may be surprised to learn that deer, elk, and moose all shed their antlers in the winter1—dropping them at the root once a year only for them to regrow in spring. Unique to cervids (the family these species belong to), antlers serve as a natural weapon and decoration to signify health and status to potential mates and/or rivals. They’re made of bone—the fastest-growing bones of any mammal—with nerves, blood vessels, and cartilage in them. When mature, the skin-like “velvet2” that surrounds the antlers falls off3 and the bone mineralizes (calcifies), hardening into sharp points. With no more nutrients or bloodflow, what is now essentially dead bone eventually falls off.
As you might imagine, this whole rapid growth process takes lots of energy, and lots of energy takes lots of food. The natural solution is to get rid of them once their purpose of mating and fighting is finished for the year.
The “shed,” as the cast-off antlers are called by people in the hobby of collecting them, provide useful calcium and minerals for small animals like squirrels and rabbits that like to gnaw on them as winter nutrients grow harder to find. In various human cultures, they’ve been gathered and used as handles for tools, or as pieces for carving and decoration. The Ainu, who live where deer are plentiful, used them for jewelry, fasteners, instruments, knives, and many other tools.
Foraged antlers are far from the only part of big deer that are used, of course. The animals in all their various names, sizes, and shapes have long been an important part of many peoples’ diets.4
Although, as you may have noticed, the name of this kō doesn’t mention deer, but rather moose and/or elk. The reason for the indecisiveness in a definition there is due to the nature of the kanji 麋, which can mean any type of large deer or its cousins in the family Cervidae. Readings vary: from the sawashika given in this kō’s name, as well as herajika, nareshika, and ōjika. Loosely, those correspond to elk/wapiti, moose, reindeer/caribou5, and “big deer.”
The kanji character is a direct Chinese import, with the modern version used in Japan instead being 大鹿 (literally “big deer”). This confusion isn’t limited to Japanese—for any readers more familiar with UK English than its North American counterpart your “elk” may well be someone else’s “moose.”6 Elk is probably the best translation, given that what an English speaker pictures as an elk is as vague as what a Japanese speaker would picture for an ōjika.
The original Chinese character, and the original microseason, refers not to an elk or moose, however, but to a specific type of deer: the milu, or “Père David's deer” (Elaphurus davidianus), the only remaining member of a mostly extinct genus. Even the milu are now extinct in the wild, the only surviving population bred in captivity.7
Appearing in Chinese mythology as a divine beast and mount of ancient heroes, the milu was called the sì bú xiàng (四不像), a colloquial name that literally means “four unlike appearances” said to come from the fact that it has the antlers of a deer, the head of a horse, the hooves of an ox, and the tail of a donkey.8 The Japanese transliteration of this name, shifuzō, is how the species is known in Japan. And true to the “big deer” interpretation in Japan, the milu is about twice the size of Japanese deer.
And while milu aren’t native to Japan, deer still hold an important mythological place in Japanese culture. Seen as messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion, as well as symbols of death and rebirth, shed antlers have been used as wards and protective charms. Visitors to Japan will be very familiar with the deer of Nara’s Kasuga Shrine and Miyajima’s Itsukushima Shrine, both of which are host to hundreds of protected deer, which are free to roam and take bites out of tourists maps and ice cream cones.
If you’re in a suitably deer-free environment, though, you should be safe to enjoy some seasonal bites without anything else trying to take some.
● Seasonal fish
koi, 鯉, carp
● Seasonal vegetable
kabocha, かぼちゃ, winter squash
● Seasonal nut
kurumi, 胡桃, walnut
This kō is one of the rare few that actually doesn’t really apply to Japan, but was brought in as-is without changes nevertheless. Neither elk nor moose natively inhabit the Japanese archipelago, and Hokkaido only gets big deer. While we can’t ask its compiler and localization editor Shibukawa Shunkai why it’s stayed this way, one reason may be that the image is strong enough even without firsthand experience of the animals in question. Large, powerful beasts putting down their hard-built weapons—retiring them after a year of fierce combat and flirtatious brandishing—only to rebuild them when spring returns.
Midwinter and the end of the year are times for rest and reflection. For saving up your strength for the 12 months to come. Any action and antler-rattling can wait until the days are a little longer and warmer.
Happy New Year, and see you next kō~
Keep up with the seasons
I certainly was when I first heard it
Deer velvet is a traditional ingredient in Chinese medicine, and used in many countries as a dietary supplement—there is no evidence for its efficacy in any of the benefits claimed and the antlers need to be harvested early while still living tissue, with the deer under anesthetics
And by “falls off” I mean is often very bloodily scraped off—Googling this is not for the faint of heart
In South Africa, any meat that comes from a four-legged animal with antlers is called “venison”
More often, however, these are called tonakai (トナカイ), a word which derives from the Ainu “tunakkay”
In North America, “elk” generally refers to the species Cervus canadensis and “moose” refers specifically to Alces alces
This mixup arose when colonists from Europe arrived to America and spotted C. canadensis—lacking a name for them, they just went with “elk” with the indigenous Cree word for them, wapiti, coming into use later
Since the 1980s, the Chinese government has been reintroducing them to the wild, with the population as of 2020 around 10,000
This kind of mixing of parts is a common descriptor for mythical beasts in China: a kirin has the head of a dragon, body of a deer, tail of an ox, and legs of a horse; dragons in turn have the antlers of a deer, ears of an ox, body of a snake, and tail of a tiger