Japan's 72 Microseasons - #69
"Pheasants Pipe Up"
January 16 - 19
Kiji hajimete naku
”Pheasants pipe up”
As the nation of Japan stirs from its midwinter slumber, so too does its national bird. The green pheasant, resplendent in shades of jade and crimson, begins once more to tentatively warble and crow as the Japanese archipelago heads towards the other side of winter.
Known in the language of Japanese as the kiji, and in the language of science as Phasianus versicolor1, the green pheasant is native to the Japanese archipelago and its cry is so distinctive it has its own kanji character, which appears in the name of this kō: 雊.
This sharp, resounding call is made by male pheasants in the lead-up to breeding season, and is answered by a plaintive cry from the females that feels full of longing as they search for each other in the wild underbrush. Because of this, it features heavily in poetry and writing dating back as far as Japan’s literature goes, often serving as a metaphor for romantic and familial2 love, even across distances.
As a common game bird available through the fall and winter when other food could be scarce, hearing the pheasant’s peculiar call or catching a flash of its beautiful plumage must have made a tired, cold hunter plenty happy3. With their vivid colors and rich meat, pheasants were a prize catch, and made for great gifts during wedding or other celebrations of harmonious unions. Even today, they’re one of the limited species of animals that are officially allowed for game hunting, partly in recognition of their historical place in Japanese diets.
The pheasant is one of the three animal allies—alongside Dog and Monkey—recruited by the folktale hero Momotarō as he journeys to Oni Island to defeat the monsters there. Known to fiercely defend their territory, Pheasant holds his own against Dog when suddenly attacked, then provides forward surveillance on the monsters’ island stronghold that enables the hero’s victory. It’s likely for this reason that the animal features in the crest of Japan’s Defense Intelligence Headquarters (情報本部), the country’s chief espionage agency.
Their sense of danger isn’t limited to folktales: like many animals, they’ve been observed reacting to oncoming earthquakes several seconds earlier than technology-based warning systems4. However, because their unique cry can be heard from a good distance and most people recognize it, they’ve garnered a reputation for predicting seismic activity (and thunderstorms). That same call used to find a mate can also provide some extra time to brace yourself should you hear it.
The pheasant appears in plenty of myths and folklore aside from Momotarō, and has both graced the country’s ¥10,000 note and is part of the second-ever named historical era of Japan: Hakuchi, so called due to the a pure white pheasant received as a gift by the then-Emperor Kōtoku.
If you’re without a hunting license, have too busy a schedule to dive into the forest, or would simply rather your food pre-packaged, here’s a couple other seasonal items you can enjoy in place of this traditional gamebird.
● Seasonal seafood
ankō, 鮟鱇, monkfish
● Seasonal fruit
boke, 木瓜, flowering quince5
● Seasonal vegetable
naganegi, 長ネギ, shallots6
In the 12th century book Ōkagami (大鏡7), it’s noted that Fujiwara no Kanemichi, a statesman from the famously wealthy—and controversially influential—Fujiwara family, liked to have pheasant meat as a snack with his pre-bedtime nightcap. In many countries and time periods, there’s any number of class and cultural divisions when it comes to eating meat8, so I find it interesting that pheasants were prepared in kitchens from the deepest, poorest mountain villages to the Imperial courts of Kyōto, and for everything from wedding ceremonies to a warm winter meal with the neighbors.
And it all starts with hearing a shrill call in a snowy wood.
See you next kō~
Keep up with the seasons
The second part of its binomial name comes from the Latin for “color-changing,” alluding to how the bird’s iridescent blue-green plumage appears to ripple and shift in the sunlight beneath the leaves
Pheasant mothers keep their chicks close by as they go about their day, and male and female pairs are often seen together when not calling into the bushes
Apparently, they are also somewhat easy to hunt—two separate kotowaza sayings refer to them being spotted to their detriment:
雉も鳴かずば撃たれまい | Kiji mo nakazuba utaremai
”If a pheasant didn’t call it wouldn’t be shot”
頭隠して尻隠さず | Atama kakushite shiri kakusazu
”Hiding your head without hiding your rear”
As a mostly flightless and very flashily colored bird, the pheasant needs to be fully aware of oncoming danger—the soles of their feet are highly sensitive to vibrations in the ground
It’s not very tasty freshly picked, but instead cooked and used instead in jams, liqueur, and sweets
We technically already had negi as a seasonal vegetable, but 1) there’s not that many vegetables at the peak of freshness during winter and 2) there’s a wide variety of things Japan calls “negi” but which would variably be called in English green onion, spring onions, scallions, shallots, chives, and leeks
To be specific: of that list above, the first three/four are just “negi” (different English-speaking countries mean different things when they talk about “shallots”) followed by ezonegi for chives and poronegi for leeks, although the English loanwords are just as common
“The Great Mirror”
Our English words for meat reflect this: have you ever wondered why the words for farmed animals and their meat differs? That’s because peasants raised livestock that they called chickens, cows, sheep, and pigs, but those animals’ meat mostly wound up on the tables of the French-speaking ruling class, who spoke instead of poultry, beef, mutton, and pork (in French: poulet, boeuf, mouton, and porc)