Japan has a rich history of using animals in its folk tales and legends. There are several animals and birds that the nation holds dear. Popular animals in Japan include cranes, snow monkeys, and beautiful Japanese koi fish. While there is not a national animal in Japan, there is a national bird. Read on to find out all about the national bird of Japan!
What is the National Bird of Japan?
The national bird of Japan is the green pheasant. The green pheasant, sometimes called the Japanese green pheasant, is a beautiful emerald green with a royal blue neck leading to a bright red head. Their wings and tail feathers are a mix of brown-gray feathers and stripes adorn their long tail feathers. The males are very colorful while the females lack the bright colors of the male and have a variegated coloration of browns. In Japan, their name is kiji.
Where do Green Pheasants Live?
Green pheasants live in woodlands, open fields, grassland, forests, and shrubland. They are endemic to Japan but have also been introduced in Hawaii. Green pheasants may nest on the ground or find hidden areas in tall grass or weeds to sleep. You can find pheasants foraging for food by themselves or in small flocks. While green pheasants can fly they typically stay on the ground in less they are fleeing a predator.
Why Is the Green Pheasant the National Bird of Japan?
The green pheasant features in the historic legends and stories of Japan. Legends say the ancient sun goddess, Amaterasu, used pheasants as messengers. One of the animal companions of Momotaro, a famous Japanese tale, was a pheasant. The people of Japan also pay close attention to green pheasants because they seem to be able to sense when earthquakes are about to happen and will alert those around them. In a country with some of the most earthquakes in the world, this is a valued reaction.
What is the Story of Momotaro?
There are different variations on the story of Momotaro but it goes something like this: Momotaro was born from a giant peach and found by a childless woman and her husband who took the boy in. When he grew older he ventured out to “Demon Island” to challenge a group of evil ogres or demons. On his way to the island, he runs into three talking animals: a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant. The animals tell the boy they will help him fight the evil demons if he will share some of his food (millet dumplings). Together they are able to defeat the evil demons and return home with a nice treasure and the captured lead demon. This legend was in school books and passed down from generation to generation.
Is the Green Pheasant on the Japanese Flag?
No. The Japanese flag does not feature the green pheasant. The flag has a simple design of a red circle on a white background. The “Land of the Rising Sun” is a byname of Japan, and the red circle represents the hot sun on a cool white background. Again, the respected sun goddess, Amaterasu, is credited with founding the great nation of Japan back in the 7th century BC. Japan officially adopted the current design of the flag on August 5, 1854.
Are Green Pheasants Endangered Animals?
No. Green pheasants are not endangered animals. According to the IUCN, they are a species of “least concern” based on the last assessment in October of 2016. They have a large range and thriving populations throughout Japan and they’ve also been introduced in Hawaii. It is legal to hunt green pheasants in Japan. They are also raised as livestock as food similar to chicken.
What Do Cranes Symbolize in Japan?
Cranes are another significant bird in Japan with the crane symbolizing good fortune and longevity. It was believed that cranes can live for a thousand years. The legend of Senbazuru stated if you folded 1,000 paper cranes your greatest wish would come through. The origami cranes were often strung together in long colorful strings.
The real cranes in Japan are red-crowned cranes, which were once almost extinct. Through conservation efforts, restoring marshes, and creating bird sanctuaries the red-crowned crane population turned the corner and is doing much better. It is estimated that on the island of Hokkaido, there are 1,500 red-crowned cranes. As of July 2021, the IUCN has the red-crowned crane listed as “Vulnerable” so there is still work to be done to continue to protect these elegant birds.
What Is the National Fish of Japan?
The national fish of Japan is the Japanese koi fish. Japanese koi are long slender fish that are domesticated common carp. They often feature in “Koi Ponds” in gardens, conservatories, and zoos. A typical koi pond will have koi with different colors and patterns. It is common to see koi that are all orange, white with orange splotches, yellow with black splotches, and orange with white and black splotches. Most are around 22-26 inches long (around 2 feet) but some can get to be 3 feet long! The ki symbolizes a variety of things from courage and strength to love and friendship.
Where Can You Find Snow Monkeys in Japan?
Snow monkeys, also called Japanese macaques, live in the Jigokudani Monkey Park in the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park. It is often referred to as the “Snow Monkey Park”. This population of snow monkeys is a popular visitor destination to observe the monkeys basking in the local hot springs. Snow monkeys have reddish faces and tan to brown fur and can get to be 25-40 pounds. Watching a family of snow monkeys enjoying the hot spring on a snowy day is really relatable!
What Other Animals Live in Japan?
There are a wide variety of animals that live in Japan. The northern parts of Japan will have snowy winters whereas southern areas are hot and humid. This diversity in habitats creates homes for all kinds of wildlife. Sika deer are a common animal in Japan and have adjusted to living around humans. They are one of the few deer species that don’t outgrow their white spots. Another animal that lives in Japan that is a mystical animal in folk tales is the red fox. In Japanese legends, the fox could change into human form and would do so to trick humans. Real red foxes live in Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu.
West of Okinawa’s main island is a popular place for whale watching. Here you can see massive humpback whales breaching the crisp sea waters. Did you know they can get to be 50 feet long or more? That is longer than a school bus! The humpback whales off the coast of Japan migrate there during the winter from Russia and Alaska.
Other animals in Japan include pika, Oriental stork, Suzuki (sea bass), Mahi Mahi, Japanese trout, Japanese keelpack (a venomous snake), Asian black bears, leopard cats, and Japanese raccoon dogs.
What is a Japanese Raccoon Dog?
If you saw a photo of a Japanese raccoon dog, your first instinct would be to assume it was Photoshopped. Somebody clearly clipped the head of a raccoon and superimposed it on a dog. But raccoon dogs are real animals and live in Japan. So are they raccoons or dogs? Japanese raccoon dogs (Nyctereutes viverrinus) belong to the Canidae family which includes dogs, wolves, foxes, and coyotes. They can get to be around 20-26 inches long and weigh around 16 pounds, so similar to the size of a small to medium dog.
Just like the green pheasant, the national bird of Japan, Japanese raccoon dogs, or tanuki, are part of folk tales and legends. Their characters were always mischievious but a little gullible. Some legends have the tanuki capable of shapeshifting as well. Japan clearly has a variety of highly valued animals as part of its rich culture.
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- Britannica, Available here: https://www.britannica.com/animal/pheasant#ref246776
- Britannica, Available here: https://www.britannica.com/animal/raccoon-dog
- eBird, Available here: https://ebird.org/species/rinphe2
- Smithsonian Magazine, Available here: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/japan-wild-snow-monkeys-teach-scientits-how-animals-pass-skills-180976488/