Bird art of the Edo Period in Japan

Chinese Grey Shrike オオモズ

by SusanMyers on December 18, 2010 · 3 comments

in Birding Asia

8 beautiful birds in Japanese art.

A long time ago now I bought a book in a poky little bookshop in suburban Tokyo. I fell in love with that book because it was full of some of the most fabulous natural history illustrations I had ever seen. The artworks of such luminaries as John Gould and Audubon are well known, at least in the Western world, but the works of a number of dedicated and talented naturalists of Edo period Japan are not exactly celebrated outside of a small circle of enthusiasts.

Fairy Pitta 八色鳥 by Hotta Masaatsu

It’s a shame because these woodblock prints and screen art are not only very aesthetically appealing but they are indicative of the advanced state of biological research in Japan during this period of relative peace and posterity. Around this time there occurred a boom in the study of medicinal plants, leading on to an increased interest in the natural world as a whole.

Mandarin Duck オシドリby Matsudaira Yoritaka

The Edo Period spanned from 1603 to 1868 and is known as the premodern era of Japanese history. It’s so named for the Japanese capital at the time, now known as Tokyo. Early in the Edo period a book known as the Kinmouzui (something like “The Book of Enlightenment) appeared in which 312 species of animal were illustrated, but they were idealized and not realistic. Then in about 1734 over a four to five year period, the Bakumei series (the Lifestyle of the Shogunate) appeared. This included the first systematic documentation of the Japanese living world and represented a complete survey of all known animal species in Japan. On top of this, there occurred a groundbreaking event for the Japanese art world when in 1731 the famous Chinese painter Shin Nan Bin arrived in Nagasaki for a two year stay. Apparently his influence was huge.

labelled チドリbut more likely Sanderling ミユビシギ by Hattori Sessai

These events led to a boom in interest in the natural world amongst the intelligentsia and upper classes and more realistic depictions of wildlife, especially birds, insects, flora and marine life, began to appear.

Lesser Sand Plover メダイチドリ by Mashiyama Sessai

Crested Ibis トキ

Crested Ibis is now extinct in Japan but was once very common. The last one in Japan died in 2003. I’ll never forget an older Japanese lady remarking to me that we must be living in very peaceful times if this type of trivial thing made the news! (Sadly, I  believe this is still the attitude of so many people…) Last year a reintroduction program commenced in Sado so hopefully we’ll see them again in Japan some time in the future.
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The Seto Inland Sea 伊豆内海

Not surprisingly, there was and still is an intense interest and knowledge of marine biology in Japan. This comes from the fact that the sea has always been the main source of protein for the people of this very mountainous island nation. I think this is a particularly beautiful illustration from a sliding screen.
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A rough sketch of a Black Kite トビ, a very common bird in Japan, now and then.

This is labelled as Yamaneko or Wildcat ヤマネコ but is undoubtedly an illustration of a civet.

Kappa カッパ

There are many mythical creatures in Japan, and to this day people take them very seriously. It is all bound up in the Shinto belief system, which is essentially an animistic belief that sees the value in all natural things from the sun to rocks to foxes and frogs. The Kappa is an animal that is half human, half amphibian and can live out of water only as long as the saucer-shaped depression on his head remains full of water. He loves to eat cucumbers and human babies, preferring the former! But he’s not all bad – he has some good qualities as well. These include an expert knowledge of medicine, and the inability to break a promise. They are known to offer a helping hand with irrigating rice paddies as well!
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Common Quail ウズラ

Top picture: Chinese Grey Shrike オオモズ

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