Black birds

text and photo by
Grigoris A. Miliaresis

I have tens of thousands of pictures from Japan but when I searched for one to accompany this text I realized I have very few with the crows as the central theme. The reason? Because they are so many that after a certain point you stop noticing them, in the same way that the people in any other city or country stop noticing the pigeons or the sparrows. The Japanese want to identify their country with other birds, much more graceful or majestic like the cranes or the herons; still, the bird that says “Japan” more than any other is the crow.

A glimpse in Japanese history and mythology shows that the relationship with the crow is age-old; this explains the existence in the folk legends of a goblin called tengu which is half man-half crow. It’s worth mentioning that when most people say “tengu” they mean another goblin with a red face and a long nose. But the karasu-tengu, the crow-tengu is always somewhere close to tease humans and to teach the secrets of sword-fighting to the founders of various classical martial traditions.

A three-legged crow called Yata-garasu, lead the mythical emperor Jimmu, founder of the Japanese imperial dynasty from Kumano in Kii peninsula to the Yamato plain, in today’s Nara, to start the Japanese nation. The same three-legged crow, decorates now the emblem of the Japanese national football team, hidden in plain sight like the thousands of its two-legged descendants that fly every moment over Tokyo and drain their intelligence figuring ways to steal something of the tons of garbage produced by the world’s biggest mega-city.  

Messenger of the gods, mountain and forest spirit, teacher of the martial arts and symbol of purification, probably because as a scavenger it cleared the battlefields of the countless battles in the Japanese history, big, graceless and pitch black, the crow is surrounded by a primordial air. And it is this contrast to the futuristic Tokyo that makes it so special, at least to my eyes. In a city so much steeped in neon, in colors and in people who try so hard to be “kawaii”, “cute”, the crow is a link to a distant past much simpler and basic. It’s the spirit of the city; perhaps of the whole country. 

Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years. 


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