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Birds of a Feather - Grafström

Ben Grafström (Akita University) Birds of a Feather: Ornithology, Rice Cultivation, and the Passing of Time in the Kōwakamai Fushimi Tokiwa

Ben Grafström (Akita University)

Birds of a Feather: Ornithology, Rice Cultivation, and the Passing of Time in the Kōwakamai Fushimi Tokiwa

 

This paper shows 1) how in medieval/premodern Japan migrating birds alerted rice farmers to seasonal changes, and 2) how the activities of local birds influenced rice farmers’ circadian rhythms.

 

Fushimi Tokiwa is split into two parts: in the first, Tokiwa flees the capital to escape Taira no Kiyomori’s wrath, and eventually finds refuge in a remote, mountain village. In the second part of the narrative, five local women who have heard about Tokiwa visit the home where she is staying to find out why she is so secretive. Tokiwa manages to hide her true identity by telling the women a tragic love story. In order to cheer her up, the five women each sing a rice-planting song characteristic of their home towns.

 

This Muromachi-era narrative communicates the passage of time to audiences in two different ways. In the first part, words and recitative techniques common to kōwakamai and other Muromachi tales indicate the passage of time. However in the second part, the narrator indicates the passage of time in relation to the activities of local fauna: by observing migratory birds and the habits of local birds, rice-farmers are able to discern critical times of the rice planting season. The narrative then suggests that farmers synchronized their work days with local birds’ daily habits in order to maximize time spent in the fields. This paper shows that not only does the narrator’s inserting of these five female characters in Fushimi Tokiwa provide a dramatic climax to this kōwakamai, but their songs and the tales they recount also give modern audiences some insight to how the passage of time was observed in rural rice-planting communities in premodern Japan, namely through the observation of birds in the wild.