Much Ado About and Much Surprise From Japan's Jungle Crows (Karasu)
Onyx bauble eyes shine back at you with intellect and a slight sense of ire.
To me, the end of “Black Swan” with the maniacal red eyes and aggressive spins, did not remotely conjure an image of “swan”. After 29 years in Japan, that spinning, velvety spray of feather was nothing other than the huge black crows I see pondering my neighborhood garbage collection area each Saturday morning.
Now that I am back in Hawaii for a short business trip/break with my daughter, there are so many things I remember that are so different and were such a surprise for me when I first set foot in the Land of the Rising Sun. Outside my hotel room in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii, a multitude of birds flit across the grass and restaurant patio in search of bread crumbs, insects and other edibles left behind by vacationing tourists.
The cat-size, jet-black crows in Japan are similar in their scavenging ways but their sheer impact and overbearing presence can catch a first-time visitor off guard.
In 1988, my first office building was smack in the middle of Tokyo’s Ginza District, an area known for delectable eateries, boutiques and super expensive property prices. It was the tail end of Japan’s opulent “Bubble Economy”, times when taxis in the night-life haven of Roppongi could only be flagged down with a 10,000 yen bill (about 120 USD at today’s rates), my friend could rack up a 6000 dollar bill on her credit card during a three night/four day stay in Hawaii, and each of our corporate cheerleading uniforms was handmade and cost 1500 USD. Wow! Everyone had a designer bag, perfectly new clothes and unbelievably coiffed hair. There was an unmistakable air of wealth on the pristine streets, the starched lace in taxis, and the eight-dollar price tag on a cup of coffee.
Sing a Song or Send a Greeting to Announce Your Presence
With a near nil ability to communicate in Japanese and finding myself in one of Japan’s most famous publishing firms that actually happened to be THE eye of a scandalous tornado that eventually took down an administration (does the Recruit Scandal ring a bell?), working out in the gym before work calmed my nerves and helped me focus through the waves of culture shock. I would usually get a start from home at 6, take the 1.5 hour commute to Ginza and work out from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. And, early is when the crows are out and about. What a sight for a newbie used to the little sparrows of Hawaii and the plump pigeons of Boston.
My path took me past black birds sifting through huge garbage bags neatly piled street side for the early sanitation department pick up. It seems the birds increased when Japan switched over to clear plastic bags as the hungry birds, themselves guided by four color sight, could see into the bags and observe the shiny items and scrumptious morsels to be had. I remember my house in South Queensferry Scotland and how the tops of our milk bottles would be “pecked” through when we brought them in. My father would say “Ah, the crows got to it before us!” and since I never actually witnessed the cream-seeking moment, I simply thought “Ah, birds” not “The BIRDS” like in the famous Alfred Hitchcock movie. The phrase "Its a Jungle Out There" applies well to Tokyo as you see the Jungle Crows soaring high above the towering skyscrapers.
Although the crows you see in Tokyo and Yokohama are definitely “BIRDS”, they remind me of bees or toddlers in the sense that if you don't bother them, they are harmless and pretty much focused on their own flower, toy or snack food. Take a closer look and you will see they are actually beautiful, sleek and amazing creations.
Birdsong in a rowdy, rough style
Take a moment to observe these amazing creatures and you will see them call to each other. Literal “voices” change and reverberate in sync depending on the message and the situation. A cluck or a caw, a gurgle or a chirp, their vocabulary is quite vast. As any Game of Thrones fan will know, Crows on the Wall made great companions and imitated speech. This is documented and crows can speak at the same level as parrots and their memories and intellect are very advanced.
From what I understand, the department of sanitation was surprised to find the crows using wire hangers taken from the Ginza area garbage (people threw them out after bringing home their dry cleaning) or clotheslines to “hang” their nests from the tree branches in their secluded and inaccessible forest or high rise home. Inside the nests were stashes of shiny items like rear view mirrors, glass and metallic debris.
We are told the birds don't like red, they love shiny things and they adore trash. When in the mood, they can be a bit aggressive (particularly between April and August when they lay eggs and nurture their chicks) and they don't forget a face. One famous story is of a man who shooed them off his trash in what the birds must have considered a particularly offensive manner and they continued to “meet” him at the station on his return trip from work and pester him all the way home.
I usually just treat Japan's Karasu like bears in the rocky mountains of Colorado. There, we wear bells while hiking to announce our presence and I take a similar strategy by singing to myself or sending a peaceful, friendly greeting to the birds as I approach and pass by. I try to let them know I am no threat and not interested in whatever they are interested in.
“Hello Mr. Birdie Man. How are you? I am just walking by on my way to the station. It would be very nice if you didn't mess up our garbage collection corner. The garbage man will get mad at us if you do that. Anyway, it is up to you so please have a nice day.” I usually try to be just as friendly and hospitable to the crows as I would be to any of the guests I greet at the hotel or spa I consult for.
The subjects of my sing-song greeting usually glare directly at me as if to say “What you Looking At?” or “Speak to the Claw!” or “I don't have to listen to you!” It is kind of like some of the comments aimed my way from the back of the bus in junior high. Yes, those looks can be intimidating, but in the end, the bright yellow or green netting that wraps the garbage usually prevails. There is some secret ingredient in those nets that block the ultraviolet rays and make the insides difficult for the crows to decipher with their vision.
So when you are in Japan, don't be surprised if you wake up to the rowdy voices of excited birds, especially on their favorite day of the week. On garbage pick up day, you will be able to pick out countless black Jungle crows inspecting the ground and scavenging for scraps and shiny treasures.
I’ve learned that just like Myna birds chattering themselves into the psyche and heart of my Hawaii, the outspoken, intelligent and dangerously beautiful Jungle crows of Japan have cawed themselves into my idea of city and without that wake up call on garbage day, the air seems just slightly empty. It’s another side of Japan to experience and another aspect of the city unlike any other.
Former Deep Japan Writer