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The Significance and Meaning of Owls in Japanese Culture

I enjoy learning about mythology and what role owls have in various cultures.

Owls are abundant in Japan, and they have their role in Japanese culture and mythology.

Owls are abundant in Japan, and they have their role in Japanese culture and mythology.

The Symbolism of Owls in Japan

In Japanese culture, owls are quite significant. It is not uncommon to see owl charms in Japan, but what do they symbolize?

In Japanese culture, owls are believed to bring luck and offer protection from suffering.

The reason can be found in the Japanese name for owl, Fukuro (梟), which can be written in different sets of characters One can have the meaning of luck (福 fuku, luck; 来ku, to come; 郎 ro, suffix used in boys' names), and the other as protection from hardship (不 fu, no, 苦労 kurou suffering/hardship). The word itself can be read as meaning "without hardship".

Through this play on words, owls have been seen as figures that bring good fortune. They have become popular as engimono (縁起物), or lucky charms. It is common to give owl-related gifts to a graduating student to wish them luck. Some people believe that owls of different colours and shapes can have different influences on the type of luck they bring. For example, pink owls can bring love while gold owls can bring wealth.

Owls in Japanese Mythology

The Ainu people of Japan have a god named Cikap-kamuy. Depicted as a great owl, this deity watched over the land. In some legends, it is said that its tears are gold and silver.

According to legend, a famine struck the land, and Cikap-kamuy wanted to send a message to heaven to ask why the famine was occurring. He asked a crow and mountain jay to relay his message, but his instructions were so long that they took days to recite. The crow and mountain jay each fell asleep and were killed by Cikap-kamuy. A dipper bird was able to listen to the directions for six days, and they went to heaven to relay the inquiry. They learned that the kamuy of game and fish was angry that humans did not show their proper respect. Cikap-kamuy taught the humans the proper rituals to end the famine. This legend has made owls into figures that bring material success.

There is also a yokai, or spirit, in Japanese folklore called a tatarimokke. This entity is the spirit of a dead child that possesses an owl. They typically haunt the homes of their families.

An Ural owl near Mount Chausu in Japan.

An Ural owl near Mount Chausu in Japan.

Owls in Japan

There are a number of owl species that live in Japan. Here are some owls that call Japan home.

Blakiston's Fish Owl (Shima-fukuro)

This species can be found in Hokkaido. The diet of this owl mainly consists of fish. This particular species was revered by the Ainu as a protector of villages. Conservation efforts are underway to protect this endangered species.

Long-Eared Owl (Torafu-zuko)

This species can be found throughout the islands of Japan, most notably in Shizuoka, Yamagata and Miyagi. They usually spend their winters south of Osaka. Their diet mainly consists of rodents.

Oriental Scops Owl (Konoha-zuko)

The Oriental scops owl can be found in Kyushu, Shikoku, Honshu and Hokkaido. This owl mainly eats insects, and it breeds in the summer months. It is known for its monotonous, toad-like cry.

Ryukyu Scops Owl (Ryuku Konoha-zuku)

As the name suggests, this owl is found on the Ryukyu Islands of southern Japan. It prefers to live in evergreen forests and eats insects and small rodents. Their cry is lower pitched than the Oriental scops owl, and it sounds more coarse.

Ural Owl (Fukuro)

There are two subspecies of the Ural owl found in Japan. They are the most common owl species in the country. These birds are relatively smaller than other Ural's with their wing chords generally being around 11-13 inches. They typically have a brownish color.

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The famous reading owls of Ikebukuro.

The famous reading owls of Ikebukuro.

Owls in Japanese Culture

One area where you can find a lot of owl imagery is in the Ikebukuro district of Tokyo. The train station features a famous statue of an owl and her owlets. It is a famous landmark that serves as a popular meeting place, similar to the famous Hachiko statue in the Shibuya station.

The police station in Ikebukuro is painted to look like the eyes of an owl. There is also the famous topiary owls that are depicted reading books. Owls are something of a mascot for Ikebukuro due to the district's name sounding similar to fukuro.

Many cultures have their own views on owls and what they represent.

Many cultures have their own views on owls and what they represent.

Owl Symbolism Around the World

Owls have significance in many cultures. They have been associated with magic, wisdom, and heightened senses throughout history, from ancient Greece to Asia and America. The Cheyenne tribe believed owl feathers granted them the ability to see in the dark and move quietly. In Middle Eastern cultures, the owl is often seen as a symbol of bad luck.

In Greek mythology, the owl was linked to Athena, the goddess of wisdom. This association led to the owl becoming a symbol of wisdom throughout the Western world. However, in Medieval Europe, owls had a bad name. They were commonly associated with darkness and uncleanliness.

Sources

Ashkenazy, Michael. Handbook of Japanese Mythology. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-Clio, 2003. p. 125, 211-212

Deacy, Susan J.; Villing, Alexandra (2001). Athena in the Classical World.

Brazil, M.A.; Yamamoto, S. The Status and Distribution of Owls in Japan.

Comments

Andre Puensch on November 21, 2019:

I can haz owl?

i look nice.

JP on May 18, 2017:

I am freaked out there is an owl in my chimney stuck - what does this mean please?

Sheila on April 30, 2017:

Some native American tribes do not see the owl as good luck. But for years I have had four carved owls, and a painting with three owls, and all of these were done by Cree artists from Northern Ontario. Found your information interesting.

Maryanne on December 21, 2016:

I purchased a piece of Jewelry red owl what's dose that mean I also send it to my daughter is that's good sign it just stood out and thought it was very appealing cheers

hello on November 04, 2016:

i like owles

Kamalesh Chakraverty from Sahaganj, Dist. Hooghly, West Bengal, India on October 23, 2011:

Very interesting and informative, well written. Thanks for sharing. Voted Up. Best Wishes,

Kamalesh

Eiddwen from Wales on September 14, 2011:

Very interesting and thanks for sharing.

Take care

Eiddwen.

ForestBear (author) on July 20, 2011:

thank you twilanelson, I'm glad it was useful.

Twila Nelson from Carmichael, California on July 19, 2011:

In the U.S.A we always hear about the wise old owl. Thank you for sharing your interesting knowledge about owls throughout history and a mixture of cultures.

ForestBear (author) on July 16, 2011:

Hi James, thank you for stopping by and for mentioning Africa. I appreciate it!

James Agbogun on July 16, 2011:

Am happy to find out that there are important uses associated with the Owl. I should also add that, Apart from medieval Europe, Owl is still associated with Witchcraft in some Cultures of Africa today. Thanks!

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