Thursday, June 14, 2012

Japan Day One: Bird Plaza (Wild Bird Society of Japan)

Bird Plaza is less of a "plaza" and more of a small room off of the Wild Bird Society of Japan headquarters in Shinagawa. But if you care about Japanese birds (and can read Japanese) and are in Tokyo area it really cannot be missed.

The Wild Bird Society of Japan (Nihon Yachou no Kai) is Japan's version of Audubon or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.  Its mission is broad:
to protect birds and their habitat, to encourage more people to enjoy bird watching, and to carry on research concerning the status and habitat of birds.
Its membership of 45,000 makes it much smaller than either of the above organizations. (For comparison purposes, MassAudubon alone has a membership around 100,000). But it is an important advocate for bird protection in the Japanese media and US/UK organizations could learn something from its efforts to make birding more popular.

It is relatively difficult to find books about birding in Japan (unlike the U.S. where any bookstore will carry a field guide or two) thus it was an amazing experience for me to find a bookstore with such a huge selection. My problem was how to escape without spending all of my cash on hand (and boring my non-birding son to death). I ended up buying three books.

Yachou no namae ("The names of wild birds"), edited by Naoya Abe, is an extremely useful book explaining the origins of Japanese bird names. In contemporary literature about wildlife, species names are written in katakana, the Japanese writing system that emphasizes sounds over meaning. But most bird species, except for those recently identified as separate species, have associated kanji, the writing system that is more about meaning than sound. Some of these kanji are so specialized that only experts would be able to read them, thus the use of katakana. As a newcomer still trying to learn the names of Japanese birds, I found this book useful both in drawing connections between birds and Japanese culture and in understanding why certain birds have the names they do. As in English, some of the origins are straightforward--the most prominent feature of the mejiro is its white eye ring, so that's its name in both English (white-eye) and Japanese (目白). Some are more confusing. The shijuukara (Japanese tit) and the gojuukara (Eurasian nuthatch) are regularly associated in Japan, despite being rather different species, because shijuu is written 四十(40) and gojuu is 五十 (50). [Note: the Japanese input system on my Mac doesn't even offer the right kanji for "kara."] According to the book, shijuu refers to the Japanese tit's vocalization while gojuu is a reference to the gray color (old person hair) of the nuthatch. So the association is, ultimately, arbitrary. Glad to have cleared that one up...
Haiku no Tori ("The birds of haiku"), edited by Momoko Tsuji, matches haiku with particular bird species and general bird behaviors (such as nesting or migration). Of particular usefulness is a gloss in each entry explaining the aspect of the bird most relevant for haiku. For some (yoshikiri) it's the voice that matters, for others (kibitaki) it's the appearance.

Finally, Yachou Omoshiro Zukan ("Humorous Wild Bird Guide"), created by mangaka "Nasubi Fujitaka" and published by the Wild Bird Society of Japan, offers a model of how to make bird identification interesting, particularly to children. Here's a sample page that draws distinctions between various tit species:
While the drawings exaggerate head size for the purpose of cuteness, they are very specific and accurate when it comes to field marks (the "tie" of the Japanese tit, the "bald spot" of the coal tit). I've not seen a book in the US that is quite so entertaining in this way (I'd like to see one).

But Bird Plaza is not just about books, it also sells a wide range of bird and birding-related goods. While a good MassAudubon shop (such as the one at Drumlin Farm) dwarfs what's available at Bird Plaza, there was still a lot to be had, from ties to pins to stuffed animals. I bought a few things including this yamagara paper holder [I didn't have a camera on hand so I scanned it]

and this chidori (plover) patterned fabric [currently being used as a kitchen dish cloth]

Bird Plaza is easily accessed from the Fudoumae train station on the Meguro line. Finding the actual location is a little tricky but they have a pretty good map on the website (finding where you are in relation to the landmarks on the map is the real puzzle). It is closed on Saturdays and Mondays.

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