A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

An Encounter with Japan`s Traditional Hunters: the hawkers and falconers

Edo Period depiction of falconry (TAKAGARI)

Painting of a goshawk mounted on a hanging scroll - on display at the National Museum in Ueno as an AUSPICIOUS NEW YEAR`S IMAGE

Painting of a goshawk mounted on a hanging scroll – on display at the National Museum in Ueno as an AUSPICIOUS NEW YEAR`S IMAGE (January 3rd 2015)

By Avi Landau


Favorite past-time (or even obsession) of many an Emperor, aristocrat, and shogun, and inspiration for numerous sublime paintings and poems, falconry and hawking were not OPENED UP to the general public until the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868. Even then, it was (and still is) a prohibitively expensive and time consuming hobby for the average Japanese.


Hunter in Tsukuba

But being a much older tradition than the tea ceremony, flower arrangement and most (or ALL) of the Japanese martial arts, it is not surprising that in this country where so many average people strive to emulate or take on the habits, manners, tastes, and attainments of the old ruling classes, several schools of hawking and falconry (takagari, 鷹狩り), both classical and modern, live on in Japan. And though the shotgun is the weapon of choice for nearly all of Tsukuba’s hunters, don’t be surprised if you run into a falconer, or a whole group of them, especially along the banks of the Hanamuro River. They are hunting for pheasant, duck, and other small game, which they flush out of the bush with dogs. They are usually armed with sparrow-hawks, goshawks and peregrine falcons.


Evidence for the existence of falconry in Japan predates the appearance of writing, as several clay figurines (haniwa, 埴輪) from the so-called KOFUN Period (5-6th century), portray hunters with birds of prey on their shoulders (of course they could also be interpreted as being pirates with parrots on their shoulders!). These have been unearthed from the tombs of local rulers. One them, shown above, is from nearby Gunma Prefecture.

Falconry is mentioned in Japan’s second oldest official written record, the Nihon Shoki (720), where it is described how a Prince of Paekche, in Korea, came to Japan and taught Emperor Nintoku how to hunt with a trained bird.

In classical times, many of Japan’s great emperors — Saga, Uda, Daigo, Ichijou, and Shirakawa — poets such as Otomo no Yakamochi, Ariwara no Narihira, AND the first official Barbarian Subduing Generallissimo himself – Sakanoue no Tamuromaro, were all falconry fanatics. An official agency for the sport was created by the Heian Court.

In medieval times, when Japan was ruled by the warrior class, new schools of falconry were established. One interesting aspect of the popularity of this blood sport was how it was justified by its ostensibly Buddhist practitioners. This was done by emphasizing the connection between falconry and its Guardian Deity — Hachiman, the enshrined spirit of Emperor Ojin — and the God of War, and by offering captured game to the God of the Suwa Shrine.


It was in the the Edo Period (1600-1868), however, that falconry REALLY flourished (with the exception of the tenure of Tsunayoshi, the animal-loving shogun), as the founder of the dynasty, Tokugawa Ieyasu, was probably the greatest supporter of falconry that Japan has ever known. He imposed strict controls on the nobility’s hunting and designated vast tracts as his personal hunting grounds, forbidding farmers in those areas from harming ducks or geese and also making them help out in hunts, which could last days or weeks.

So don’t be too surprised if you come across some people with dogs and large birds. It’s just an old tradition around here.

Here are some websites with pictures and videos.






The picture above of the hunter with a goshawk in Tsukuba was taken by Rick Weisburd.


  • Mamoru Shimizu says:

    Avi-san’s very interesting article about falconry, I am surprised there is such a club existing in Tsukuba, active near Hanamuro river area. Where I live in Onogawa, I sometimes find scattered bird feathers, but I thought these were remains of birds hunted by some wild kites (tombi).

    I used to have a mixed-blood male Labrador-retriever which we adopted as a family member after finding him as a stray. He liked hunting and followed real flying birds which he could not catch. Only once he caught as nest-fallen chick. I was very upset and buried it. If the dog was born in some aristocratic family like that of SAKANOUE NO TAMURURAMARO, he he would have been most welcomed.

    It is very interesting that Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of Tokugawa-Shogunate who made Edo the capital of Japan liked falconry. The first builder of the original Edo-castle Ohta Doukan, (太田道灌,1432 -1486, a war lord of Sengoku-Era: the Civil War Period) seems to have been a lover of Falconry. About him there is a very famous legend ”“Falconry in Yamabuki-no-sato(山吹の里:Yamabuki-village)”.

    One autumn day Ohta Doukan went falconing around Musashino(武蔵野:which is thought to be Waseda, near what is now Waseda-University)
    Suddenly autumn rain began falling. He ran into a small humble farm house and asked to borrow a Rain-coat made of straw (蓑:Mino), but a young girl of that house just held out one branch of Yamabuki with flowers saying nothing. Doukan became irritated ”I asked for a Mino, why she is holding a Yamabuki!” But some attendant said that “there was an old poem that goes “七重八重 花は咲けども 山吹の実のひとつだに 無きぞ悲しき”:Nanaeyae Hanawa Sakedomo Yamabukino Mino Hitotsudani Nakizo Kanashiki: It is pity that the Yamabuki has flowers blooming in seven-to-eight petals but never bears fruit.” By holding out Yamauki-with flowers she Meant to express that she was sorry that there was no Mino(蓑:実の) without mentioning it directly in words.
    Doukan was ashamed of himself for his lack of knowledge regarding old poems, and tried to study poetry ever afte that experience.

    There is the so called “太田道灌鷹狩の図 江戸名所図会:, A Portrait of Ohta Doukan Hunting with Falcons, one of the Views of famous Places in the Edo-Era” a picture made in Edo-era, that Doukan wearing Hunting
    Cloth and beside him a man with a hawk on his shoulder.
    There is a bronze statue of him wearing hunting cloth holding a bow which is located in the Tokyo-Kokusai-Forum near Yurakucyo.


  • Avi Landau says:

    Mamoru-San! Thank you once again for your valuable comments. I enjoyed the story of Ota Dozan. I too, always feel that I should improve my knowledge of Japanese classics, especially poetry.

    The fethers that you find scattered in Onogawa could be the result of goshawk (O-Taka) kills. However, the birds might also have been eaten by weasels (ITACHI) or even more likely- CATS!

    In my neighborhood, Konda, there are still plenty of owls and there are even some O-Taka. I saw a wild one today. Magnificent!

    I hope tht we can protect their nesting area which is being threatened by development plans!

    I am waiting for your next comments!

  • alice says:

    Haha! Thanks for enlightening me with some ancient poetry and history. Ah, that’s the way of the Japanese. One has to read the action or mind of another. That goes for my husband. When he opens the fridge many times before dinner time, it’s a sign that it’s time to cook dinner!