Red Feathers ( AKAI HANE , 赤い羽根) Symbolize Japan`s Most Famous Annual Charity Drive, and the season, as well
By Avi Landau
At the beginning of October each year, while on your way into a department store, shopping mall or station, you might have had to walk by a small group of men, women and maybe even children who have donation boxes hanging down from around their necks enthusiastically calling out for contributions. If you DID drop some money into their box ( even a single coin), you would have gotten in return a little red feather with some adhesive tape on one end with which it could be stuck onto you shirt.
And anytime during the month of October, you will find donation boxes strategically placed next to cash registers at many shops, which have the same red feathers, which you can take if you make a donation.
These feathers are the symbols of Japan`s October charity drive called the AKAI HANE KYODO BOKIN (赤い羽共同募金), which has been collecting money for Japan`s charity community-chest since 1947 ( as an affiliate of The United Way International). It was at the urging of an American priest, Father Edward Joseph Flannagan, that such an American/European style charitable fund was created, just after WWII when Japan was teeming with people in need of assistance.
And though in the more than 50 years which have gone by since the charity`s creation Japan has grown into one of the world`s more prosperous and equitable countries, there are still PLENTY of people who need your help. Wheel-chairs or seeing-eye dogs, for example, are not cheap to come by!
That is why, if you DO see the folks giving out the red feathers, or the little boxes by the register with the feathers on top, you might want to give a little something.
I was surprised to hear, that besides making roadside and by-the-cash-register donations, most Japanese families give 400 or 500 yen per family to the AKAI HANE BOKIN drive through their neighborhood committees.
Why the red feathers?
The origin of the custom of giving out the red feathers to those who make charitable donations is interesting and IRONIC.
According to Akai Hane Homepage, the use of the red feather is based on the idea that in some countries, the feather is a symbol of courage and valor.
You might be able to understand what they mean more easily if you just think about the English expression- PUT A FEATHER IN YOUR CAP- which means that you have done something good, or done a good job- or something that will be helpful to you in the future as an achievement on your personal record.
It is this notion- of having done a good deed and earning some merit for it, which was apparently behind the idea of giving out the feathers to those who give to Japan`s charitable community chest.
The reason that I find this ironic is that the ORIGIN of this English expression ( and the symbolic meaning of a feather) can be traced to American Indian braves who would build up merit, and thus get another feather in their cap ( headdress)- when they took the scalp from ( killed) an enemy! Not a very suitable image for a charity drive!
And for those concerned about wild birds being killed for these dainty merit badges, rest at ease! The feathers do not come from some rare or exotic red birds. They are merely dyed chicken feathers. Still, maybe its time to find another symbol for Japan`s great charity drive.
Here is the AKAI HANE KYODO BOKIN`s English language home-page:
And since the red feathers appear each year in October, it is not surprising that they have become a symbol of the season. In fact AKAI HANE ( red feather) is an official haiku KIGO ( seasonal key word) signifying autumn. Instead of AKAI HANE, AI NO HANE ( feather of love) can also be used.
And since these feathers are a flashy sign announcing to everyone that you have done a good deed, their image in a poem can carry various other nuances besides the time of the year.
Here is an example by the haiku poet Kakurai Akio (加倉井秋を):
赤い羽根つけてどこへも行かぬ母 ( AKAI HANE TSUKETE DOKO NI MO IKANU HAHA)
which I translate (keeping the 5-7-5 syllable pattern) as:
Mother used to wear, her charity Red Feather, even in the house
which gives us not only the seasonal setting, but also suggests a lot about the mother`s character.