Guardians of Gahoole, owls of Japan, owl tales and lucky owl talismans

Legend of the Guardians:
The Owls of Ga’Hoole

Theatrical release poster

Owls are quite the “in” thing with kids right now … especially after the recent movie showing of Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (reviewed here). “The Guardians of Ga’Hoole” fantasy books by Kathryn Lasky (reviewed here) on which the 3D movie was based are also currently selling like hotcakes at the moment. My son is a great fan of these books and is mowing down the pages of the last few books in the 15-book series at the moment.  I haven’t read them but both reviews of the book and movie say they are like a “Lord of the Rings” sort of tale, only in an owl world setting.  In any case, you might like to know, owls have always been popular in Japan — they are to be frequently on sale as “lucky owl” amulets…but the movie has brought the birds back into fashion!

Owl sculptures and amulets at the Ainu Kotan Village, Lake Akan in Hokkaido


In our travels around Hokkaido, we had encountered lots of owl carvings and amulets especially at the Ainu Kotan Village at Lake Akan in Hokkaido. We’d also seen lots of owl amulets on the Izu Peninsula, and some homes around my neighborhood have owl pottery figurines on their gate, so my curiosity has been piqued as to what they might symbolize.

Here’s what I’ve found so far:
When we were visiting the Maruyama Zoo in Hokkaido, at the aviary section I saw a plaque that said Japan was the “owl capital of the world” (I haven’t been able to confirm this by a google search but…) and it noted that there were around twelve species of owls indigenous to or that breed mainly in Japan.

Blakiston fish owl (Bubo blakistoni), Kushiro Zoo

Japan seems to shares a Central Asian veneration of owls, as in Japan owl pictures and figurines have been placed in homes to ward off famine or epidemics. In Central Asia feathers of the Northern Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo), particularly from its breast and belly, were valued as precious amulets protecting children and livestock from evil spirits. Talons of the Northern Eagle Owl were said to ward off diseases and cure infertility in women.
Also hinting of the antiquity of these beliefs – are the Ainu’s owl beliefs: the Blakiston’s Fish Owl (Ketupa blakistoni) was called “Kotan Kor Kamuy” (God of the Village) by the Ainu, the native peoples of Hokkaido, Japan. The traditional Ainu people were hunter-gatherers and believed that all animals were divine; most admired were bear and the fish owl. The owls were held in particular esteem and, like the people, were associated with fish (salmonids) and lived in many of the same riverside locations. The Fish Owl Ceremony, which returned the spirit of fish owls to the god’s world, was conducted until the 1930’s.
Bird symbolism in Japan mirrors that of Central Asia and Siberia, since the tumulus age, there has been a persistent image of the bird as a bird of death. There are images of a bird on a prow in ancient etchings, tomb murals and funerary statuary. Although the chicken and flying waterfowl are more common imagery as the bird of death, the owl shares the same symbolic meaning. As in many cultures, owls signal an underworld or serve to represent human spirits after death; in ancient times along with other Siberian cultures, owls represented supportive spirit helpers and allow humans (often shamans) to connect with or utilize their supernatural powers.
It is not surprising that with owls having been very common in the olden days and they are associated with shinto shrine groves, that there are several legends and folktales to do with owls:   – see the Little Horned Owl (an Ainu tale) and “Colored” ; a really famous folktale about how the crow, originally a white bird, became black and “The Owl of the Three Jewels (from the nine gothic “Tales of Moonlight and Rain” by Ueda Akinari).  According to some lore, some owls are seen as divine messengers while others, particularly Barn or Horned owls, are viewed as demons.
On a more modern note,  a Japanese Lucky Owl is one of the most popular lucky charms in Japan because ‘owl’ in Japanese is ‘fukurou’ which means ‘no hardship’ or ‘no trouble’.
Gold Mini Owl
By the way…
* フクロウ fukurō is applied to owls without ‘ears’, in particular the Ural Owl.
* ズク zuku and ミミズク mimizuku are somewhat less common terms for owls with ‘ears’, such as various types of Scops owl and the Eagle Owl

Further information and readings on owls that are found in Japan:
Miscellaneous information on birds: has a page that lists books about owls

Bird lovers … check out these pages as well!

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