Friday, March 18, 2011

Tancho -- The Bird Who Lives 1,000 Years (丹頂) (Thinking of Japan 4)



        The Red-Crowned Crane (Grus japonensis), also called the Japanese Crane or Manchurian Crane, is a large crane and the second rarest crane in the world.

        In Japan, this crane is known as the tancho and is said to live for 1,000 years. 

        Throughout East Asia, the tancho is known as a symbol of luck, longevity, fidelity and nobility.  In China, the Red-Crowned Crane is often featured in myths and legends.  In Taoism, the Red-Crowned Crane is a symbol of immortality. In art and literature, immortals are often depicted riding on cranes and mortals who attain immortality are similarly described or shown being carried off by cranes. Reflecting this association, Red-Crowned Cranes are called xian he (仙鹤), or fairy cranes.  

        At 140–150 cm (55-60 inches) high, the crane does not make easy prey for all that it stands out in its natural habitat of marshes, swamps, rice fields and other wetlands. When it matures, the Red-Crowned Crane is snow white with a patch of red skin on its head. This patch of skin becomes bright red when the crane becomes angry or excited. This species is the heaviest of the cranes, typically 7.7–10- kg (17-22 lb), although large Sarus Cranes are taller. The maximum known weight of a male Red-Crowned Crane is 15 kg (33 lbs.)

        In the spring and summer, the Red-Crowned Crane breeds in Siberia and occasionally in northeastern Mongolia in the Mongol Daguur Strictly Protected Area. Normally the tancho lays 2 eggs, with only one surviving.  Later, in the fall, it migrates in flocks to Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, and other countries in East Asia to spend the winter. 

        All Red-Crowned Cranes migrate,  except for the a flock that is resident in Hokkaidō, Japan's second largest island (see Hokkaidō photo above).  

        Because of the tancho's importance in Chinese culture and the reverence of the Chinese for the  Red-Crowned Crane, it was selected by the National Forestry Bureau of the People's Republic of China as its only candidate for the national animal of China. This decision was deferred because the Red-Crowned Crane's Latin name translates as "Japanese Crane".  Life is both mundane and curious.

        The Japan national mint features a  pair of tancho in the design for the Series D 1000 yen note. In the Ainu language, the Red-Crowned Crane is known as sarurun kamuy or marsh kamuy.  He is also the symbol of JAL, Japan's national airline.

        References to the tancho are prominent in Zen Buddhist poetry, including the following verse by the Soto Zen priest Dogen (1200-1253), founder of the Eiheiji temple, who passed into eternity saying "I drop into the afterworld still living":

The World?  Moonlit

Drops shaken

From the crane's bill 

(trans. Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto)

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