The Crows of Tokyo

The Crows of Tokyo

No one told me about the crows here.  They are everywhere.  They are ominous. They are huge.  They are Omen crows, Edgar Allen Poe crows.  These are fuck you, where’s-my-money, gangster crows.  These are not the crows you find in America. These are actually a different species known as the Asian Jungle Crow — they grow as big as 23 inches and have elongated, nasty looking beaks.  They want to pluck your eyes out.  They are ill-tempered, territorial and mean.  And smart.  They have memory, can recognize faces and posses  a vengeful nature — stories are legion about crows repeatedly attacking those who have wronged them or attacked them.  Every year about 400 people in Tokyo are hospitalized by crow attack.  They cause blackouts, have disrupted the bullet train system, steal children’s lunches right out of classrooms and they are growing.  The crow population has skyrocketed in Tokyo since the mid-80s, doubling and tripling to the tune of about 150,000 crows beating their mighty wings in the Tokyo dusk.  In the highly ordered world of Tokyo garbage ( a system based equally on mindfulness, strict recycling laws and a general desire not to be the messy person on the block), crows are the great disrupters: they live to rip neatly sorted garbage into pure chaos, strewing refuse across the cleanest streets.  If you try to stop them, they will fight back and mock you with a range of vocalizations which can sound, to my ears, like a mix between the basic “Caw” and the shout of “Fuck” — Let’s just call it a CAWFUCK.

Tokyo is one of the most mindful cities in the world.  People actually care about others.  Tokyo people are deeply aware of the world around them — how they move through the physical plane, how to not be in each other’s way, how to not disrupt the general flow of the day.  The Tokyo crow is the antithesis of this mindfulness.  They are selfish, rude, mean, spiteful and seem to enjoy fucking with your day. So much so that I started to see the Tokyo crow in a metaphorical sense: the dark id of the Tokyo psyche, the flip-side of  politeness — the Yakuza of Tokyo wildlife.

But, as I started to read about the crows, I found — like so much of Japanese life — that I was totally wrong.

Crows have been here for a long, long time.  They are some of the earliest mythological beasts referred to in ancient Shinto and Buddhist texts as the “Crow Tengu” and the mythological first emperor of Tokyo was protected by a giant crow called the “Yatagarasu”. I am not a scholar so I was just digging around about this crow stuff and I found that these Crow Tengu, with a wide variety of supernatural powers, protect the Dharma, or Buddhist law against transgressors of the Dharma.  And make no mistake, Shinto (the basic ancestor and animist religion of Japan) is very much alive.  I’m a deeply not religious person, but there is no way that you can’t sense some aspect of primordial power emanating from the shrines and green spaces of Tokyo — in the summer, with the deafening hum of Cicada and the 90 percent humidity. those shrines pulse with something ancient and it is a little creepy.

The crow population began to boom in the mid 80s when a generational shift saw the embracing of a more Western mind-set of wastefulness  which gave rise to a unprcedented increase in trash.  The crows responded and migrated to Tokyo from all over Japan to feast on this new excess.  Now, an increase in trash typically means a massive increase in vermin — rats and mice and all the disease and fires that come along with them (it is thought that up to 30 percent of undetermined fires in New York City are caused by mice and rats).  Well, the crows — while causing chaos with the garbage — have so happily noshed on those mice and rats, that their population has plummeted.  So, this made me think…Maybe these Tokyo Crows are actually the mythological Tengu come to life?  Instead of being the dark Id of Tokyo, maybe they are representatives of the old animist forces of Shinto come to warn the population against turning away from traditional Japanese values while still acting as protectors of the city?  It could be.  Those Tokyo Crows are nothing to fuck with.


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