Mystery bird’s hollow eyes invite stares
Looking at a picture of a bird haniwa (ancient clay figurine) excavated from the Iwase-Senzuka Kofun burial mound in the city of Wakayama, I was first drawn to the bird’s hollow eyes, which looked like two black holes to me.
A short beak protruded from between the eyes, and a wing stretched from the right shoulder. The image was strangely soothing.
Makoto Sahara, a former director-general of the National Museum of Japanese History, claims in “Nihon no Bijutsu” (Japanese art), a book published by Shibundo, that people are attracted to haniwa faces because of those hollow eyes.
“When looking at a haniwa face, people’s eyes soften,” he says. “As hollow eyes are without pupils, they cannot stare back at the beholder.”
Sahara is referring only to human-shaped haniwa figurines, but I think the same also applies to haniwa that depict animals.
“One can stare at a haniwa without being stared back at,” he observes, and concludes this is why people can remain at ease when they face these artifacts.
An exhibition titled “2005 Exhibition of New Archaeological Discoveries” is currently being held at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.
Among the exhibits from around the nation are some haniwa figurines, including those of three waterfowl unearthed from Suyama Kofun in Nara Prefecture.
These birds, which resemble swans, do not have hollow eyes. The eyes look as if they are trained on something far away.
Some haniwa experts claim that bird haniwa figurines were believed to transport the souls of the deceased to the world beyond. But the Iwase-Senzuka Kofun is said to be the first and only place that has so far yielded a bird haniwa with its wings spread.
Katsuhisa Takahashi, the chief researcher at the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Nara, said, “This haniwa may have been modeled on some migratory bird that could fly with ease.”
The mystery bird from ancient times made my imagination take wing and soar.
–The Asahi Shimbun, July 23 (IHT/Asahi: July 30,2005)
Examples of clay bird haniwa include:
*Waterfowl-shaped clay figurine/circa 4th century A.D. /Tsudosiroyama tumulus
*Cock-shaped clay figurine/circa 5th century A.D./Aoyama tumulus cluster No,4
*Cock-shaped clay figurine/circa 5th century A.D./Hajinosato site
See also Fifth-century rulers of the Kawachi Plain, Osaka, and early state formation in Japan: some recent publications – Review article by Richard Pearson (see relevant excerpt below)
“Haniwa in the form of water birds were found in the surrounding ditches of the Ojin mound. They are said to have been recovered in the dredging of the moat in the Meiji period (1868-1912). These water bird haniwa are now in the Tokyo National Museum. There are two size groups about 40cm and 60cm high. Some specimens in the Gaksuhuin University, donated by the Imperial Household Ministry before the war, came from the tomb around 1899. Water bird haniwa were also recovered from the nearby Tsudo Shiroyama and Suyama (Nara) tombs. From their occurrence they seem to be associated with royal class tombs. “
“An examination of Japanese rooster symbolism, mythology, and the funerary and folkloric connections with rooster symbolism around the world ” from the Heritage of Japan website