(Friday Night History) Falconry

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Hawk on Ceremonial Stand, by Katsushika Hokusai. (Image in PD)

Falconry– that is, using trained birds of prey in hunting– has, for a very long time, been a mark of upperclass culture in Japan. The term for this in Japanese is takagari. In the interest of brevity and keeping things as consistent as I can, I’m going to refer to this practice as “falconry” throughout this episode. But regardless of the specific type of bird in question, I’m still talking about takagari.

In terms of the origins of this system, its oldest forms entered Japan via Korea, as did much else in the orbit of the early Yamato court. Much later, starting in the late Heian era, the ascendant warrior caste adopted many of the trappings of court life and culture, falconry among them. And in time, some warrior clans, and the regions they inhabited, came to be known for particularly prized hunting birds. You guessed it– house Date of Sendai had that distinction. No less than all 3 Great Unifiers– Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu even wrote to request hunting birds from this distant clan that was otherwise not particularly politically concerning to them for quite a while. Other clans are also on record as having gifted hunting birds to the Date family– for example, Date Chike Kiroku, the orthodox history of the Date clan, notes that Mogami Yoshiaki, Date Masamune’s maternal uncle, sent a letter to his nephew on 17 September 1586 together with a falcon. At another occasion on 3 November 1588, Date Chike Kiroku notes that

“Three hawks (otaka 雄鷹) arrived from Moniwa, in Natori County. On the same day, Fukuhara Kura presented three skylarks caught by his hawk, to his lordship.”

According to our old standby, folklorist Mihara Ryokichi, there was a falconry center at Kome-ga-fukuro in the Sendai castle town, with a second one– added in the late Edo period– eventually set up in nearby Tsuchitoi. Mihara notes that the birds were treated better than some Date vassals– each one got its own room, and attendants caught the smaller birds that these birds of prey ate. The attendants who caught these small birds for food were called esashi. There were 102 esashi, who followed the Date lord on hunting trips in order to care for these hunting birds. Mihara notes that the esashi were recognizable by their clothing– dark blue cotton happi with a sun disk on the back– and a type of sedge hat called a manju-gasa (pictured, top left).

(Photo by Steven L. Johnson. [CC-2.0 License])

The esashi were organized into 3 units of 34 people each, with one unit commander (yogashira 与頭) and two squad commanders (tokogashira 床頭), under the command of a mid-ranking Date vassal of chakuza 着座 or meshidashi 召出しrank. A different set of personnel, dedicated falconers, who were of slightly higher kumishi rank, trained the falcons. In wartime, the falconers would be elite gunners, while the esashi were spearmen. Despite their critical service in supporting the clan’s falconing needs, the esashi were poor– got paid half a gold ryō a year, though some of them received further allotments of maybe 3 koku a year. I’ve mentioned in the past that low ranking members of the warrior caste were no strangers to the gig economy, and the esashi were no exception– their main side-job for extra income was making paper cords for tying topknots.

So. House Date took its falconry seriously.

But how does falconry work, you might ask? Well, a bird of prey– often a northern goshawk, in Japanese falconry– is trained to hunt smaller prey by being rewarded with food. And if a warrior had the financial wherewithal to be able to afford a hunting bird, they weren’t going to go out and do it alone.

(I mean really. Who do you take them for?)

No, they’re going to do it in style, as with everything else that’s supposed to showcase both their status as well as ensure their security in that status. So, say, a daimyo was on the hunt with a particularly favored hunting bird would also have personal attendants, bodyguards, porters, esashi, and so on– it wasn’t a solo affair at all.

Stick a pin in that one if you would, friends– it’s going to matter in a moment.

When Tokugawa Ieyasu received the title of Shogun from Emperor Goyozei in 1603, he began the process of setting up a legal code that would regulate the affairs of the warrior caste in order to better ensure that the peace bought by his alliances and force of arms would be a lasting one. These laws didn’t just govern military affairs, and they weren’t just a one-off matter either. They were issued in successive waves or editions, and dealt with everything from castle construction to court title usage to the affairs of temples and shrines. Among the many matters they curtailed was the raising and movement of armies and the limits of who was allowed to pursue falconry, and in what manner.

On the level of individual fiefdoms as well as the Shogunate, falconry fields were set up and rangers appointed to manage the game and plant life within. This wasn’t limited to falconry, either– some longtime followers of this podcast from back when it was just a Twitter thread may recall when I talked about the cricket ranges in service to house Date.

But by Shogunate law, there were also limitations on what game was allowed to a daimyo of a given court rank. Date Masamune, despite his efforts at quietly accruing local and international support to conquer Japan, held high court rank, and managed to ingratiate himself with house Tokugawa in part through a shared interest in falconry. Ieyasu himself granted several falconry preserves to house Date as a result, and many were the occasions where Masamune went hunting with Ieyasu. Sometimes, Masamune would also rest on his way to or from Edo in lodgings at one of these falconry preserves, and he didn’t always use a bird to do his hunting– at least one occasion noted in the Date Chike Kiroku and the Date Butoku Ibunroku notes he hunted with a matchlock gun.

But I can hear you saying, “Hey Doc, what was that about entourages and movement of armies?”

Hang on. Wait for it. We’re getting to it, friends, we’re getting to it.

Okay. So.

Large movements of fighting forces were curtailed by Shogunate law, in the interest of keeping the peace. The common expression at the time was that the Shogunate officials at the checkpoints going into Edo were to watch for “guns going in and women going out.” Now sure, a lord’s entourage to and from the capital was also armed, but it was there more for show of status than actual application as a large, organized fighting force. But the Shogunate still expected the daimyo to be able to field a fighting force on the Shogunate’s behalf if called upon. So, bearing in mind the point I often bring up– the one argued by Luke Roberts in Performing the Great Peace– the appearance of following the rules was more important than actually following the rules. Daimyo consequently had to find ways of skirting the rules to make up for that disconnect.

In house Date, one of the ways that that was made up for was by using falconry as a cover for field exercises. There were a number of places where this was done, one of them being Matsumori Castle, just north of the Sendai Castle town and located astride the Oshu Highway just north of the Nanakita River. Matsumori Castle was a small fortification once controlled by the Kokubun family, which had over time become mediated (that is, absorbed into) the Date clan, and by the late 16th century was ruled by Masamune’s uncle, Kokubun Morishige. Date forces would go there more than once a year, but the first time in a given year was in every New Year’s holiday, on the third day of the first month, for what was called Nohajime (野始め “first field”)․ As noted above, the daimyo didn’t travel alone on hunting trips, so it was only proper for the daimyo’s entourage to accompany him or his duly appointed substitute on this excursion. Ostensibly a hunting trip, it was in actuality a chance for the clan’s fighting forces to get practice maneuvering, scouting, and shooting. Date was not even the only clan to do this– house Matsudaira of nearby Aizu domain is another major example of a clan that had a similar practice.

Until the late Edo period, when there were less and less restrictions the fiefdoms actually paid attention to, it did the trick.

Today, large troop movements in Japan aren’t disguised as hunting trips, but are no less rare. And while the warrior caste no longer exists, a dedicated community of trained and licensed experts keeps the art of falconry alive. You can visit the homepage of the Nihon Houyou Kyoukai at site.falconry.jp


  • Date Butoku Ibunroku, p. 26.
  • Date Chike Kiroku 1, p. 247, 313, 460
  • ”Kokubun-shi.” http://www2.harimaya.com/sengoku/html/kokub_k.html Accessed 20 May 2021.
  • Mihara Ryōkichi. Kyodoshi Sendai Mimibukuro. (Sendai: Hobundo, Showa 58 [1983]), pp. 59-62.
  • Nihon Houyou Kyoukai. site.falconry.jp Accessed 20 May 2021.
  • Noriko Otsuka. “Falconry: Tradition and Acculturation.” International Journal of Sport and Health Science 2006 Volume 4 Issue Special Issue 2006. Pages 198-207.

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