Japanese History: The Mythical Ho-o (Chinese Fenhuang)

In my last 4 posts I discussed two birds that appear as symbols on Japanese items, so I might as well continue my bird theme with another widely-encountered bird, the Hou-ou (鳳凰). The two kanji used represent the male and the female of this mythical species, so together they probably represent a harmony of some sort. You can read more about this mythical fowl on the Wikipedia page HERE. Variations appear in different cultures.

In Chinese the male is called feng and the female huang; so the harmonious two together are called fenghuang. Similarly, in Japanese the male is hou and the female ou, hence the name Hou-ou. I often write this as Ho-o simply because English readers might find it easier to read.

The Ho-o is one of the four sacred creatures, but the others most often appear in Chinese-related themes. The other three are the winged dragon (Ouryuu 応竜), the holy turtle (Reiki 霊亀), and a strange creature called the Kirin (麒麟). The latter is the name of a famous Japanese beer, and a fine picture of that creature graces the label:

So back to the Ho-o. In Japan you can see statues of the bird here and there, on top of shrines, in parks, and in other places. An image of the bird also graces the back of the 10000 yen note.

As a symbol in Japan, the Ho-o is most often used on items related to the Emperor. On commemorative items for Imperial enthronement ceremonies, Imperial marriages, Imperial births, etc., one can see these birds. Two examples follow today. First, a commemorative medallion made for Hirohito’s enthronement ceremonies in 1928:

Another example is the same Emperor’s 50th Wedding Anniversary:


Here only one bird is present. And in fact it seems that one bird is more common than two. I think that the distinction between the genders of the two birds has disappeared, and even when two appear, it seems that there are just two of the same bird.

I’ll write a bit more about the Ho-o in my next post, too.


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