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This is a past article published in Hiragana Times. Each Japanese paragraph is followed by its English translation or vise versa, and furigana are placed above each kanji to make Japanese study even easier. [Magazine Sample] [Subscription Page]

The House Painter Who Cares for a Flightless Swan

[From June Issue 2010]

HIROI Yoshinobu

Every year around October, various migratory birds fly to the Japanese Archipelago. Since it is too cold for them to feed in Siberia during the winter, they migrate to a warmer Japan for their food. For two weeks they fly between 3,000 to 4,000 kilometers from the Eurasian Continent.

Facing the Sea of Japan, in Shibata City, Niigata Prefecture, lies Lake Masugata, just one of the destinations for hundreds of swans who make it their home from October through April, before returning to Siberia in the spring. Among them, however, is one swan that is a Masugata resident. About 10 years ago it was seriously wounded and lost its right wing, making it unable to fly, and even the locals don’t know how it happened.

In Masugata, the bogs are full of water grass. The lake is surrounded by low mountains, which shield it from both wind and heat – great conditions for a flightless swan during Japan’s severely hot summers. However, since it is difficult to survive on only nature-supplied food, the swan has been getting some local help.

HIROI Yoshinobu, a paint shop owner for 40 years, has visited Lake Masugata to feed the crippled swan every morning before going to work, regardless of whether it is rainy, windy, snowy or freezing cold.

Since his youth, Hiroi has taken regular walks around Masugata, but it was only 10 years ago that he first encountered a woman who was giving the wounded swan some bread. That’s when he decided to start feeding it rice. He had seen other swans foraging for food in rice paddies during the winter, and thought it would be nice to give the wounded swan some similar food.

Hiroi first bought “irigo,” or unripened rice, from both the Agricultural Cooperative Association and local farmers. Since it was light and floated easily on water, he thought it would be most suitable for the swan. Thirty kilograms cost about 2,500 yen, and was enough to feed the swan for about five days. Nowadays, according to Hiroi, many neighboring farmers bring him rice to, “Please give to the swan.”

Over the past 10 years, many people have fed the swan, but Hiroi is the only one who does it regularly. One day, Hiroi had something he had to do at his workplace, so he headed to Masugata later than usual. Upon arriving, he saw the swan standing on the shore gazing at him, making him feel guilty for being late. However, Hiroi felt deeply moved by the fact that the wild swan was waiting for him.

Hiroi passionately admits that “as the person who started the feeding, I have a responsibility. The life expectancy of a swan is about 24 years. I imagine that this swan will live for at least another 10 years or so. I’m not sure who will live longer, the swan or I, but I intend to take care of until the day it dies.”

When other swans start their return journey north, the wounded swan tries to follow, but with just one wing, it can only fly about two meters. Hiroi, who has been watching those attempts for ten years, says, “I really feel sorry for the bird. I wish I could send it back, at least once, to its homeland of Siberia.”

Moreover, Hiroi organized the “Yamabiko-kai” (Echo Club) with the people he met at Masugata, and keeps in touch with them by taking trips and having meals together. Some new members have even joined after seeing him feed the swan. “The wounded swan has brought me encounters with so many people,” he remarks.

One time, while Hiroi was feeding the swan as usual, a stranger approached, offering him a painting job. Like the old Japanese story, “Tsuru no Ongaeshi” (Crane’s Repayment of Kindness), for Hiroi, that repayment really happened.

Hiroi admits that although he’s taking care of the swan voluntarily, he knows that he is also getting a lot of cooperation from the bird. “Live and let live. I wish we could all be friends,” he says as the tears welled up in his eyes. The flightless swan of Masugata, that Hiroi protects, is loved by everyone still today.

Text: HAMADA Miyako


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