Mind-Blowing Animal Facts I’ve Learned in Japan

Language is a funny thing. You can convey so much information with it but different languages often have different strengths when it comes to that expression. In English, we have all sorts of quirks and eccentricities from our colorful linguistic history. Japan also has its fair share of insights it can offer, a few of which I want to share with you that had me doing a double-take.

Pigeons and Doves

This came about during a conversation I had with a student in our English conversation lounge. The topic was unique animals from your home region. She was from good old Saitama, home of the lame, and she said Saitama didn’t have anything special. They do have, however, the prefectural mascot, Kobaton. She told me it was a pigeon, truly fitting the lame factor of public perception. I asked a Japanese friend about the name of the mascot, and she notes that the word for pigeon was hato (鳩) but she then paused and added that it could also be a pigeon, since that is also hato (鳩). After a bit of ornithological investigation, we discovered that pigeons and doves are the same species, and the distinction between the two only seems to exist in English. Go figure!

Giraffe… but not

Qilin Incense Burner (image courtesy of user BrokenSphere via Wikimedia Commons)
Image permitted to be used via CC by SA 3.0

Kirin beer. You know that animal on the can? I was told recently it was a giraffe. Mind blown. I’ve always thought it was some sort of hoofed dragon, like the horse dragons at Nikko Toshogu Shrine. After speaking to a few others on this matter, a linguistic confusion came to explain the giraffe gaffe: kirin (キリン) is indeed the Japanese word for giraffe but a Kirin is also a mythical beast from Japanese lore. It was imported from China, where it is known as a Qilin, and it is part of a mythical family of single-horned beasts that can be seen when an illustrious leader passes or comes to be. The association with giraffes came in the Ming dynasty, when Zheng He went to Somalia and first saw the creatures. So, know that when you crack open a Kirin beer, you’re sipping an ode to a mythical creature.

Has studying a foreign language opened your mind and changed the way you look at something? Let us know in the comments!

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