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Uso Darou?

Usokae, the bullfinch exchange ritual of Kameido Tenjin Shrine, Koto-ku, is held from 8:30 a.m. on January 24 ~ 25.

By 3 min read

Let’s be honest here, when we think of interesting birds, the bullfinch is one of the last ones we probably think about. A quick wikipedia search reveals that the shape of its spermatozoa is the most interesting thing about these little birds.

Yep, they are so typical that you have to go to the cellular level to find something interesting about them! In most countries, these birds would be mostly ignored, but Japan has a unique culture and on these islands these plain creatures have a fascinating status.

For a start, bullfinches are said to be lucky birds and are said to be messengers of the kami Tenjin-sama. Tenjin-sama is the exact opposite of the bullfinch in that he was so awesome in real life that he became a deity on death. In life, he was known as one of the greatest scholars in Japan.

His poetry was so insightful that, even now, people will often pray to his spirit to grant them some of his wisdom. For this reason, it is common to see students coming to his shrine in the months before their exams. These students often buy bullfinch merchandise in an attempt to gain his blessing.

Despite his wise nature, Tenjin-sama also had a mean side. His real life counterpart Sugawara no Michizane was treated so badly at the end of his life that his rage didn’t abate even after death. Plenty of stories tell of his vengeance from beyond the grave, bringing lethal rain, lightning and floods on the people that wronged him.

Appropriately, the bullfinch, being the messenger of such a furious kami, is also said to be capable of bringing the smackdown … albeit to insects instead of the old testament-style vengeance favoured by its master.

According to Japanese legend, some people were gathering to worship Tenjin-sama when suddenly a swarm of bees attacked. Just as the worshippers were preparing to meet a painful death, a giant flock of bullfinches swept down and ate every single one of the bees. Because of this service, people will buy finch products from temples when they need to convert their misfortune into fortune.

I’ve talked in previous articles about the Japanese love of homophones and the unusual status of finches in Japanese culture is another example of wordplay. On one hand the word uso can mean ‘bullfinch’ (うそ, sometimes 鷽); on the other hand it can mean ‘lies’ (嘘). Therefore at places like Yushima Tenjin and Kameido Tenjin Shrines, you can buy a bullfinch figurine that represents all the lies that you have told.

In January, people take these figurines to the temple for the Usokae (鷽替え) festival. At this festival, you are encouraged to exchange them for other people’s finch statues. The symbolism is that you are exchanging your uso from the previous year for truths in the coming year and making everyone luckier.

If you want to take part in the celebrations, you will need to memorize the word 替えましょう (Kaemashou- Let’s exchange it) and shout it as often as possible. If you are really lucky, you may even receive the gold/ silver bullfinch in an exchange. These statues are as coveted as the holographic charizard pokemon cards and are considered signs that the recipient’s luck will be especially fortuitous.

So while in most other cultures, the bullfinch is a dull bird, in Japan it can puff out its adorable chest and stand proud as one of this island nation’s more interesting creatures. After all, what other creature can claim to be able to save crowds of people, forgive lies, rid people of bad luck and impart knowledge? Only the bullfinch…

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Usokae, the bullfinch exchange ritual of Kameido Tenjin Shrine, Koto-ku, is held from 8:30 a.m. on January 24 ~ 25.

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