The Three-legged crow

crow statue, MiyajimaIn Japan, when people look up at the night sky they don’t see a “man” in the moon, they see a rabbit. In the day, they see a crow in the sun.

Anyone who has read this blog knows I am intrigued by crows. Before I travelled to Japan, I didn’t know whether or not I would see crows there. On my first day in Japan, I woke up to familar caws coming from the rice field outside my window. I was thrilled to discover that Japan does indeed have crows, and not just ordinary crows — but giant Jungle crows.

The crows I saw that first morning were not this kind, however, though they were a little bigger and had a slightly different pitch to their calls than the Northwestern or Common crows I see at home. My first encounter with Jungle crows did not happen until my visit to a Tokyo cemetary.

Tokyo cemetery
Although crows (and ravens) are often associated with prophecy, wisdom and longevity (positives for the most part), when you see the huge, heavy-shouldered, bulky-beaked black shapes swooping and skulking around an old graveyard, it’s hard to forget that they are also somethimes linked to death and bad fortune. Unnerving, to say the least (although personally, I thought they were great and spent about an hour following them around with my camera, trying, unsuccessfully, to get close enough to take a recognizable photo).

While ordinary crows may be considered bad luck in Japan (especially since they have started attacking people in Ueno Park and other areas of Tokyo), if a crow happens to have three legs, it’s a totally different story.

A Japanese legends tells of how, long ago a monster was about to devour the sun. To prevent this, the rulers of heaven created the first crow, who flew into the monster’s mouth and choked him (I assume this crow had three legs, since the “crow in the sun” is supposed to have three legs, representing dawn, noon and dusk). Another story tells of how the first Japanese soccer emblemEmperor of Japan was travelling through the mountains and became lost. The sun-goddess sent a three-legged crow to guide him, and from that day on, the three-legged crow became an emblem of Japanese imperial rule (and the Japanese National soccer team).

crows and cats, Ueno Park                                          Note: the top photo is a crow statue outside the shrine of Miyajima near Hiroshima, and the photo at left shows a crow and some stray cats who were “sharing” food scraps at the back of a restaurant in Ueno Park, Tokyo (see, the Jungle crows really are big!). Although the story I’m working on right now is not specifically about any of these things, I’m having fun working them in (manga-loving North American girl on an exchange trip to Japan discovers Japan is not quite what she expected…. learns a lesson from some Tokyo crows….).


12 Responses to “The Three-legged crow”

  1. Shingen Says:

    I love crows, but there is nothing stranger than walking by a Japanese cemetery and seeing a few hundred of them flying around and sitting on anything available because O-bon has just been. They really crave mochi!

    Thanks for telling us about the 3-legged crow… I never noticed that the JFA’s was actually a mutant!

  2. Jean-Pierre Antonio Says:

    I was prowling the monthly market at Kitano Tenmangu today in Kyoto and I saw a scroll painting for sale depicting a crow looking at a man and laughing. At least I think the crow was laughing. It didn’t have three legs but I hope you don’t mind if I still post a haiku about the painting.

    The crow laughed at him
    He couldn’t understand why
    The crow laughed some more

  3. Alex Park Says:

    Three-legged crow was used as a symbol of an old Korean dynasty, Kokuryo (Corea). As a sort of counterpart of western phoenix, this mythical bird was regarded by the Corean people as a symbol of good fortune. Regarding this bird as something related with old Japanese dynasty is not correct since Kokuryo dynasty was established long before any Japanese dynasty. Nowadays, the symbol of three-legged crow is widely acknowledged as the nation’s symbol in recent Korean history dramas.

  4. Alex Park Says:

    In many tombs of Kokuryo dynasty, the three-legged crows are used as wall decorations. And even Kokuryo crown was decorated with the bird. Therefore, it would be fairer to say that symbol belong to Corea, the dynasty dominated even over wide territory of today’s China. The Corea dynasty was so powerful and threatening to many countries from the third to the 11th century when Balhae, inheriting the Corea dynasty’s spirit, ruled over wide territory of China. To get to know more about the origin and legend of the bird, it’s better to do some research on Korea’s old dynasty, Corea.

  5. Alex Park Says:

    More about the three-legged symbol in Corea dyansty, see,

  6. Jacqueline Pearce Says:

    I’m happy to know more about the three-legged crow and its Korean roots (though the site mentioned in the comment above has Korean text, so I wasn’t able to read anything there). The three-legged crow may very well have been used as a symbol in Korea before it was in Japan, but this doesn’t negate its use and significance in Japan. Japan has a long history of importing influences from other countries. Often these foreign influences (eg. from China in the past, and Europe and North America in more recent years) become transformed or adapted to existing Japanese tastes, customs and beliefs and end up looking quite different from the original — or at least end up having a distinctly Japanese slant. Perhaps the three-legged crow is one of these imported images that has been adapted to suit Japanese experience. The story is still interesting, I think.

  7. Robbie Says:

    I was just interested in crows in generel. On easter sunday I went to the graveyard where my parients were and while at their head stone, I hear a crow, VERY LOUD. I looked to my right and about 15 feet away was a large crow sitting on top of another stone. I started talking to it and it just sat there and crowed back at me. I got my Camera out and took a few pictures of him and he never moved. I than turned back to my parients stones and the crow flew in front of me and over to some other sites about 50 feet away. I was woundering if you know what this could be saying. I was very thrilled that he was hanging around.

  8. Jacqueline Pearce Says:

    Hi Robbie,

    I can only guess what that crow might have been saying. It could have been warning you away or trying to distract you away from its near by nest (spring being nesting season), or if the crow is accustomed to people feeding it, it could have been upset that you didn’t bring any food, or maybe it was just curious about you.

    In the past, crows were seen as messangers in some cultures. Although I find this idea intriguing, I generally don’t like to anthropomorphize or project human ideas onto a crow’s actions. Still, I do find that I often have an interesting animal encounter or sighting at significant times or times of change in my life. I like to think of the animal’s appearance as “marking” or acknowledging that moment, rather than trying to bring me a particular message. Seeing or experiencing the animal (whether it’s a crow or another wild animal) helps me pay attention to myself and the world.

    So in other words, you could think of the crow in the graveyard as saying “Keep away from my nest, you big %#@$**!!” or “Why the $#&!* didn’t you bring me some food?” …. or you could look at your crow experience as a special encounter that helps you mark/remember what you were experiencing or feeling at that time in your life. This Just a thought…


  9. vince grinstead Says:

    that is very intreresting about the crows in tokyo….i was trying to figure out what the t shirt i bought recently meant, it is made by adidas and it has 3 crows on the front with this sentence below them: I ( adidas symbol) tokyo….im assuming that it means i love tokyo but i didnt have any idea about the signifigance of the crows do you have any more info to add to that for me so i can explain when people ask me cuz many people have and i expect more will in the future….

  10. Jacqueline Pearce Says:

    I’m not sure about the 3 crows and Tokyo. I’m just guessing, but maybe it has something to do with the Japanese designer, Yohji Yamamoto. Apparently, he did a clothing line for Adidas known as Y-3. When he originally became a well-known designer he used a lot of black in his clothing, so people who wore his clothes were supposedly known as “the crows.” Maybe 3 crows is a reference to him.

    Or maybe Tokyo is simply becoming known as a place full of aggressive crows (they’ve been causing problems getting into garbage, etc –kind of like rats in cities in other countries). This doesn’t seem like something Adidas would want to associate itself with, but maybe the 3-legged crow emblem of the National soccer team makes aggressive crows a good thing when you’re talking sports-wear (??).

    Sorry I can’t be more help. I’ll ask a friend who lives in Japan if he can shed any light.

  11. seanarthurjoyce Says:

    Crows have a prominent place in world mythology and it’s surprising how much variation on the theme there can be, from the Haida legends of Raven as Trickster-Creator to the Celtic Morrigan, shapeshifter and goddess of battlefields. On the nonfiction side, I highly recommend ‘Gifts of the Crow’ by corvid biologist John Marzluff, illustrated by Tony Angell. New studies of crows are showing surprising levels of intelligence including the ability to use tools to solve problems, an ability we used to reserve mostly for humans.

  12. Jacquie Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Art. Hard to believe it’s been almost 10 years since I posted this (glad that you found it). Do you mean the book “In the company of Crows and Ravens”, or have Marzluff and Angell done more than one book together? Btw, I just noticed last night that the crows flying overhead every night on their way to the Burnaby roost are starting to increase in numbers again as summer and breeding season draws to a close.

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