Takagari - The Samurai Art of Falconry

Birds of prey beloved by the Shimadzu family


Falconry is a form of hunting where a bird of prey is raised by a falconer and trained to catch other birds or small mammals.

In Japan the earliest reference to falconry appears in the Nihon Shoki dated around the year 350 and refers to a Korean emissary bringing a hawk restrained to a pole to Japan. From the Nara period (710-794) falconer became an official military station and the Imperial Court managed control of the hawks. As the Nara period transitioned into the Heian period (794-1185) the killing of animals came to be seen as a vile act and falconry waned in popularity. With the Kamakura period (1185-1333) and the rise of the warrior classes falconry became a popular samurai pastime and schools such as the Suwa-ryu and Yoshida-ryu were founded. Falconry was one of the pastimes that was highly respected in samurai circles, along with archery, swordsmanship, and the football like game kemari.

Today the season for falconry is strictly limited to the period between November 15th until February 15th. Falconers train their birds over the summer and hold falconry displays starting in the Autumn.

The birds used are raised in a darkened room and fed in small amounts to make them more responsive to bait. In Autumn the falconers take the birds outside for a short walk. Gradually the birds are introduced to early morning and being in unfamiliar places with the falconer. The hawks are fed small birds as bait.

When performing a hunt, beaters or hunting dogs scare the prey out of the bushes, and the falconer releases the hawk at the opportune moment to catch the prey. The falconer pulls the hawk off the prey once it has been dispatched and wrestled to the ground.

The cord used to restrain the hawks is usually a bright orange colour, but when hunting cranes falconers historically used a purple cord instead.

Hawk by Shimadzu Nariakira

Falconry and the Shimadzu Family

When Portuguese explorers visited the Satsuma domain in the 1540s, they noted that the samurai of the region enjoyed using hawks and falcons for hunting. Initially all ranks of people could participate in falconry, but the sport eventually became limited to the only those from the samurai class. Falconry became a popular form of entertainment for the warrior classes and knowledge of falconry was an important status symbol.

One of the regions used for producing the birds of prey used in falconry was Hyuga (Miyazaki Prefecture), subjugated by the Shimadzu clan in 1577. The Shimadzu were frequently asked by powerful lords from other regions to send falcons and hawks as gifts. The Shimadzu family records show that Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Ashikaga Yoshiaki, and Konoe Sakihisa all requested birds to be sent from Hyuga by the Shimadzu family, in what could be called “hawk diplomacy”. Chief Advisor to the Emperor, Konoe Sakihisa was a particular fan of falconry, and asked Shimadzu Yoshihisa to send writings on medicine for hawks as well as their rearing and care. It is also said that Shimadzu Yoshihiro had a hawk collection so spectacular it made even Sakahisa envious. Uwai Satokane notes that the Shimadzu family followed the Suwa-ryu style of falconry.

falconry display sengan-en

After the Shimadzu were defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and pushed back to Kagoshima, Shimadzu Yoshihiro was named the Keeper of the Hawks for the province of Hyuga by Hideyoshi. Yoshihiro was charged with capturing hawks for Hideyoshi on his lands. Hideyoshi was a keen falconer and even devised plans such as to shoot matchlock rifles at various points around the country to drive flocks of birds towards the city. Unfortunately for Hideyoshi the popularity of the hawks in Hyuga had been so high that numbers were dwindling, and by the time his government came to control the region there were hardly any of the birds left to capture.

During the Invasion of Korea (1592-1598) Shimadzu Iehisa intended to capture good quality hawks for falconry, having heard that high quality birds of prey were commonplace in Korea. Iehisa sent a retinue into the mountains for several days with the specific goal of capturing birds of prey.

During the Edo period (1603-1868) falconer became an official domain profession. In the late Edo period, it is thought that falconers were particularly concentrated around the Oguro residence (Harara, Kagoshima City), and there still exists today an Edo period monument to pets and animals that have passed away.

Alex Bradshaw

Alex is the Head of Overseas Business for Shimadzu Limited, and has lived in Kagoshima for over 15 years.

He has spent many years studying traditional swordsmanship, and has demonstrated martial arts for the Crown Prince of Japan as well as at many venerable shrines across Japan. He also practices calligraphy, zazen, and many other elements of Japanese culture and has translated several works on the subject.

Book Tickets