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It looks like an oversize, long-necked chicken with a piercingly loud squawk and impressive yellow-gold tail plumage.

On Monday, a Yamato hinotori (Latin name: Oyacou domburicus), believed to be the first to set foot in Japan in nearly eight centuries, was unveiled to the media at the government’s Alien Wildlife Quarantine Shelter in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture.

Long thought extinct, the bird is nevertheless a familiar sight to almost every Japanese, as its image, since November 2004, has appeared on the reverse side of the nation’s ¥10,000 note.

“In ancient times the hinotori flourished in mountainous areas of central Honshu,” said Chizuko Haneda, an assistant curator at the National Science Museum in Ueno. “But its noisy cry and bright plumage made it easy prey, and it was hunted to near-extinction for its meat.”

According to Haneda, the last birds in Japan may have been used as targets during a “yabusame” (mounted archery) competition in Kamakura during the reign of Emperor Go-Horikawa (1222-1232).

Osamu Asuka, supervisor at the Ushiku shelter, refused to respond to media questions as to how the bird, an adult female, wound up at his facility. But he did hold up a band, removed from the bird’s leg, bearing Korean hangul characters that read, “Property of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea. Do not remove under penalty of law.”

“I suspect the hinotori was abducted from a ranch southwest of Pyongyang, where they are secretly raised as part of General Secretary Kim Jong Il’s personal preserve,” Korea watcher Lee Myong Gwan told The Japan Times’ Osaka bureau.

The North Korean connection and timing of the hinotori’s appearance raised speculation that someone traveling with the New York Philharmonic orchestra, which made a 48-hour visit to Pyongyang on Feb. 25-26, assisted in smuggling the legendary bird out of the country.

An unnamed American journalist who accompanied the orchestra to North Korea recalled that while on the bus to the airport for the return flight, he kept hearing some “strange” sounds, even though no one had his instrument out.

“I could have sworn it was coming from one of the cello cases,” he said.

While revelations of the hinotori’s existence in secretive North Korea have astonished Japanese ornithologists, examination of the historical records has confirmed that emissaries from the Japanese Imperial court presented a pair of the birds to King Taejo of Korea’s Koguryo Dynasty (918-1392) as a coronation gift in 936 A.D. The bird is likely to be a direct lineal descendant of this original pair.

The hinotori’s appearance represents the second time in a month that a bird believed to be extinct has been rediscovered. On March 7, a Beck’s petrel — a pale-bellied bird species last seen in Papua New Guinea in the 1920s — was confirmed by Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Cambridge conservation group BirdLife International.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs brushed aside allegations that the bird was abducted.

“We Japanese regard the hinotori as one of our priceless cultural assets,” he said, reading from a prepared statement. “If there are more of them in North Korea, we hope the government will consider lending us a male so we can start a breeding program.” He added that as an incentive, Japan might propose some sort of aid arrangement “via a third country.”

Nevertheless the Ushiku shelter’s Asuka says it might be some time before the bird is ready to strut before the public.

“We can’t start thinking along those lines until the hinotori gets accustomed to its new habitat,” he explained. “It still seems disoriented, and we’ve had difficulty getting it to eat anything except bamboo sprouts. I seriously doubt it could survive in the wild. Japan has changed a lot over 800 years.”


APRIL FOOL

This article is an April Fool’s hoax that appeared in the newspaper April 1, 2008. Sorry if we hoodwinked you, but the Yamato hinotori was a figment of the imagination of Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka, and Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture is actually the location of the Japan Immigration Bureau Detention Center.

 

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