365 Days of Japanese Day #10

The picture yesterday was of a big owl.

very big owl, in fact.

It is Blakiston’s fish owl, the largest living species of owl.

The owl was named after the English naturalist Thomas Blakiston, who collected the original specimen in Hakodate on Hokkaidō, Japan in 1883.

What is its Japanese name?

You might expect some kind of katakana variation of “Blakiston’s fish owl” – doing what we’ve seen so many times already about how Japanese uses katakana for loan words.

However, its Japanese name is シマフクロウ = “shima fukurou”.

It is written in katakana, but doesn’t mention the word “Blakiston”.

フクロウ = “fukurou” = owl, and it is used in combination with other words for many types of owl.

It is unclear to me why it is in katakana.

What language does “fukurou” come from that it is being written in katakana, as if a loan word?

When I lived in Japan I taught English kindergarten classes in the morning so naturally picked up lots of Japanese words for animals. Something I noticed is that many of them use katakana, even when the original language was not obvious to me. So perhaps it is just a property of animal words in Japanese that they often use that katakana alphabet?

Equally interesting is the first part シマ = “shima” = ?

“Shima” could mean “island” here, but then why would it be in katakana? Perhaps because it is an animal word, as just theorised.

It is embarrassing to sound so ignorant speculating about the use of katakana here, but it turns out that katakana use is more subtle than it initially seems.

Here is a discussion of the topic where it transpires that a lot of the reasoning is due to legibility and difficulty. It is well worth a read. A part I found particularly helpful is quoted below:

The ultimate explanation is, it stands out in text. The original intention why biologists started to write them in kana, I guess, was they wanted to distinguish them from ordinary words, while Japanese writing doesn’t have italics or Capital Letters. Interestingly, in the pre-WWII ages the academic documents were commonly written in mixture of kanji and katakana, so they used hiragana to render those terms. Nowadays we use hiragana for standard orthography, and katakana for foreign words. Since many plants and animals are innately written in katakana, it may be felt consistent to write all of them in the same way.

We only looked at one new word today, but I think the probing of katakana that goes with it is something worth being aware of – certainly it was helpful for me to read the linked discussion and break from my rigid thinking that katakana = “loan word”.

Tomorrow I will tell a story about the owl. One of the stories from my time in Japan that I tell most often, actually!


  1. It’s fine! That is extremely useful to know that “シマフクロウ” is written “縞梟” and the “Shima” means “striped”. Mystery solved! 😀


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