Duck Hunter

Battling a cold and the exhausting side effects of my ongoing steroid treatment, I decided yesterday afternoon’s warmth wasn’t going to be lost on me. The rising spring temperatures necessitated a departure from my cloistered apartment.

Of late, a favourite location for afternoon wanderings has been the banks of the river. There, Siberian swans make their winter home and mingle with the other local water foul – ducks galore. The slow-moving, shallow river is an ideal place for the birds to flock in the middle of the city. Families swoop down the river’s embankments with bread and birdseed a plenty and a virtual torrent of gastronomic delights showers over the rivers residents.

The river is always a relaxing place for me to visit. I can always find something there to fill the frame of my camera. The swans and ducks are usually willing (and challenging) subjects and families fronted by cute Japanese kids are frequently mingling with the birds. Occasionally, some other surprise shows up too – last week, I witnessed 20 men learning how to carve wooden owls using chainsaws. I love these random encounters.

But yesterday, my random encounter of the day wasn’t quite as amusing as watching 20 grown men learn to create art using power tools.

It began as I was taking photos of my feathered friends. Since I have become a semi-regular patron of the riverbank, I have started to become attuned to the behaviour of some of the birds. At least, I can now sense when their behaviour is abnormal. Today, the ducks seemed to have something disturbing their watery peace. With a noticeable frequency, large groups of ducks simultaneously were taking flight, circling around in the sky and skimming back down in another section of the river. With limited ornithological knowledge, I guessed something was bothering them, but had no idea what.

I didn’t think too much of it drew my camera from my bag. Crouching down to put myself at eye level with the swans, I was approached by an old man who couldn’t have been more than five feet tall. He had been feeding the ducks and swans and seemed curious about my camera.

Now, some of the Japanese people I meet are much better at communicating with this ignorant foreigner than others. If they can speak English, they try to use it. If they can’t, they dumb down their Japanese so that I have a chance to follow them with my rudimentary knowledge of the language. Combine that with animated gestures and expressions and usually we can cross the cultural divide – messages get successfully transmitted and received.

This miniature man, however, was not so accommodating. Barely having to stoop down to put his eyes level with mine in a crouching position, his words came quickly and didn’t slow even when they were only met with my repeated responses of, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand.’ He didn’t relent and continued to ask me questions about who knows what. Usually, I can catch a word or two and can start to assemble some intelligible information, but he didn’t seem to want to give me any simple words to work with.

Eventually tiring of my inability to comprehend his questions, he wandered off to feed more ducks and left me to continue my photographic pursuits in peace.

Shortly thereafter, however, I heard a strange sound and turned to see another group of ducks quickly taking flight. The only person near that now fluttering mass of feathers was the old man. Looking slightly closer, I noticed something in his hands besides his bag full of birdseed and bread. He was turned away, so I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I saw a slingshot.

Shocked, I tried to get a better look, but his hands didn’t reveal their cargo. He wandered up the bank of the river to another group of docile ducks bobbing near the shore. He slowly approached them and, sure enough, quickly loaded and took aim with his weapon and proceeded to pelt a duck with his missile.

The duck was not killed, but he was obviously hurt by the attack. The other ducks from the same group had taken flight and the victim of the shot was now hobbling up onto the shore. The old man slowly took a couple of steps towards it before it was able to shake off its injury and take to the sky.

Meanwhile I was striding towards him, asking what on earth he was doing. I wasn’t about to start flipping through my phrasebook to try to get to the bottom of this. Japanese doesn’t exactly roll off my tongue at the best of times, but with an elevated temper, there was no way anything remotely close to a real sentence was going to be formed by my lips.

‘What are you doing? Why are you shooting ducks?’ Was about all I could stammer out. I kept asking him ‘Why?’ in Japanese and for all I know, he answered me and gave me some explanation, but I couldn’t make any sense of his responses to my angry questions. I did, however, remain composed – he could easily have gotten more of a verbal offensive than he did.

But all the while, I got a sense from him that he knew he was doing something wrong. I can’t say exactly what tipped me in that direction, but he didn’t seem like he was defending himself with any sort of self-righteousness.

With me angrily shaking my head at him, and both of our words failing to reach their mark, he started wandering further down the bank of the river. Bewildered by the exchange, I tried to determine if there was some good reason for his actions. Given the information I had, I just couldn’t see how it was okay for him to arm himself with a slingshot in the middle of the city to try to pick off ducks in an area frequented by families.

I decided there wasn’t going to be any more ducks hurt by this man today. He slowly ambled away, but constantly kept turning back to see if I was looking at him. Indeed, my icy glare greeted him each time and he nervously turned back towards his path.

As he approached another group of unsuspecting ducks, I followed at a distance. He stopped next to them and appeared ready to repeat his previous actions, but he took one look at me and apprehensively restarted his walk. He continued on to a distant park bench where he sat and continued glancing in my direction. Not having a tight schedule for the afternoon, I was free to remain in position, at the ready to shoo him away from the riverbank if necessary. Not on my watch, buddy.

He eventually yielded and I saw him wander over the embankment. Satisfied that he wasn’t going to be bothering the ducks any more, I strolled to a nearby tennis court where a group of my students were practicing. While I chatted with them, I noticed the man was now sitting inside the tennis courts watching the practice. I don’t know if he was somehow related to any of the students, but he didn’t remain there long. I didn’t see him leave, but when I was departing the courts, I saw him walking his bike away. He noticed me and resumed his uncomfortable backwards glances in my direction as I steered myself in the other direction.

I’m confident he didn’t return to the river that day, but I have no idea if he makes a habit of inner city hunting. Hopefully, the thought of the scary, duck-defending gaijin is enough of a deterrent and he won’t be disturbing the peace of the riverbank again soon.

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