Photo/IllutrationAn oriental white stork at Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork in Toyooka, Hyogo Prefecture (Provided by Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork)

About 20 oriental white storks were pecking at food and walking leisurely when I visited Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork in Toyooka, Hyogo Prefecture, the other day.

The distinctive red skin around their eyes, which gives these birds an intrepid look, reminded me of the red "kumadori" stage makeup worn by Kabuki actors.

Japan's oriental white stork population is currently estimated at 273, and the birds are found in a number of prefectures, including Hyogo and Chiba.

But half a century ago, the species was on the verge of extinction.

"There was no textbook on breeding, nor any know-how," recalled Kojiro Matsushima, 78, who was Toyooka's sole breeder back then. "Many times, I simply wanted to give up."

I was surprised to learn that it was not his chosen profession.

After graduating from high school, Matsushima first took up farming while working at a satchel maker. But because he had participated in a stork population survey while in high school, his former teachers urged him to become a live-in breeder.

But though the birds kept under his care laid eggs, none ever hatched. The eggs would get broken, or simply turn out to be infertile or so-called arrested development eggs, much to Matsushima's frustration and distress.

The public's impatience for the birth of chicks put Matsushima under tremendous strain. He couldn't even take the New Year's Day and Bon summer holidays off, and resigned himself to forfeiting family vacations and missing his children's school sports events.

Despite these sacrifices, his efforts remained unrewarded for more than 20 years.

But a breakthrough finally came in 1985, when he received six birds as gifts from the former Soviet Union.

Unlike the birds he had been caring for, these birds had never ingested pesticides, and were well-nourished. Matsushima's hopes soared.

Sure enough, his decades-long dream of seeing an egg hatch came true in 1989.

That was exactly 30 years ago, when Matsushima was 47 years old. In Japan, the era had just changed from Showa to Heisei.

Matsushima left his job when he reached the age for mandatory retirement. But every time he visits his old place of work every few years or so, the birds remember him well and welcome him with open wings, so to speak.

"That's when I feel totally rewarded for all my past struggles," he told me with tears in his eyes, and I choked up, too.

Without Matsushima's epic patience, no stork would have returned to the skies over Toyooka.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 6

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.