If you’re traveling around Japan’s countryside in late summer, don’t be alarmed if you see a bunch of creepy mannequin heads staring at you from the fields.
They’re for the birds.
Dennis Doucet, a Canadian photographer who’s lived in Kobe, Japan, for 26 years, was out searching for egrets and herons in the rice paddies near his neighborhood earlier this month when he spotted the spooky heads.
The effect is macabre, he says, especially at night, when the heads catch the light from the passing cars.
“The sudden appearance of what seem like bodiless, zombie heads floating in the darkness can give one quite the scare,” Doucet writes on CNN iReport.
“Also, as the heads become moldy or bleached by the sun, they become even more scary. Most (non-farming) Japanese seem to agree that the heads are probably more scary to humans than to the pests they are being used to keep away!”
Japanese scarecrows, called “kakashi,” occupy a storied history in farming culture, with many legends surrounding their use in the rice fields.
In their latest incarnation, Japanese farmers take mannequin heads left over from hair stylists and either make life-sized scarecrows or simply impale them on sticks to scare off sparrows, Doucet learned from locals.
“The heads are life-sized and very realistic,” Doucet writes. “The ‘hair’ is permanently applied, so that once the hair has been cut, the head is then useless to the original owner.”
Kensuke Okada, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s International Program in Agricultural Development Studies, says scarecrows are “known to be an ineffective way for protect the crops from birds, nor it is widely practiced in Japan.”
But Doucet visited two farmers who insisted they’ve found scarecrows to be the most effective strategy for repelling skittish sparrows, short of air cannons, which are so loud that they make a nuisance for neighbors.
Driving around the area, he saw the mannequin heads in at least a dozen different paddies in different areas.
One large land owner, a 15th-generation farmer, said he started using the mannequins about five years ago, when one of his part-time workers was studying to be a hair dresser.
“He said that the timing of using the heads was the key.
“He would put them out at just the time when the rice was about to be harvested — this is also the time of the most crop damage by sparrows. He strongly believed in the effectiveness of the mannequin kakashi.”
Lee Chapman, another Tokyo photographer who has photographed many mannequin scarecrows over the years, “in all manner of clothing and positions,” says he’s noticed they only come out in mid- to late-August to protect the rice that’s nearing harvest.
Once harvesting starts, they’re packed away until the following year.