When many people think about Japan their image is probably of a relatively small crowded island nation. That’s a partially, but not totally, accurate image.
The overall population density is quite high, but many of the people live in large cities and much of the country is covered with steep, heavily forested, lightly populated, mountains and although it’s an island nation it has significant animal wildlife with about 130 species of land mammals in Japan.
The largest of these are two kinds of bears, the Ussuri brown bear and the Japanese black bear. The brown bear is found only on the northern island of Hokkaido where is has played an important role in the culture of the Ainu people who called Hokkaido home for centuries. The Ussuri brown bear is a large bear which some say is almost as big as the Alaskan Kodiak brown bear.
Kayo and I went to a hot springs resort on Hokkaido some years where there was a mounted Ussuri brown standing upright on its back legs. Kayo stood next to it and if it had been a person, the top of her head would have been about at the bellybutton. The smaller Japanese black bear can be seen on the other three main islands, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, but primarily in northern Honshu. The primary grazing wild animals are deer, Japanese serow, and wild boar. There are three kinds of deer, the Sika, the Yezo sika and the Kerama. The Sika or spotted deer are found in large numbers on Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu.
The slightly larger Yezo sika is found on the northern island of Hokkaido and was a major food source for the Ainu people for centuries. The much smaller Kerama deer used to be found in large numbers on the southern tip of Kyushu where they caused significant damage to farmer’s crops and as a result they were hunted to near extinction.
Some were trapped and shipped to Kerama Island southwest of the island of Okinawa where they are now a protected species. The Japanese serow or goat-antelope is a relatively small animal weighing about 80 pounds and is very fast and agile. Athletes with very good agility and speed are sometimes compared to the serow and Yamaha Motors named one of their motorcycles “The Serow.”
Then there’s the wild boar called the white-moustached pig, inoshishi or yama kujira. For centuries the wild boar was viewed very favorably. It’s the 12th animal on the Japanese zodiac and is associated with fertility and prosperity, however, in recent years Japanese farmers have experienced the same destruction of crops as farmers here.
Moving on to the Japanese macaque, or snow monkey, which are old world monkeys native to Japan. They live farther north than any other monkeys in the world and it’s common to see them in hot springs surrounded by deep snow.
There’s a large colony of macaque on a mountain literally at the outskirts of Kyoto. And finally there’s the Japanese raccoon dog or tanuki. Some say it’s a subspecies of the Asian raccoon dog while others say it’s a separate species, but most agree that it’s not a raccoon nor a dog. The tanuki has played a significant role in Japanese folklore since ancient times.
The legendary tanuni is described as jolly and mischievous, a master of disguise and a frequent indulger of sake (rice wine). Ceramic images of the jolly tanuki ranging in size from a few inches to 10 feet or more have been made in the town of Shigaraki east of Kyoto for centuries and all are made with a pot belly suggesting too much sake. We have a ceramic image of a tanuki in our back yard which is about 10 inches tall and which has the traditional pot belly.
The mischievous tanuki is featured in many children’s stories as well as playing a role in many kabuki plays and whatever his positive traits or faults he continues to be an engaging character throughout Japan. In addition to the above, there are also wild cats, one called the leopard cat and another called the Iriomote cat, rabbits, squirrels, badgers, foxes, weasels and many other small mammals and rodents, but those are for another time.
Larry Jones is a member of the Stillwater Sister Cities Council.