Friday, July 7, 2017

FYI, humans are animals: a saga of wild animals and Japanese Satoyama

Japan is a mountainous archipelago (378 thousand km2) covered by forests, in temperate and semi-tropical climates with lots of rains all year round. She is a group of not-so-big islands separated from a gigantic land mass of Eurasian Continent far enough to prevent “foreign” species from immigrating massively. It’s been like this at least for more than 10000 years. Thanks to this condition, we Japanese happen to live in a peculiar environment. Seiki Takatsuki 高槻成紀, the boss for the Life Museum of Azabu University 麻布大学いのちの博物館, wrote in his 2015 book that Honshu Island (230 thousand km2) is home for vegetation whose number of species is equal to the number of varieties growing in the European Continent (10 million km2). He pointed out the number of terrestrial mammal species live in our archipelago is more or less the same in the entire Europe. Hmmm, a quick google search says, including homo sapience, we are a team of 130 species in Japan. Life of mountainous and smallish islands inevitably limits possible distance among the lives of different animals. Although now Metropolitan Tokyo is concreted almost entirely, until about 70 years ago, people lived in a hilly (at best) place where in spring and summer plants grew ferociously all over and lots of non-human animals regularly poked their heads from grasses and trees. Deer, bears, boars, hares, mice, foxes, weasels, insects, reptiles, etc. etc. found the things humans ate tasty. Annihilating them was practically impossible due to deep mountains surrounding a village. The traditional design for human settlement in Japan takes into account this. To grow foods in fields and to keep gathering nuts, herbs, mushrooms, firewood … in the neighboring mountainous forests, people had to find a way to control the encounter with animals. Satoyama was planned for this purpose.

Seeing Niiharu Citizen Forest
and houses of Niiharu Town
from Miho Nenju-zaka Park

Take a recent photo above, for Niiharu 新治 in Yokohama. A house is surrounded by trees such as persimmon and loquat in addition to horticultural flower trees. It also has bamboo forest behind that was once an important resource for making daily utensils. Before petrochemicals and electricity, the tall cedars beyond were broad-leaved trees such as Quercus acutissima that could be baked for good charcoals. Due to watchful eyes of humans the fruit trees near houses were tricky target for wild animals in the firewood forest. The middle in this picture is an agricultural field running along Umeda River 梅田川. Have you noticed for animals to invade into the field they had to pass human settlement or the river? This is the very basic strategy of Satoyama community. The villages in deeper forest had additional arrangements. For example, in traditional Japanese Satoyama from Kanto Region to the west it was common to build stone walls or fences, called shishigaki しし垣 between forests and agricultural fields in order to fend off large mammals like deer, boars and bears. Development of such human settlement needs well-planned mobilization of time and resources, even with the 21st century mechanized tools. In addition, Japanese forest grows fiercely during spring and summer. Unless we mow the undergrowth frequently, and maintain the defense walls regularly, the community would be swollen by the forest within weeks. Once the defense shield, such as open views and walls, is covered by a forest, it is a boulevard for wild animals coming for a gourmet lunch in agricultural field. You see? Co-habitation among mammals in this crowded archipelago required lots of lots of jobs by humans. Historically, it was not uncommon Satoyama villages overpowered by animals. People lost all the food after a long struggle against animals, and left the place for good. “Foxes and raccoons could be smarter than us as they are apparitions of some divine spirit of the forest, couldn’t they?” “No, no, bears and wolves are far more powerful gods.” “Well, deer are messenger of gods in Kasugataisha Shrine 春日大社 of Nara 奈良. They are the gods …”

The footprints left in Niiharu.
Although Niiharu Forest is surrounded now by
the ocean of condos and detached houses,
it’s still a home for many small animals
such as hares, raccoons, and civets.
(More to them, next week.)
Oh, by the way,
I recently learned Peter Rabbit is in the end English.
The rabbit I’ve met last year in Niiharu is a Japanese hare
who lives a quiet solitary life in grass field.
Peter has a happy family life in tunnel, doesn’t he?
It’s the lifestyle of European rabbit.

It seems to me, the forests in Japan may not have been so abundant historically … I’ll return to it in my later post ... Anyway, for today’s topic, especially after Commodore Matthew C. Perry came in 1853 near Yokosuka, and western-style industrialization started in honest, the relation between forest animals and Japanese changed. Especially after Meiji Restoration in 1868, with growing population (… oh so by-gone era language …), deregulation about Buddhism-based dietary restriction, and hunting with firearms which became common after the introduction of universal conscription in 1873, villagers went into the forest and hunted animals massively for food and to protect newly introduced European style farming. Dr. Takatsuki suggested the effect of western style anthropocentric approach to the nature could have been enormous. Until then, Japanese may have thought humans and the nature were 50-50 at best. Now, people started to think the forest of geometrically planted “beautiful” trees in Versailles. The problem was, the ecosystems in Europe and in Japan were, and of course are, different. Europe is cooler, and has far smaller annual precipitation than Japan. Inevitably, biodiversity in their forest is smaller. In addition, the area north of Apes was covered by glaciers for longer time during Ice Age. Many living creatures were frozen to die, and never came back under limited supply of sunshine and water. For homo sapience, it’s easier in Europe to believe in the permission of the God to “rule” the rest of the living creature, with smaller disturbance to the environment, or even being beneficial to restore ecosystem. Japan was, and is, different. From wild animals’ point of view, their lives in Japanese forest became more perilous by humans with more aggressive will to kill. Japanese wolves and Hokkaido wolves were the most famous casualties of the change in people’s attitude. Hokkaido wolf was eradicated by 1896. The final body of a Japanese wolf was found in January 1905. They were extinct. But they were not the only sufferers. People ate voraciously meat of deer, boar, bear, rabbit etc. etc., and traded furs for European style clothes. By World War II, finding deer in Japanese forest became exceptional.

A day in a supermarket in Yokohama these days.
Now we in metropolitan Tokyo eat meat more than fish.

When Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces in 1945, the nation was in starvation, and almost all the cities in the archipelago were turned to ashes by regular and atomic bombs. Soon young soldiers came home and made babies. Starving and homeless population exploded. Inevitably, the mountains were deforested for reconstruction, and wild animals were hunted even more for food and fur. A sort of saving grace was people reforested stripped slopes with coniferous trees whose logs fetched wonderful price in the market during the 1940s and the 50s. According to Dr. Takatsuki, the coniferous forests of baby cedars and cypresses first covered by mantle vegetation that was an ideal ground for hares and field mice to multiply. The skyrocketed population of them flowed out from the mountain to villages. The farmers catch them for protecting their crop. Meanwhile, “new thinking” of environmental protection was imported from America and Europe. With this latest trend, the city folks saw casual approaches to wild animals in “backward” rural community “barbarous,” and began to call for “animal protection.”  Whatever the goings among humans, the baby conifers in the mountain kept growing and the forest floor got darker. The environment became unfit for mice and hare and their problem subsided. Eating hare became occasional, but the fever for Euro-American style animal protection movement kept momentum.

It’s the scenery of a village
in Aomori Prefecture
青森県 in the 1950s.
A big barn and lots of houses for farmers were there.
The place must have been very vibrant with lots of kids …

Japan entered the 1960s for a miracle economic growth. Factory jobs in cities offered more pecuniary rewards compared to labor-intensive ag-works. At the same time, expensive Japanese logs completely lost the market to cheaper imported materials from all over the world. The forestry industry in Japan was destroyed. The young population in rural community moved in drove to urban life where everything must be bought from shops. Japanese started to be dependent on imported foods, not grown domestically.  Industrially manufactured ramen-noodles became the coolest cuisine. The produce organically grew in their home by their parents were something of outdated. “Oh, by the way, how so-unfasionable is killing wild animals entering to boring ancestral rice paddies to eat that uncool rice our stupid parents planted!” In the 1970s, former kids from agricultural villages were urban parents dreaming their kids to be MDs or bankers to spend entire life in the middle of concreted skyscrapers and shopping centers, removed far from agriculture and forestry. The notion of animal protection was the “idea,” not something grounded on practical daily life. “In any case, it is rare to spot deer or any wild animals when we vacation in National Parks. Surely Bambi must be cute, isn’t it? I’ve never seen her in wild …” Hunters were seen as “enemies of modernity.” Not many young people joined hunting even for leisure. The average age of hunters began to get older ...

The peak of Mt. Daibosatsurei 大菩薩嶺 of
Yamanashi Prefecture 
山梨県 in the middle of 1970s.
Don’t you think the afforested trees were still young?
The place was still in the process of post-war reconstruction.
It’s interesting to compare it with the recent photo
of the same place in thistourism web site.

Dr. Takatsuki is an expert of ecosystem for Japanese deer. When Japan started its 1980s, he noticed something was happening between Japanese forests and deer. Farmers began complaining deer, and his academic colleagues of botany said their research field began to change drastically. In his 2016 book, he referred a research byToru Ohi 大井徹 published in 2012 and pointed out in 1985 the reports of agricultural damages caused by deer increased rapidly nation-wide. In 1987, the deer affected fields became larger than the mice-eaten places. In the 1990s deer-harm started to grow exponentially, while mice-problem became a mouse-size. But since the 1960s Kanagawa Prefecture has always been the opening ground of environmental research done by a plethora of universities in Metropolitan Tokyo. The scientists have been demanding a thorough and comprehensive research to be funded to tackle the problem scientifically. When in 1993 the officially recorded crop destruction by deer reached 45 thousand km2 nation-wide, the prefecture initiated a 3 year project to collect data of environmental problem in Tanzawa-Oyama Quasi-National Park 丹沢大山国定公園. This was the first scientific and comprehensive monitoring about deer problem in Japan, and became the basis of 180° turn of Japanese policy for wild animals.

Kanagawa’s Deer stuffing displayed in
the museum of the 21st Century Forest of Kanagawa Prefecture

Next week, I tell you the continuation of the story. And today, we again heard news boars were running around in the middle of big cities, like Kobe or Kyoto …

If you find environmental problems in mountains of Kanagawa Prefecture, please make a contact to
Kanagawa Nature Conservation Center 神奈川県自然環境保全センター
657 Nanasawa, Atsugi City, 243-0121 2430121 厚木市七沢657
Phone: 046-248-0323

You can send an enquiry to them by clicking the bottom line of their homepage at

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