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Where the wild things aren’t

by Thomas Dillon

“I have this idea to get rich quick,” says this friend. Like me, he is underwhelmed by his Japanese income. Unlike me, he still has dreams. He also has my attention. For we all want to get rich and “quick” is by far the preferred method. But then he says . . .

“I plan to organize tour groups to come see ‘Wild Japan.’ “

“Oh.” We sip coffee. I measure my repertoire of clever comebacks and then seek clarification. “You mean, like the back streets of Roppongi after dark?”

“What? Drunks and ladies of easy persuasion? How run-of-the-mill. No, I mean real wild life . . . Japanese animals frolicking free in nature.”

Japanese animals? Frolicking? Free? In nature? “Frankly, I’d stick with Roppongi. The access is easier and you’d be sure to find more frolicking.”

“Why’s that?”

Why’s that?! And my comebacks wilt before the glare of his naivete. “Because Japan hasn’t any wild life. None. What? You think Japan’s a jungle out there? It’s more like the parking lot at city hall. Cars, old-timers and cement. That’s all there is.”

“But . . . aren’t there monkeys and bears in the mountains?”

“Right. Where they go to avoid cars, old-timers and cement.”

“And so that’s where I will take my tourists.”

“Drag them over the mountains for a maybe glimpse of a monkey in a tree? Why don’t you do what the Japanese do?”

Which, he asks, is what?

“Go to the zoo. Or a monkey park.” Or maybe tramp off to other countries in Asia, where you can see wild monkeys in gaggles. For there’s not much wild life in Japan.

Unless you count mosquitoes.

“I saw a rabbit in a park once in Tokyo,” I tell him. “Probably an abandoned pet. It looked like it wanted to leap into my arms. Meanwhile at my mom’s house in the Midwest, rabbits and squirrels dart across the yard like it was a freeway. Do you know what a Tokyo housewife would do if she peeked out her window and saw a bunch of rabbits?”

“What?”

“Call the cops. And then the TV networks. Because it would be news.”

“But how about in the countryside?” His eyes shine like that of a poodle’s in a Polaroid. Excess caffeine? Or excess hope?

“Sure, the countryside has animals — weasels, raccoon dogs and more. But it’s not like they’re sitting there signing autographs. They’re off in the woods, doing animal things. They don’t leap into view so often. That’s why people go nuts when they see one.”

“And you don’t think foreign tourists would too?”

“Listen . . . Japanese see a single firefly in a rice paddy and they ooh and awe. Yet, give me a Ball jar and 10 minutes anywhere in Iowa during summer and I will collect you enough ‘ooh and awe’ to supply this nation for a decade.” He doesn’t get it.

“OK, I saw a wild deer once when on vacation in Hokkaido, perhaps Japan’s wildlife paradise. But it jumped back into the woods at once. Probably out of shyness. Meanwhile, the wild deer in my hometown hang about like hoodlums. If they’re not spoiling people’s gardens, they’re out re-directing traffic. They’re a hazard.”

“So . . . you’re saying that what is rare here is dime-a-dozen there?” I nod. “Except maybe for roaches and other bugs. If you want to set up ‘Roach Tours,’ go ahead and try. You might get a few takers. Canadians perhaps. Not New Yorkers.”

He lights up. “How about birds?!”

“Birds?”

“Birds! I could lead bird-watching tours!”

I nod again. “Yes. And you could start at your local station. To see pigeons schmoozing with commuters. And then you could lead the group to any public park. For photo ops of crowis horribilis lining the treetops.”

He pauses. “I’ve seen hawks circling high above the harbor.”

“That’s because they’ve seen you first. You won’t get any closer.”

“Then how about swallows? They’re cute.”

“Cute . . . but colorless. Give me a robin any day. Or a cardinal. Or a blue jay.”

But now hope is the thing with feathers. He won’t give up. “Cranes!”

“Perhaps the paper variety. The real thing is too seasonal. And smelly. You don’t want to watch them upwind.”

“So . . . you’re saying I should give up?”

“Or . . . give the bird watching angle a subtle twist and explore yakitori bars instead.”

“Yakitori?”

“To view salarymen in their natural habitat. It wouldn’t be gorillas in the mist. More like pencil-pushers in the smoke. But you might get some photos and a decent meal too.”

“So . . . you’re saying I should give up.”

“Yeah. The modern Japanese concept of wildlife is a Chihuahua without a raincoat. People here like their animals confined. Cages, leashes, goldfish in ponds. Japan isn’t where the wild things are. It’s where they’re not.”

He sighs. “There goes my early retirement. For the moment.”

“No more ideas?”

He shakes his head. “Not at present. But I’ll hit on something. You just wait.”

So there he sits, the eternal optimist.

Perhaps the rarest animal around.