Asians who crossed land bridges into today’s Ryukyu Islands more than 30,000 years ago encountered plenty of game. In addition to deer and boar, they hunted elephant and steppe bison until the larger mammals were hunted to extinction in Japan about 17,000 years ago.

Meanwhile, Siberians migrated via land bridges in the north. The Ainu of Hokkaido and northern Honshu hunted with poison-tipped arrows and spears. The other predator of the north was the Ezo wolf. This ancient species was more like the gray wolf than its better-known cousin, the Honshu wolf, and the Ainu considered it to be a god.

With settlers building ranches in Hokkaido, the Ezo wolf bowed to Japan’s bounty system and chemical extermination campaign during the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), and went extinct in the late 1800s.

Meanwhile, the Honshu wolf, the smallest of all Canis lupis species, drew its last breath in Nara in 1905.

Researcher John Knight speculates that wolves were historically considered benign in Japan.

“Far from being a threat to village livelihoods, (Honshu wolves) helped to protect them from farm-raiding forest animals such as wild boar, deer and hares,” he writes in his 1997 essay “On the Extinction of the Japanese Wolf.”

While Japanese might have been more cruel or simply more efficient hunters than the Ainu — they did, after all, apparently cause the extinction of both species — there is also evidence that they revered wolves. Folk tales credit wolves with wondrous deeds that include such things as warning villagers of a natural disaster via a series of precautionary howls. Meanwhile, villages such as those in Yamanashi Prefecture are believed to have celebrated wolf births with an offering of sekihan (azuki bean rice).

The decline and eventual extinction of both wolf species continues to impact Japan’s landscape, as they preserved a balance of forest animals that is becoming more and more unstable with each passing year.

Deer and boar galore

Boar and deer have thrived since wolves became extinct, and the recent explosion in population has spelled trouble for humans around forests.

Wild boar are as determined as they are crafty. In a newsletter entitled “Suiform Sounds,” Shunjo Takahashi writes that farmers on Shodo Island in the Inland Sea resorted to erecting a 100-km stone wall during the Edo Period to keep wild pigs at bay. Nicknamed “Shishigaki,” this barrier could be seen from any point on the island. Today, electrical fences keep out the beasts — which are likely to be ravenous after their 7-km swim to reach Shodo.

Takahashi estimates that boars cause damage worth ¥5 billion annually. That, however, is just a drop in the bucket. The Sankei newspaper says that agricultural losses caused by wildlife were a staggering ¥23 billion in 2012. Such losses are making family farming an increasingly unviable way to make a living.

“An individual boar probably incurs more damage than deer because of rooting and tearing up understory,” says Rick Sacca, who hunts on Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture and leads hunting tours in Montana in summer.

However, Sacca adds, “deer are the main problem. There are probably 200 deer for every boar in Japan.”

Deer are overwhelming forests and agriculture land. With insufficient food supplies for the overpopulated forests, deer damage the forests in a number of ways: gnawing the bark off young cedar and cypress trees (bark-stripping); nibbling the buds and shoots of young trees (browsing); and — in a behavior apparently unique to the species — gouging trees with antlers (bole-scoring).

“They are moving down off mountains to encroach on farms and gardens, and moving up mountains to compete with Japanese serow,” Sacca says.

While the serow bears the name for deer in Japanese, kamoshika, they are not related. An even-toed ungulate, Japanese serow are a species of antelope that have been labeled a “living national treasure of the forest.” Almost hunted to extinction in the early 1900s, they bounced back too strongly for the liking of farmers and foresters. Today, serow populations have stabilized, and limited hunting is allowed outside conservation areas.

Meanwhile, Japanese deer (nihonshika) are distinct from modern deer. Tim Curnew, a longtime hunter from Canada and self-proclaimed “deer nerd,” notes they are “true deer” because they are biologically closest to their Old World ancestors.

Whereas the American white-tailed deer is from the Cervidae family, Japanese deer are members of the Cervus genus. Called sika, Cervus nippon are smaller than other deer species and keep their spots into adulthood. While the range of this species was historically East Asia, populations in China, Taiwan and Vietnam have been decimated. Meanwhile, Japan’s subspecies is estimated at 2.6 million, a ninefold increase since 1995, according to the Sankei Shimbun.

Prefectural officials administering land around Mount Fuji have revised targets for hunters and are offering financial incentives in a bid to get the local Japanese deer population under control. Officials on Izu Peninsula are calling for a cull of 1,700 sika this year, up from the quota of 700 set in 2014. In order to achieve the cull target, the federal government has authorized an extended hunting season, from summer rather than the usual Nov. 15.

Sacca belongs to a group of 100 Izu Peninsula hunters. The upstate New York native not only stands a culture apart from his fellow hunters, but a generation as well. At 50, he’s 15 years younger than the next youngest hunter.

“We get some (financial) support, but it’s not creative,” Sacca says. “For each kill, federal funds get funneled to the prefecture, ¥10,000 for each hind (female) and ¥7,000 for stags. Much gets dispersed to the prefectural and local hunters associations before it eventually reaches our group. Finally, it’s up to the group to decide how much of the remainder gets dispersed to individual hunters. I’m guessing that active hunters such as myself will eventually receive half of the federal payout.”

While the total number of licensed hunters dropped steeply after hitting a high of 518,000 in 1975, the number has stayed relatively steady since reaching 210,000 in 2000. In 2011, for example, the figure was 198,000, according to figures compiled by the Ministry of the Environment.

Meanwhile, 66 percent of those, or 131,000, are over 60 years old. It doesn’t take a statistician to work out that the situation will reach crisis levels as more elderly retire their guns. Unfortunately, this is occurring at a time when agricultural damage is skyrocketing.

The problem of overpopulated forests, Sacca says, stems from the fact the woods are alien to young Japanese, and their attitude is either fear or apathy. As conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote, “The real substance of conservation lies not in the physical projects of the government, but in the mental processes of citizens.”

Pop culture, however, is lending a hand.

A female hunter in Tokyo who calls herself “Kari Gyaru” (female hunter) writes a popular blog about hunting and eating wild game. She recruits new members with the catchphrase “目指せ!狩りガール” (“Mezase, kari gyaru!,” or “Ladies, let’s hunt!”). Kari Gyaru, who didn’t respond to requests to comment on hunting, notes on her blog that the number of female hunters in 2009 hit 1,539, or 1 percent of the total tally of hunters in Japan.

Meanwhile, Kentaro Okamoto’s “山賊ダイアリー” (“Sanzoku Daiari,” or “Bandit Diaries”) manga series, which details fictional accounts of the author’s hunting experiences, has become enormously popular. Okamoto’s success is another sign that help might be on the horizon for the country’s beleaguered hunters.

Mass communication may be necessary to stem the indifference toward wildlife in Japan, as hunting doesn’t come cheap. Leaving aside startup costs, expenses covering licenses, gun maintenance and ammunition can cost more than ¥40,000 a year. The toughest part for a naturalist such as Sacca, however, is the waste.

“It tears at my heart strings that there’s no mechanism to put the meat back into the system,” he says. “Most just gets buried.”

Sacca believes the country needs to change its attitude toward eating wild game meat.

With the exception of tanuki, which even put off naturalist C.W. Nicol in his January column due to the fact it stank “a bit like skunk with an added fragrance of burned rubber,” wild boar, sika and bear can be quite tasty.

Niche eateries, however, sometimes put wild game on the menu.

“(December) is the season to get boar because the meat is more fatty and tasty,” says Asako Tagami, owner of Le Midi French restaurant in Takayama, Gifu Prefecture. “We also target the young ones — poor things.”

In addition to local wild boar, deer and rabbits, Le Midi imports pigeons, pheasants and quail from France.

Bear essentials

One animal that finds its way into winter stews in the Gifu mountains is bear. Dark and fatty, it is a perfect complement to a standard nabe (hot pot). The meat, however, is not where the money’s at.

Tsukino Nakazawa, the 78-year-old owner of Suzuran country inn in the mountains outside Takayama, started hunting bears 30 years ago because winters were financially difficult. Bagging bears that have fetched up to ¥1 million each has been helpful.

“Hunting bears is lucrative because they’re highly valued for their organs, particularly the gall bladder and stomach,” Nakazawa says. “It’s used for Chinese medicine. Rokushingan (a popular over-the-counter remedy that is billed as a cure for dizziness and a host of other ailments) is the most famous. Nowadays I typically sell a bear for ¥400,000 to ¥500,000.”

Bear hunting, however, comes with greater risk, especially since Nakazawa hunts solo. While hunters typically shoot boars from a distance of 30 meters, a bear hunter waits to get within 5 meters before pulling the trigger.

“At that distance, you better not miss,” he says.

While larger brown bears are found in the open spaces of Hokkaido, Nakazawa hunts Asiatic black bears. More aggressive than other bear species, Asiatic black bears have been known to attack without provocation. The latest victim was a 74-year-old apple farmer in Takayama who received a fatal mauling to the face and neck in November. Nakazawa has been far luckier.

“They go for the head or face,” Nakazawa says. “Nothing to do but duck then play dead. I lived to tell the tale.”

Curnew, a longtime hunter in Kumamoto Prefecture, reckons the danger is minimal for hikers who are not hunting.

“Your chances of being attacked by a bear are about the same as me meeting Yuri Ebihara in a romantic little bar somewhere,” Curnew says.

As the sole bear hunter in Gifu Prefecture’s Hirayu hot-spring area, Nakazawa gets called upon to deal with bears that wander into town. He was asked to intervene more than usual in the winter of 2014.

“Bear congregate to gorge on acorns before hibernating,” he says, “but last year there wasn’t enough.”

Having said that, bears are not easy to find. Nakazawa typically bags two bear a season. He had already reached that figure as of the end of December 2014.

The bigger picture

Environmentalist Chris Summerville believes government-sanctioned culls are only necessary because humans have destroyed natural habitats and killed off natural predators. Farmers and foresters also have nonviolent options up their sleeves, including the option to grow thick bamboo around their land.

“I am totally opposed to the taking of any life unnecessarily, which includes insects, birds, fish and, of course, mammals,” Summerville says. “I am totally against hunting and find the concept of killing for sport absolutely barbaric and shameful.”

A hunter interacts with prey, becoming part of the ecosystem. It’s common for stags to keep their eye on humans they encounter in the wild.

“Sika are great at this,” Curnew says. “I think it’s characteristic of the species. I’ve had them stare me down for long periods of time, and I’ve had them stare at me from a bit of cover for longer, then make a dash with a yelp that has pretty much caused me to jump out of my skin.”

Although Curnew takes on the role of a human predator, he is both knowledgable and in awe of forest ecosystems. A kill evokes extreme emotion: gratitude and reverence that may manifest in shaking knees and even tears.

In “Bandit Diaries 1,” Okamoto expresses this raw emotion as well. The protagonist bows his head after killing a rabbit, thanking the gods for providing an animal and praying he never forgets to feel gratitude.

This appreciation for wildlife tacitly acknowledges a deeper truth — that humans share the Earth with other creatures that collectively need each other in a variety of ways. Decimating wolf populations while ignoring a growth in deer numbers has implications — for the animals, and for us.

Getting a hunting license in Japan

To obtain a hunting license in Japan, applicants must first pass a written exam testing their knowledge of animals and game laws. If successful, the applicant is required to pass a practical exam. Sacca was amused to be asked to identify the distance of objects positioned about 30, 150 and 300 meters away from the 10th floor of a building. In addition, applicants must prove their hunting prowess at a shooting range. The bar, however, is set low; applicants are required to hit just three of 25 skeet shots.

The gun license involves a written exam focusing on legal matters and firearm safety, before paying a visit to the local police department to demonstrate you know how to handle a gun. Police also check your references and send you to a psychiatrist to make sure you are mentally competent. Sacca reckons it’s as much a senility test as anything. For example, he was asked to name his 10 favorite vegetables, then five minutes later asked to repeat his choices.

Successful applicants are given a permit that grants the right to purchase a particular firearm within a certain period of time. The annual registration fee for hunters is about ¥30,000 per year, and license holders are required to take a refresher course every three years.

After presenting your newly acquired firearm to the police, the gun has to be locked in a specially designated place in your house. The gun license is also subject to three-year renewals, which require you to prove that the gun is being used as intended. Firearms are inspected once a year.

For more details about buying a hunting gun, see Tony Alderman’s “Fukuoka Now” article at fukuoka-now.com/2013/12/fukuoka-gun-hunting-guide

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