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In the year 675, Emperor Tenmu decreed that eating meat would be prohibited from April through September each year — a broadly Buddhist idea generally adhered to until the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Curiously, wild animals were exempt.

Hunting for meat is nothing new. It sustained humanity for millions of years. But we’ve moved on since then to farming and fast food — now, most people don’t hunt because they need to, but because they want to. However, in the past few decades, hunting wild animals has made a comeback in Japan out of a different sort of necessity.

Here, it’s known as jibie (from the French gibier), not game. Just as it does in the West, gibier encompasses wild boar and deer, of course, but also meat from less conventional creatures such as todo (Steller sea lion) and bear.

“You should understand that before gibier (Japan had a) historical habit of eating game meat, although not so often, as a local specialty or nutrient food,” says Yasuo Ohe, a professor of agribusiness management at Tokyo University of Agriculture. “Thus gibier (today) is not parachuting in all of a sudden.”

In 2018, wild deer were responsible for ¥5.4 billion in economic damage. | GETTY IMAGES
In 2018, wild deer were responsible for ¥5.4 billion in economic damage. | GETTY IMAGES

Under attack

Today, this heritage of hunting has as much to do with survival in the sense of having enough to eat as it does with pest control. “In farm villages, wild animals intrude on local communities. … The threat is more serious in terms of not only farm production, but also in life,” Ohe says.

Ohe explains that reasons for intrusion include depopulation and aging of the rural community, as well as increasing amounts of abandoned farmland and forest that had previously been cultivated for centuries. Naturally, animals encroach; villagers defend themselves with electric fences. Ohe likens this situation to an “isolated fortress in the middle of wild animals.”

The financial cost is staggering. According to figures from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), the economic damage caused by wild animals, although declining, amounted to ¥15.8 billion in 2018; the two biggest culprits were deer and wild boar, accounting for ¥5.4 billion and ¥4.7 billion, respectively. Farmers — their rice, fruit trees and vegetables — suffer as a result.

Professor of agribusiness management at Tokyo University of Agriculture Yasuo Ohe | COURTESY OF YASUO OHE
Professor of agribusiness management at Tokyo University of Agriculture Yasuo Ohe | COURTESY OF YASUO OHE

“There’s a more serious impact on agricultural and mountain villages than (economic) damage,” says Yumiko Kimura, assistant manager of MAFF’s Bird and Beast Utilization Technology Group, citing diminished motivation for farming, as well as the abandonment of cultivated land and farming altogether.

“On one hand, we are strengthening the ability to capture (wild animals) to prevent damage, but the captured animals are reborn as a natural resource and used for gibier. We believe that it is important to expand efforts to change the negative existence of harmful wild animals to a positive existence as a local resource throughout the country,” she continues.

However, one major problem for gibier hunters is distribution: Time is of the essence. “Only a small portion of (hunted) animals are utilized as gibier,” Ohe says. “Because hunters cannot carry animals to a meat processing facility due to the distance and time constraints in the mountains, many animals are buried in the ground.”

Mountain-to-table cuisine

One such facility is Mori no Ibuki. It was established jointly between the town of Matsuno, Ehime Prefecture, and the local hunting association as a nonprofit organization in 2013 to provide countermeasures to damage from local wildlife.

The processing station was added the following year, says facility manager Komei Morishita, with the aim of both effectively using the captured animals for gibier and town revitalization. The resulting Matsuno Gibier brand is well regarded, and goes mainly to Tokyo, Hyogo, Osaka and Ehime prefectures, including Michelin-starred restaurants.

MAFF is working to promote not just the popularity of eating gibier, but the whole process: forest to foodstuff. With a decline in the number of full-time matagi (Japan’s traditional hunters), training young hunters in capturing methods and hygiene management is a priority for the ministry.

Morishita agrees: “The main problem at the moment is that there are very few young people who will inherit the amazing skills of the current generation of hunters,” he says, adding that the techniques hunters know, such as the optimal placement of traps and, most importantly, the method to drain blood from the animal, greatly increases the quality of the meat.

This spike in quality is driving consumer interest. In recent years, gibier has certainly seen a rise in popularity. According to MAFF, national gibier consumption has risen from 1,283 tons in 2016 to 1,887 tons in 2018; through promotion policies, it’s aiming to hit 4,000 tons in 2025. A 2018 survey by the Japan Finance Corporation found that around 30% of overall respondents had eaten gibier, while among those who hadn’t, about half of respondents in their 20s reported wanting to sample it.

A portal site, Gibierto — which lists restaurants serving gibier, news on related events and interviews with industry professionals — and the annual National Gibier Fair provide further aid in bringing gibier to the table, so to speak, for daily consumption.

However, for Ohe, gibier could never replace traditional agriculture. “Gibier is a very niche market, while agriculture is for a mass market that needs to provide food (consistently) in large amounts and consistent quality,” he says. To reach this level with hunting, you would need to “farm” wild animals, he states — thus mooting the point of gibier.

Yama no Takara canned gibier is seasoned with salt, mirin (sweet, fermented cooking alcohol), miso and sake, as well doubanjiang (Sichuan chili bean paste), ginger, pepper, bay leaf and coriander. | COURTESY OF CANNATUREL
Yama no Takara canned gibier is seasoned with salt, mirin (sweet, fermented cooking alcohol), miso and sake, as well doubanjiang (Sichuan chili bean paste), ginger, pepper, bay leaf and coriander. | COURTESY OF CANNATUREL

Putting game on the menu

For others, niche inspires niche. This is the gambit of the sustainable canned goods brand, Cannaturel (part of H&W Co. Ltd) and its luxury Yama no Takara (Mountain Treasure) series of elegantly branded game meat. CEO Atsuya Hashizume believes the popularity of gibier is spreading naturally. “The range of gibier may be wide, but for Japanese people the most important thing is that it’s delicious,” he says.

Yama no Takara solves the problem of not knowing how to cook gibier, since the meat comes seasoned so that “even beginners of gibier can enjoy it.” Each can is handmade, with deer, boar and other meat flavored with salt, mirin (sweet, fermented cooking alcohol), miso and sake, as well doubanjiang (Sichuan chili bean paste), ginger, pepper, bay leaf and coriander.

Restaurants specializing in gibier abound, too. There’s the game-heavy Gibier Inoshikacho (Boardeerbird) in Tokyo’s Koenji neighborhood, which offers European-style dishes made with animals hunted by its owner, Shigeki Yamauchi. Another is Taishu Sakaba Raincolor near Gakugei-daigaku Station in Meguro Ward, featuring izakaya pub dishes dotted with gibier: boar meat tofu; bear paw and soft-shelled turtle ramen; its signature venison Hamburg steak.

Poster advertising Matsuno Gibier-brand gibier from Matsuno, Ehime Prefecture | COURTESY OF MORI NO IBUKI
Poster advertising Matsuno Gibier-brand gibier from Matsuno, Ehime Prefecture | COURTESY OF MORI NO IBUKI

Eateries like this are crucial for producers. Getting to know gibier as a familiar ingredient is important for general consumers, MAFF’s Kimura says, adding that “we are aiming to build a society where local resources can be effectively used as gibier while coexisting with wild animals.”

Beyond the culinary appeal of the finished product, Ohe believes gibier has potential for revitalizing rural areas, specifically in hunting tourism and “product and local cuisine development targeted at rural tourists.” But he admits there are lots of hurdles to clear.

With a collective effort across the country and, most importantly, imparting skills to budding hunters (not to mention government backing), gibier seems on track to continue growing.

“If it can be done everywhere, I think the future of gibier is definitely bright,” Morishita says.

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