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Shrines are no salve when it comes to extinctions


Natural selection these days can be more than a little unnatural, especially in Japan, which has a curious relationship with nature.

The country has maintained an enviable proportion of natural forest cover — by importing the wood it needs from tropical forests, largely in Southeast Asia.

But the money to be made from building contracts means it has concreted vast lengths of the rivers and streams running through its forests. Consequently, hundreds of plant and animal species are now rare and endangered because of such habitat destruction.

Yet in many ways, nature is revered in Japan (who mentioned whaling?). Folklore abounds with tales of beneficial animal spirits. Insects are not loathed as “creepy-crawlies” like in the West, but are, on the whole, cherished. Some, such as kabutomushi (horned beetles) have iconic status.

The wild popularity of cherry blossom viewing in spring and leaf-gazing in autumn is also closely tied in with the Japanese affinity for nature. But the love of nature sits uneasily with the economic appetite of one of the world’s richest nations.

In some cases, a change in the Japanese attitude to nature can be traced to a specific event. Perhaps the most important such event, and one of the most important events in Japanese history, was the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1867. Of the many knock-on effects, one was the extinction of the Japanese wolf.

There were two subspecies, the Hokkaido wolf, and the smaller Honshu wolf (like the two bear species still living in Japan today, the animals living in Hokkaido needed to be bigger because of the harsher climate). Both were distinct from wolves in Europe and North America; the Honshu wolf, only about 30 cm tall at the shoulder, was the smallest known variety of wolf.

In former times, wolves were revered and respected. They were seen by farmers as guardians of their crops. It was believed that wolves kept deer, hares and wild boars from causing damage to farmland. The Heian Period warlord ruler of northeastern Honshu, Fujiwara no Hidehira (1096-1187), was said to have been raised by wolves, like Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome.

In Yamanashi Prefecture, offerings of azuki bean rice were left for wolves when cubs were born. It was sometimes believed that the tradition, known as inu no ubumimai, would be reciprocated by the wolf when a human child was born.

However, with the growing influence of American culture after the Meiji Restoration, Japanese people’s benign view of the wolf began to change. The country was hell-bent on modernization, and that left no room for wolves.

In Hokkaido, a cowboy from Ohio, Edwin Dun, was recruited to start a ranching industry. Under Dun’s influence, the Hokkaido Development Board started poisoning wolves with strychnine. Hunting, for bounties, followed. In only 20 years, the Hokkaido wolf was extinct. By 1905 the Honshu wolf was also extinct (it appears that the death of the last Honshu wolf can’t be blamed on the Americans: it was killed in Nara and the specimen is now kept in the British Museum.)

In remote, mountainous parts of Japan, rumors persist that the wolf is alive and well. But these reports have never been confirmed.

The wolf was credited with having a great affinity with the spirit of the mountains. Other iconic Japanese animals, such as the fox and the tanuki (raccoon dog) are said to be able to escape detection by assuming human (often female) form. But the wolf’s skill at concealment was down to its oneness with the natural mountain environment.

Should the wolf be reintroduced to Japan? One problem is that the gray wolf of Europe is simply different to the variety of gray wolf that lived in Japan. Europeans killed off most of their wolves long ago, but they were reintroduced to Sweden and Norway in the mid-1990s. Some environmental groups want to see them reintroduced to Scotland, too.

But extinction is final. There is no reservoir of Hokkaido and Honshu wolves that can be protected and raised again. There are a few stuffed specimens and pelts, so there remains the theoretical possibility that if good-quality DNA was extracted, Japanese wolves could be cloned — although that is extremely unlikely to happen, let alone leading to the reestablishment of a thriving population.

The “regular” gray wolf could be introduced into Japan, but the political hurdles would be formidable, and however much I’d like it, I can’t see it happening.

Perhaps more realistic would be to invoke more widely the former respect for nature that was symbolized in the respect bestowed on the Japanese wolf.

Mitsumine Shrine in Saitama Prefecture still has a wolf god. On the Kii Peninsula, too, there are Shinto shrines dedicated to wolves.

What a change it would make if the prime minister visited one of those shrines, instead of Yasukuni. How inspiring it would be if a politician paid respect to nature instead of to war criminals enshrined among the nation’s fallen. But of course, that’s also a political hurdle too far.