More than half a century ago, wild monkeys living on Kojima Island, Miyazaki Prefecture, drew attention for their habit of washing their food — sweet potatoes at the time — before eating them. Now, they are under the spotlight for eating fish.

With 2016 being the Year of the Monkey, according to the Chinese zodiac, locals are encouraging tourists to visit the island and observe the fish-eating monkeys as part of efforts to revitalize the area.

The uninhabited islet, in the Sea of Hyuga, is about 0.3 sq. km and located some 200 meters off Kushima.

“Monkeys here eat fish with gusto,” Nobuharu Kanchi, 64, told tourists. Kanchi has run a boat service for 30 years between the islet and the mainland.

It is believed that monkeys mainly eat nuts as their staple diet, not fish or meat.

However, the monkeys on the island eat fish washed ashore, grabbing them with both hands and biting into them.

A woman who visited the island to sightsee at the end of last year was surprised at the sight, saying she had never seen such behavior by monkeys before.

According to the city of Kushima, to which the small island belongs, there are about 110 monkeys living on Kojima.

In the 1950s, monkeys on the islet started to wash the mud off sweet potatoes they were given before eating them.

The “civilized behavior” of the animals drew attention, and tourists flocked to the islet. More than 800 tourists a day visited in the 1990s, according to the city.

However, researchers at Kyoto University, who have observed the monkeys, stopped giving them potatoes three years ago as the population was growing too large.

In recent years, the number of tourists has decreased, and sometimes only a few people visit the island each day.

Meanwhile, researchers have observed the monkeys eating fish since around the end of the 1970s.

“It is a feature peculiar to monkeys living on shorelines, and it is a rare sight,” said Akiko Takahashi, a researcher at Kyoto University’s Wildlife Research Center.

Kanchi hopes this curious feeding habit can make the island’s monkeys popular again.

“Kojima Island is not just about the potato-washing (monkeys). I want more people to know (the island’s) new appeal,” Kanchi said.

Last fall, Kanchi decorated a nearby rock, which looks similar to a monkey’s face in profile, with handmade sacred straw ropes and cut paper in a bid to attract visitors.

He said some visitors take pictures next to it, saying it reminds them of Son Goku, which is based on Sun Wukong, or Monkey King — the main character of the classic Chinese novel “Journey to the West.”

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