AKITA – Far from Tokyo’s bright lights and noisy streets Kaori Kawashima walks cautiously on her way to the nearest convenience store in rural Akita Prefecture, where danger might be lurking in the shadows.
“I don’t think bears come close to where I live, but there’s no way to be sure,” the 42-year-old housewife says.
Together with her husband, they take no chances. Every morning they drive their 12-year-old daughter to junior high — breaking the age-old norm that children should walk to school.
And they’re not alone. This past spring, a black bear was spotted just 20 meters from a high school in Yokote, the second-largest city in the prefecture. Kawashima has lived her whole life in Akita, but stories of bear encounters outside the mountains used to be few and far between. Now they are becoming common.
Sightings exploded in 2016, shooting to 868 from just a couple of hundred in previous years, according to the Akita Prefectural Government. From 1979 to 2015, only eight deaths from bear attacks were reported in Akita. Since then there have been five.
Behind the headlines, experts say, is a silent transformation in the countryside that is setting the stage for greater numbers of wildlife encounters.
When a string of bear attacks caused a national stir last year, residents hoped it was just an anomaly and that things would soon return to normal.
The official explanation was that the supply of beech nuts in 2015 that helped more cubs survive was followed by a shortage last year, which led them down from the mountains in search of food.
But Kazuhiko Maita, chairman of the Hiroshima-based nonprofit Institute for Asian Black Bear Research and Preservation, says a more long-term factor is at work: the disappearing satoyama, a term referring to traditional rural landscapes of carefully maintained forests and farmland.
Part of Japan’s rapid economic development in the late 20th century involved an aggressive urbanization that changed it from a principally rural country to one of the most urban populations in the world. Prefectures far from major cities began to wither, but on a rural level, the satoyama all but vanished.
“The buffer zone has disappeared,” Maita said. When forests previously chopped down for firewood grew back, and farms and fruit trees were left unmanaged, the bears left the mountains and moved in to stay, he explained.
Predominantly rural Akita has the fastest-shrinking population in Japan. This year, the prefectural government reported that it had dipped below 1 million for the first time since 1930, with over a third of its residents aged 65 or older. But it’s not alone.
Across Japan, wildlife is becoming a menace in places it never was before.
Akita, known for the bear-hunting dogs that carry its name, has always had bears around, but experts warn of boars and deer overrunning the countryside as the human activities that once held them back — such as hunting — fade due to depopulation.
In Akita, depopulation is only one part of the equation. The rest simply has to do with the subsequent increase in hunger, another expert said.
“The depopulation of rural villages is connected, but it’s not the root cause,” said Mariko Moriyama, president of the nongovernmental organization Japan Bear and Forestry Society.
“The root cause is that food has disappeared from the mountains.”
Moriyama points to research showing that trees have been growing weaker across the world, with a dramatic decrease in leaves and fruit.
The culprit, she said, is us.
“Global warming, acid rain, air pollution — all caused by human activities,” she said. In Japan, the effects have been particularly noticeable with the Mongolian oak (mizunara).
For years, Moriyama has been tracking the progress of Japanese oak wilt, a fungal disease brought on by climate change, as it creeps northward into southern Akita. Busy with their lives in the city, newly urbanized Japanese are no longer going up into the mountains like they used to. “They don’t realize how devastated it has become.”
This is particularly damaging for Akita’s black bears.
“They rely on mizunara, not beech,” for nourishment, she said.
With the mountains bare of food, no matter how skittish they are, returning to the woods might not be an option for these animals. “If nothing is done to help the mountains, the bear attacks will continue.”
Today, officials put the number of bears in the prefecture at roughly 1,000, but the primary data derive from reports about encounters — a statistic likely to get warped as sightings become more commonplace.
Here, wild mountain vegetables have been a spring delicacy for as long as anyone can remember.
Perhaps that is why residents remain eager to ignore the figurative and literal signs telling them times have changed. This has led the police to close off mountain trails and patrol popular entry points instead.
Others think back to when they were young, when the matagi (traditional bear hunters) would supply the wild animals’ tough and gamey meat to restaurants and school cafeterias. Today, the ranks of the matagi are aging and dwindling, and the meat is shunned even by residents as it can be poisonous if not properly cooked.
Meanwhile, Kaori Kawashima stays at home, getting her meat and vegetables from the supermarket. Perhaps attracted by Kumamoto Prefecture’s popular bear mascot Kumamon or Winnie the Pooh, she still hopes someday to see a real live wild bear in the flesh — as long as it’s from the safety of her car.
She laughs, saying: “I don’t want to die, but … they seem cute, don’t they?”
Her husband, Kazunori, agrees. “My first impulse would be to take my phone out and snap a picture.”
Oeystein Sollesnes is a graduate student at Akita International University, Japan. This article is part of his course work in journalism at the Graduate School of Global Communication Practices.