National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Japan’s bears are widely vilified and little understood

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

On Aug. 6, the BBC aired a story about four Ussuri brown bears being successfully transported from a museum in Hokkaido to a wildlife park in England. In the story, a British organization called Wild Welfare said it had become “concerned” about the animals’ living situation at the Ainu Museum, where they had been kept in old, cramped cages for most of their lives, which one member said is “sadly reflective of the conditions that many captive bears in Japan are in.”

The BBC treated the story as breaking news, but in Japan few news organizations covered it. Jiji Press, which reported the story from the United Kingdom, mentioned that Ussuri bears are “endangered,” and explained that the museum was incapable of caring properly for them. The Hokkaido Shimbun reported that foreign visitors to the facility had complained about the small enclosures for the bears, and that the museum decided to give them to the wildlife park because it has a “better environment.” The newspaper also mentioned that the museum was closed in March for long-term renovations, and NHK said the bears would not be part of the new exhibits. They also pointed out that Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido, look on bears as a kind of deity.

Of the top 10 search results for the word “bear” recently seen on the Hokkaido Shimbun website, nine are articles that present the animals in a more or less negative light. Bears are the largest land mammals in Japan and have been known to attack humans and pets, although experts insist they instinctively avoid people and only become aggressive when their cubs are threatened or they are cornered or attacked themselves.

Bear attacks are always big news in Japan — even sightings of bears are worthy of national attention. In the past few weeks there have been several reports of bears possibly killing domestic animals in eastern Hokkaido. A dairy farmer in the coastal town of Rausu said one of his goats was missing, presumably dragged away by a bear. A fisherman in the same town told police he saw a bear “burying” his dead dog. A different bear entered a village in southern Hokkaido earlier this month and wouldn’t leave even when authorities “shone floodlights on it.” Eventually, they used fireworks to scare it back into the woods.

That bear was lucky. Usually, if one shows up in a populated area it is summarily killed. According to the Japan Bear and Forest Society, 3,779 bears were killed nationwide last year. In contrast, 108 persons were injured in bear attacks and two killed.

A July 26 article in the Hokkaido Shimbun reported on an “emergency meeting” in Sapporo where various local governments discussed the sightings. Apparently, bear sightings have increased in and around Sapporo, although it’s possible that everyone is seeing the same bear. As one participant pointed out, a local ordinance in 1990 made it illegal to kill bears that were just coming out of hibernation, so since then it’s possible that bear numbers have increased. Or maybe these are juvenile bears who are trying to avoid adult bears. Or maybe they are attracted by human refuse, even if bear droppings found in the mountains indicate that there is enough food in the wild — bears almost never come to town when they have enough berries and acorns and salmon.

In the end, no one could answer these questions definitively because no proper studies of bear activity had been carried out and no dedicated bear experts were present at the meeting. Nevertheless, a representative of the Hokkaido Research Organization recommended that the city “regularly exterminate” bears, while also suggesting that measures be carried out to “prevent bears from raiding garbage stations.”

The point of the meeting was to collect information in order to come up with solutions to the perceived bear infestation problem and enlighten the public about it, but it may have had the opposite effect. Anyone who reads the article will come away thinking that bears are a menace, and, as a matter of fact, the media seem to have a stake in keeping it that way. The only good bear is a dead or captive one, and in the latter case the state of captivity doesn’t seem to matter, as the situation at the Ainu museum showed.

The Japan Bear and Forest Society is dedicated to fighting these prejudices, starting with the fact that certain species of Japanese bears are on “vulnerable” or “endangered” lists, something the press rarely talks about. The group polices the media on these matters. Last month, they sent a letter to Fuji TV about its long-running variety show “Unbelievable,” which dramatizes and analyzes shockingly true tales. The Japan Bear and Forest Society read a preview of a segment to be aired on July 19 about a famous 2009 bear attack in Gifu Prefecture that left nine people injured. The group feared that the segment would “spread bias and misunderstanding” about bears and asked the producers to either cancel it or ensure that the content was balanced and complete.

The segment was ominous in places, with newspaper accounts of bear attacks and footage of enraged, caged animals. And the reenactment of the incident itself was dramatic and violent — more like “Jaws” than an episode of “BBC Earth.” A clumsily rendered CGI bear is shown viciously attacking one tourist after another at a remote mountain lodge before being trapped and killed by hunters. Celebrities watching the drama in the studio made distressed, fearful noises throughout.

To its credit, the segment did end with an expert theorizing about this particular bear’s unusual behavior, saying that its panic was caused by a unique cascade of factors. And the celebrities, in the end, expressed more sympathy for the bear than they did for its human victims, all of whom survived. The bear, as one of them said, acted according to its nature. The trouble is, so were the show’s producers.