National / Social Issues | Beyond Tokyo

Japan's aging hunters look for fresh blood to solve boar woes

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

When the world rang in 2019, it also prepared to usher in the Year of the Boar. But in Sasayama, a picturesque, historical city of about 42,000 nestled in rural Hyogo Prefecture about an hour by train from Osaka Station, the wild boar is a symbol of pride, part of a famous local dish and a bane to farmers. It’s also a highly intelligent, aggressive animal that hunters like Yuji Enso have long pursued and respected.

“You have to be able to understand a wild boar’s personality,” says Enso, who heads a local hunting club. “You also need to thoroughly know the mountain terrain you’re tracking the boar through. If you haven’t mastered these two basic points, you won’t catch them.”

The hunting season for wild boar and deer began on Nov. 15 and finishes March 15. Enso and his friends, who have gun and trapping licenses, are out almost every day, tracking the animals, checking traps for any caught overnight, and trying to plot where — among Sasayama’s fields, farms, forests, and mountain ranges — their targets might be heading.

If and when they catch a boar, the meat ends up at local butcher shops like Omiya or restaurants like Okue, a rustic botan nabe (boar stew) establishment that local residents say is one of the best in the city.

But while tourists and residents in Sasayama see wild boar as a hearty winter dish and part of the local culture, farmers and municipalities tend to view boar, deer and other wild animals as pests that destroy their crops and continue to proliferate at a time when rural Japan is facing an aging, declining population that increasingly lacks the energy, interest and funding to cull wildlife.

Agriculture ministry data show that in fiscal 2017, nationwide damage to 10 different kinds of crops by birds and animals amounted to over ¥16.3 billion. Deer caused an estimated ¥5.5 billion in damage, while boars caused nearly ¥4.8 billion.

Rice plants and fruit trees were the two crops deer and boar seemed to prefer the most. Boar damage to rice plants reached about ¥2.5 billion, and damage to various fruit trees reached ¥957 million. Deer meanwhile were responsible for about ¥2.57 billion in damage to grass and forage crops, and about ¥750 million to rice plants.

In addition to licensed hunters who register every year for hunting season, the government allows people with official authorization to cull so-called nuisance wildlife to protect farmers’ crops. Environment Ministry statistics show that 589,700 deer were caught in fiscal 2017, including 149,800 for food. A total of 536,700 wild boar were caught, but only 130,400 were hunted for food.

Two methods are being officially promoted to reduce crop damage at a time when fewer farmers can patrol their fields. The first is the increased use of electric fences and wildlife monitoring systems, and the second is the promotion of wild game meat, which in Japan is described using the katakana version of the French word gibier, meaning game.

“In and around many parts of Sasayama, you’re seeing more electronic fences to keep out wildlife, and that helps cut down on the damage,” says Kazuya Takenaka, a Sasayama official who works in the city’s agriculture section.

Yosuke Eguchi, a researcher at the National Agricultural and Food Research Organization’s Western Regional Agricultural Center, says that while the wild boar and deer populations continue to climb despite efforts to shrink their numbers, there are successful examples of damage reduction at the local level.

“There are localities that have reduced agricultural damage and those that have not. In Shimane Prefecture, where our center is located, damage is being reduced and there are any number of places where there is almost no crop damage because local farmers protect their fields themselves. In other prefectures, such as Oita, joint efforts by the community and the prefectural bureaucracy have paid off, as over 50 rural communities in Oita are free of crop damage due to wildlife,” Eguchi says.

“What’s important (in reducing wildlife damage) is stewardship of the environment and properly putting fences up and conducting inspections of the fences and land to ensure the wildlife don’t go through,” he added.

The other official policy for dealing with wild game is promoting consumption.

According to agricultural ministry data, wild game meat consumption totaled 1,283 tons in fiscal 2016. Of that, 1,015 tons were consumed as gibier, with deer meat accounting for nearly two-thirds and wild boar meat for most of the rest. Another 150 tons ended up in pet food.

The central government is taking various measures to promote gibier under the goal of doubling wild game meat consumption in fiscal 2019. Efforts include cooking contests, recipe publication and cooking seminars throughout Japan. As of October 2017, 320 elementary and junior high schools were using gibier in school lunches.

Norihiko Fujiki, head of the Japan Gibier Promotion Association in Chino, Nagano Prefecture, says that while public acceptance of gibier has grown in recent years, there are still challenges.

“In Japan, the idea that wild game can be delicious or served a variety of ways, like it is in Europe or other parts of the world, is not part of our culinary history,” says Fujiki, a chef who runs a restaurant that serves wild game. “Japanese people have traditionally seen gibier as being tough, smelly and bad-tasting. This is because, in the past, hunters shot the game and often gave it away after it had spoiled.”

Until recently, serving gibier at restaurants was a bit of a gray area, legally. There were no rules governing it, but it wasn’t exactly encouraged, except in places like Sasayama, where it is part of the culture. That changed only in 2014, when the government created guidelines on how to capture and dispose of wild game meat. In March, the government designated 17 areas nationwide to establish a feasible game meat processing and distribution system that enables stable supply of safe, high-quality gibier.

Fujiki says prefectures like Nagano and Tottori in particular are making efforts to promote gibier culture. Nationally, Lotteria and other fast food chains have offered deer burgers in Tokyo, Osaka and other major cities. But he says the culture should benefit rural communities.

“The purpose of the government’s gibier policies is to reduce the number of deer and wild boar so as to reduce agricultural damage. But if that’s the only policy, there won’t be any work locally.

“Japan is far too Tokyo-centric in population. Consumption of gibier, which generally has fewer calories and is healthier than beef, pork or chicken, can be a policy that helps the natural environment, reduces agricultural damage caused by wildlife and contributes to local economic revitalization,” he says.

But the degree to which consumption can be expanded is unclear, especially if the policy is to rely on the next generation of hunters to provide the meat. In 1975, over half a million people had hunting licenses in Japan, but that had fallen to 190,000 by 2015. Nearly two-thirds were over 60, and only 6,500 people nationwide between the ages of 20 and 29 had gun or trapping licenses.

Eguchi warns that official statistics like these can be misleading because in the past, many hunters sought animals other than boar.

So the concerns for gibier proponents and municipalities are how to train and nurture new generations of hunters to protect farms and fields, and secure stable supplies of game meat.

More broadly, some suggestions for controlling or further reducing crop damage rely on new technologies, such as drones to spot wild game. There are also calls by hunting groups to change rules that ban the use of guns or traps within city limits if parts of the city are actually rural mountain areas with wild game.

While new technologies can be effective in certain instances, Enso still relies on time-tested hunting skills. Thankfully, in Sasayama’s case he says, interest in hunting, especially among younger people, is on the rise. But it’s still hard work that requires patience.

“Hunting can be hit or miss,” Enso says. “There are some trappers, for example, who might go an entire year without catching a single wild boar. Others might catch a boar today after having caught one yesterday.

“We hunters know the local mountains and ridges, and are able to look at boar tracks and determine how long ago they were made. You have to be able to then figure out which direction the boar headed, and which mountain they may have headed up. My senpai (mentor) told me it was the wild boar who ‘taught’ him how to find them.”

Beyond Tokyo is a new series that focuses on regional developments and events of national importance elsewhere in Japan.