It is puzzling that the black bears have become aggressive recently, given their previous inclination to retreat when confronted by humans. My theory is that winters are shorter and that means shorter hibernations and more active time spent consuming dwindling supplies of food. They love beech nuts but, when they exhaust the supply, they come down the hills toward human settlements.
Compared to 20 years ago, the edges of the forest have crept in on remote villages, as older people are not cultivating the fields further away that had been a boundary of sorts.
Once carefully cultivated, land is now left fallow, and the brush and grass that was cutback is flourishing while the abandoned mulberry tree patches have grown promiscuously wild.
All of this is good news for the wildlife, but also blurs the boundaries between human areas and those where animals roam and forage.
Animals encounter fewer people, a consequence of depopulation and the rapid aging of rural Japan, and thus grow bolder and more accustomed to their expanded territory. So people looking for mountain vegetables are competition and unwelcome visitors where bears have become territorial.
In addition, nobody eats inoshishinabe (a local simmered delicacy made from boar) anymore because after the Fukushima meltdowns there were reports of radiation plumes spreading far afield, including Minakami, Gunma Prefecture.
Farmers told me that cesium reportedly concentrates in mushrooms that are boars’ favorite food, so people have shied from eating their meat.
Locals may have been wrong about the dangers and the problem may no longer persist, but it is clear that the biggest beneficiaries are the wild boar. Boar numbers have exploded post-2011 and signs of their furrowing and foraging are widely evident, in some extreme cases making it look like someone with an excavator had run amok. To some extent, they compete with the bears for the same limited supply of nuts and roots, so their spiraling numbers are bad news for the bears.
More importantly, farmers have responded by surrounding their fields and orchards with solar-powered electric fences to keep the varmints out and protect their livelihoods. The costs of doing so have dropped considerably while the costs of not doing so have risen substantially, so farmers have acted accordingly.
I spoke with an apple farmer who estimated that in a single night, marauding bears can cost him ¥100,000 worth of apples, so the snacking is not unsubstantial. Thus, Gunma’s 21st-century enclosure movement removes a valuable fallback food source for bears. Hence, the angrier bears are probably hungrier, more desperate and feistier in their foraging, especially in the grey zones of blurred boundaries where the human retreat has been most pronounced.
Last August, I received a wonderful gift from a neighbor: a can of bear spray. I read the instructions that stated its best to wait until the bear is 5 meters away and to spray sparingly in short bursts. Obviously the troll who wrote these instructions has never confronted a bear and needs to get out of the cubicle more often.
The next day, just as I was returning from a relatively modest 6 km hike, my puppy Zoe — only 5 months old—went bounding off the trail down toward the stream.
Suddenly the sound of barking and then yelps of pain pierced the forest calm. Goro, a 12-year-old shibainu who has had his share of bear confrontations, bolted toward the sound.
Running down the hill, I saw as he lunged at the bear without hesitation, saving Zoe’s life. Later I discovered he got clawed on the hindquarters but, at the time, he was fearless and didn’t back down.
Alas, the bear ran from him and then charged me 30 meters away. I pulled off the safety of the bear spray and had little time to wait as the bear covered the distance in a few seconds. I confess I didn’t follow the instructions, spraying it like it was air freshener way before it got 5 meters away. I have never regretted this squandering of the bear spray because it worked, stopping the bear, standing and bearing its teeth just an arms length away. Oddly enough, I forgot about using the leg sweep technique.
After retreating, it charged again and, luckily, I still had some ammo and held it off, but ran out of spray and was very shaken. As I was quickly traversing the hill toward home, calling for Zoe to no avail, I saw a cub high in a tree abut 20 meters from where I had been standing. That explains its mom’s persistence.
By that time, I had Goro on a leash to prevent further heroics. Heading home, I suddenly decided to turn back to search for Zoe where I had last seen her, thinking she might be alive but too injured to respond. Goro had the good sense not to budge, pulling me out of harms way; saving a stupid master from a dumb decision is all in a dog’s day.
I imagined Zoe was dead— the bear had been on top of her flailing away — but 20 minutes later, as I headed out to look for her, she came stumbling down the driveway — a battered puppy bleeding from claw wounds, the side of her head swollen like a boxer that had lost a 15-round bout.
Somehow she had crossed a stream and found her way home from a place about 2 km away that she had only been to once before. Later the vet told me she had two broken ribs and lost a tooth, but that the eye, although swollen shut, was miraculously undamaged.
Goro got seven stitches to his hindquarters and a big Aussie steak to share with his little sister. Luckily, they both fully recovered from their wounds and Zoe romps with her buddies in the park everyday.
We now take shorter forays into the foothills and forest fringes, and the dogs also wear bear bells on their collars. Alas, the days of tranquil, contemplative summer hikes in the cool forests are over.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.