As nature reclaims depopulated villages and climate change wreaks havoc on food sources, Japan’s animal population has been inching closer to the country’s urban areas. This week, Alex K.T. Martin joins us to discuss why people are encountering bears, boars and other wildlife in the most unlikely of places.
On this episode:
- The concrete forest: Bears, boars and more head for the cities (Alex K.T. Martin, The Japan Times)
- A saury state of affairs: How the price of ‘autumn’s fish’ skyrocketed (Alex K.T. Martin, The Japan Times)
- In the shadow of the Fukushima disaster, an unusual experiment in rewilding (Alex K.T. Martin, The Japan Times)
- Samurai Restaurant Time gives kitschy thrills fit for Kabukicho (Laura Pollacco, The Japan Times)
- Japan set to scrap rule requiring testing of new drugs on Japanese (Kathleen Benoza, The Japan Times)
- Japan women prisoners suffer serious abuse: Human Rights Watch (Tomohiro Osaki, AFP-JIJI)
Get in touch: Send us feedback at [email protected]. Support the show by rating, reviewing and sharing the episode with a friend if you’ve enjoyed it. For a transcript of the show, visit japantimes.co.jp, and don’t forget to follow us on Twitter!
Transcript note: Deep Dive is made to be listened to, and we recommend this transcript be used as an accompaniment to the episode. This transcript has been generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription, and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the episode.
Shaun McKenna 00:08
Welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times, I’m Shaun McKenna. Living in Tokyo, I’m occasionally woken up in the morning by the sounds crows, particularly on garbage day. These aren’t your typical North American crows, either. These ones have deep, guttural caws. Crows are pretty much the only animal that I’ve found I need to worry about living in the city, but this year, it seems like us city dwellers have been having to worry about other animals like tanuki, or raccoon dogs, boars and even, on the odd occasion, a bear. My colleague Alex K.T. Martin has just written about this uptick in animal incursions for The Japan Times climate section, and he’ll join us to explain what’s going on, whether we should be concerned, and whether this is going to continue to get worse next year.
Hey Alex, last month you went out to Chiba, which is pretty close to Tokyo, to report on a boar chase in the center of the city, can you tell us what happened?
Alex Martin 01:25
Sure, so Chiba City is the capital of Chiba Prefecture, which is right next to Tokyo. It sits about 40 kilometers east of central Tokyo. And the prefecture itself is known for Disneyland, good surfing around the southern coastline and, in recent months, an increase in sightings of wild boar.
Shaun McKenna 01:42
Alex Martin 01:45
The city itself, the capital, is home to almost 1 million people. Its central Chuo Ward is where Chiba Station is located, and it’s a bustling transportation hub surrounded by department stores and commercial high-rises. It was about 600 meters east of the station that, at 12:14 a.m. on Oct. 25, the first report came in of a large boar roaming the area.
Shaun McKenna 02:06
This is where Dave should add a sound effect of a boar so we all know what they sound like.
[Shudders] OK, keep going.
Alex Martin 02:18
So, more and more eyewitness accounts come in, Oct. 25 was a Wednesday but there were still quite a lot of people out at that time at night. The boar is spotted near a 7-Eleven convenience store before heading to a junior high school across the street. I spoke to the clerk at this particular 7-Eleven and she said it was the first time she’d heard of an inoshishi in these parts — an inoshishi is the Japanese word for “boar.” So, the inoshishi wanders down to the area of Dezu Wharf, which sits on Tokyo Bay, and on the way it injures a man in his 30s inside the grounds of his apartment complex. It also manages to ram into a taxi before escaping. It’s wounded by this point, as it’s now leaving a trail of blood that residents in the area noticed. Later we find out that the animal is a female and weighs about 42 kilograms. She winds up going for a swim off one of the piers in Chuo Ward before having this final standoff with a group of around 20 or so police officers at around 9 a.m., and they’re all holding catch poles and batons. And the animal puts up a good fight, she rushes at the police officers, bites them and shoves them around before being subdued by a net.
Shaun McKenna 03:29
What happened to it?
Alex Martin 03:31
So typically boar and any other large wild animals captured in a populated area need to be killed and buried by professionals. So in the case of this Chiba boar, it was killed by a local hunting association and buried outside of the city center.
Shaun McKenna 03:44
This boar chase is far from what you'd call an isolated incident. Isn't that correct?
Alex Martin 3:49
Exactly. In recent years dependence actually has been seeing an alarming increase in boar, deer, macaques, and this year even bears making their way into human-populated areas.
Shaun McKenna 3:59
Deer macaques and bears, oh my!
Alex Martin 04:02
Yes. It’s happening so much that the term “アーバンベア” has been created to describe the phenomenon, that is a Japanese pronunciation for the term “urban bear.”
Shaun McKenna 04:11
Oh, that sounds like something else. Aaban Beaa actually made it to the list of nominees for the year’s top buzzwords, right?
Alex Martin 04:19
Right, it did. Along with OSO18, the code name for a bear in Hokkaido that attacked 66 cows.
Shaun McKenna 04:28
Oh, gosh. Why are we getting this sudden influx of urban bears, urban boars ... and urban anything else?
Alex Martin 04:35
So there are several phenomena coming together to push these animals out of their natural forested habitat. And, by the way, two-thirds of Japan’s land mass is forested, so that's a lot of area just to begin with. A few of these factors have been environmental, Japan's having warmer winters than usual. Actually, last week, we saw the warmest November day in a century. It got up to around 27 degrees Celsius in some parts of Japan and that's around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, And on top of that, there has been a severe shortage of acorns and beech nuts this fall, specifically up north in the Tohoku region. And bears in particular at this time of year are trying to eat up before they go into hibernation, and the warmer weather and lack of food means they haven't started hibernating yet. So they're pushing into towns and cities to look for food.
Shaun McKenna 05:18
So when most people go hiking in Japan, they tend to read up on what to do if they encounter a bear. But I'm guessing people in the cities haven't been as prepared.
Alex Martin 05:27
Right, but they're learning now though, it's important to stress that bears aren't evil, obviously, or anything. They're just looking for food and mother bears will be really protective of their cubs. So in Akita Prefecture in particular, up in the north of Japan, there have been incidents involving older people, as well as junior high school students who have been ambushed by bears. There was one day just before the whole boar story that I just described earlier when six people were attacked over the course of a day in Kitaakita. And between April and Nov. 8 this year, there were a total of 58 incidents involving 66 people who were harmed by bears in Akita, which is up tenfold from last year.
Shaun McKenna 06:06
So how is Akita dealing with these bears?
Alex Martin 06:09
They've launched an information campaign and the governor of the prefecture said he plans to introduce a bounty on the bears, and maybe subsidize the cost of bullets for hunters. Hunters in the region have killed a record number of bears this year so far. But an issue with the Japanese hunters that I think we've discussed before on this podcast is that they're aging like the rest of the nation, and recruiting younger hunters isn't easy. There are also strict rules when it comes to owning guns in Japan and, as a result, Akita’s prefectural hunting association, for example, counted 1,473 members, and 40% of them were 70 or older. And this isn't just a northern problem. As you know, Japan's mountain ranges go right down the center of the country. So we're hearing about bear sightings in urban centers in Fukushima Niigata, Nagano Guma, Toyama and elsewhere, too.
Shaun McKenna 06:57
It's interesting, you mentioned Fukushima there. And you were actually on this podcast not too long ago, talking about the sharp increase in wild animals moving into those abandoned towns that were evacuated in the wake of the 2011 nuclear meltdown there. In fact, just to take a moment to give you some praise, you won a prize for a piece on the rewilding of Fukushima from the World Association of News Publishers, so congratulations on that one. I think what I remember you saying about that issue when we spoke about it, though, was how you thought Fukushima was more like a canary in the coal mine when it came to animals encroaching on human-populated areas. Like, Fukushima’s situation was kind of like fast-forwarded because people had moved out.
Alex Martin 07:39
Exactly. And I was talking to Professor Yamazaki, who's Japan's foremost expert on the Asian black bear. And I also interviewed him for the Fukushima piece as well. And he mentioned, you know, basically, the situation in Fukushima is actually happening all over Japan now. Which brings us to the other element of the urban bear phenomenon. So while climate change plays a factor in all of this, obviously, another big thing is Japan’s own demographic changes, specifically the graying society and the depopulation of rural towns and villages.
Shaun McKenna 08:10
Let's talk about that more after the break.
Dave Cortez 08:19
Hi, I’m Dave Cortez, producer of the Deep Dive from The Japan Times podcast and avid camper. Have you ever been out in the woods, enjoying the beauty of Japan’s nature and thought: Am I about to be attacked by a bear? I know I have.
Bear and boar encounters have been on the rise as of late for a number of reasons, but here’s what the authorities in Akita Prefecture suggest when you head out into the woods:
First, pay attention to signage and don’t venture into prohibited areas. Try to avoid hiking alone, and be sure to take your trash back home with you. Don’t even leave banana peels or anything behind — take it all with you. And carry bear repellent. Some people go with bells, but it’s important to note that experts aren’t in agreement as to whether those bells work or not — or if they actually attract the bears — so if you’re going to an area with wild animals it is better to take some bear repellent.
Now what if you actually encounter a bear while in the woods or, the way things are going these days, out in your neighborhood?
Well, if a bear is approaching you, slowly back away and quietly leave the area — do not run with your back to the bear. If you’re attacked and you don’t have repellent spray, then adopt a defensive posture and protect your face, neck and stomach to prevent a fatal wound. Finally, it’s important to remember that bears and boars aren’t our enemies — they’re just looking for food. If you plan on traveling off the beaten path, make sure you read up on safety measures beforehand and I’m sure you’ll have a great time. Now back to the show.
Shaun McKenna 09:47
So Alex, before our little PSA on bears, you'd brought up depopulation and it's not the first time you've brought up depopulation on this podcast. I think last time you were on Deep Dive in fact, it was for an episode on how depopulation is affecting food supplies in Japan.
Alex Martin 10:03
Yeah, well, I think the aging population of Japan, which is leading to depopulation as more people die off, that’s going to affect a lot of the ways things are done in this country. We often focus on what it will do to the pension system, for example, and whether the social security system will be sustainable, but abandoned villages, downsized dinners — these are all the aftereffects of a country with less people. It’s a slow change, but it will change the country, for sure. In this case, let me set up the situation, have you seen the Studio Ghibli film “Pom Poko?”
Shaun McKenna 10:43
I have, but tell us what it's about.
Alex Martin 10:45
Well, it’s a 1994 film about a community of shape-shifting magical tanuki that are fighting to stop a massive suburban development in western Tokyo that’s encroaching on their forest domain, and this was something that happened a lot during the postwar economic boom era. “Pom Poko” kind of sums up the thinking at the time: this urban sprawl needs to stop. During the boom time, you’d see what were known as “bald mountains,” hageyama they call it, and that was the result of razing forests for the country’s wood stocks to build housing and cities and for energy needs. So, Japan tried to correct this by regrowing the forests and helping the animal population to recover, which we’ve talked about on this podcast before. And in between the forested mountains and the urban centers is this area that in Japanese is called “satoyama,” “sato” can be roughly translated as village, perhaps, and “yama” is mountain. Here you have that kind of a border zone.
Shaun McKenna 11:37
Between humans and the magical tanuki?
Alex Martin 11:41
Yes, though I can’t confirm the magical tanuki part I can confirm it as the habitat of Japanese wildlife. Satoyama is essentially a neutral zone held together by agriculture, secondary forests, reservoirs and channels, and things like that.
Shaun McKenna 11:55
What are secondary forests?
Alex Martin 11:56
Regenerated forests, places that we’ve rebuilt after using them for resources. The villages and communities in these satoyama areas are typically older and working in agriculture and such. They’ve essentially acted as the first line of defense against the encroachment of wildlife. As wild animals approached these areas, they’d notice the trees thinning out and well-maintained farmland, for example. It was less easy for them to hide — and this made them more alert to the fact they were entering human-populated areas. However, as the people that lived there grew older or left entirely, there weren’t enough people to prune the trees, for example, or clear the weeds, and at the same time there has been a drop in the number of forestry workers — there were 146,000 in 1980 and that’s down to 44,000 in 2020.
Shaun McKenna 12:45
Right. OK. So, kind of the first line of defense has been taken over by animals who feel much more comfortable looking for food there. Can we put up fences?
Alex Martin 12:55
Yeah, it helps. And there are fences all over Japan, surrounding farmland from wild boar, deer and whatnot. However, I spoke to Chihiro Kase, who is a lecturer on animal behavior at Azabu
University, and she said that bears in particular, for example, climb the fences to get to any food — so bears are actually trespassing into orchards in Kanagawa Prefecture and likely many other places across the nation. And once the animals get a taste for the food, then they keep wanting to come back. From the orchards, they make their way into the more populated areas through patches of greenery: this can be parks, paths, gardens, riverbanks, for example — anything with some kind of vegetation that offers shelter. It’s this kind of green path that led that boar in Chiba out of the countryside and into the city’s central commercial district.
Shaun McKenna 13:47
Right. Interesting. OK. Earlier we said that part of this animal invasion — and again, we’re not trying to say the animals are evil or anything, but they can be dangerous in certain situations, but they’re looking for food. Winter is coming later and the climate is changing so that seems to be messing with typical growth cycles — but is there a chance that there is a better food yield next year? Maybe that this problem kind of goes away?
Alex Martin 14:12
Definitely. That's very much a possibility. Yields of acorns and beechnuts, for example, they fluctuate quite a lot, so there’s a chance next year we’ll see plenty of yields to satisfy the bears, for example. But that doesn’t mean the phenomenon of wild animals like boar, deer and macaques making it into human communities will go away. I mean a lot of these animals have gradually been learning that they can get food in our communities, so unless some serious zoning measures or other countermeasures are put in place, the trend will likely stay and likely exacerbate as Japan’s population shrinks.
Shaun McKenna 14:51
You know, speaking of animals, another story you worked on last month was about the Pacific saury cleverly titled, “A saury state: How the price of ‘autumn’s fish’ skyrocketed,” and this is a piece about numbers both in the fact that a really cheap fish has been seeing its price go up while the numbers of saury, or “sanma” as it’s called in Japan, have gone down.
Alex Martin 15:14
Right. I visited a festival in Tokyo called the Meguro Sanma Festival last month. They were able to get their fish this year from Kessenuma, one of the towns made famous after the tsunami of 2011. Anyway, this festival used to give sanma away for free to visitors, but because of dwindling stocks you can only take part if you win a lottery.
Shaun McKenna 16:34
I’ve noticed the price go up at my local supermarket, actually but in Taito Ward we saw it selling for three for ¥498 and in Bunkyo Ward it was up to ¥594, for three, and our photographer snapped a picture of three sanma for ¥750 at a Kawasaki supermarket.
Alex Martin 16:53
Yeah, I'm sort of curious, you know what the prices are now because these were, you know, October prices, right? So maybe they've recovered somewhat. But anyway, according to the fisheries agency the average wholesale price of sanma at
major fishing ports in Japan was ¥70 per kilogram in 2006, but that increased ninefold to ¥627 per kilogram by 2021. I think what's important here is that where sanma are being caught plays a factor.
Shaun McKenna 17:17
Overall it’s a price up.
Alex Martin 17:18
There's an obvious trend there, right? And I think what's important here is that, you know, where some are being caught plays a pretty big factor.
Shaun McKenna 17:25
Before we get into that, for people who don’t know what sanma or saury are off the top of their heads, the fish is usually blue on the top, the dorsal surface, and it’s silver on its belly. It’s about 25 to 30 centimeters long. It’s similar to “saba” or mackerel, and one website, “The Sushi Geek,” describes it as a dialed down version of “saba,” so people who don’t like strong fish tastes may be OK with it. Usually it’s grilled but I happen to like it when it’s prepared as sushi and Sushi Geek also says because it’s so fatty it’s best to serve it extremely fresh and in Japan it will often come with finely grated ginger or scallions when it’s served raw. So Alex, know that we know what it tastes like, why don’t you tell us a little more about how it’s actually procured.
Alex Martin 18:12
The fish has a short life span of two years and it starts its life along the warm Kuroshio Current before migrating north to their feeding grounds. After August, they begin their southward migration along the cold Oyashio Current to their spawning grounds. Japanese fishers would catch them along the northeast coasts of Hokkaido and Tohoku, the Sanriku region. but in recent years the fish has strayed farther away from the coasts and, this is the important part, into international waters. So now, Japan is competing with countries like China and Russia for catches.
Shaun McKenna 18:43
What caused this change in behavior?
Alex Martin 18:45
It's thought to be rising surface water temperatures and changes in the ocean currents. The Oyashio Current, according to Fisheries expert I spoke to, has been weakening, apparently, due to these warm water masses forming off the coast of Hokkaido.
Shaun McKenna 19:00
That’s the one that comes down from the north.
Alex Martin 19:03
That’s correct. And that seemingly triggered competition among fish for plankton and has forced the sanma to migrate to high sea fishing grounds. And there's less food there and thus the population is shrinking and it's affecting maturation.
Shaun McKenna 19:14
It always comes back to depopulation with you doesn't it?
Alex Martin 19:18
Haha, yes, even with fish. You know, I asked the Fisheries expert if he thought this trend would continue, and since the sanma is such a symbol of autumn in Japan and I do go into its cultural significance in the piece, but the expert said he wasn’t able to give a definitive answer. All he could say was that while the catches this year were slightly better compared to last year, overall we’ve been hovering near record lows.
Shaun McKenna 19:41
Well, anyone listening can check that story and the rest of Alex’s
award-winning journalism at japantimes.co.jp. Alex, thanks for coming back to Deep Dive.
Alex Martin 19:49
Shaun McKenna 19:55
My thanks again to Alex for coming on the show, I’ll put links to the stories we mentioned in the show notes they’re worth checking out and, of course, we appreciate the fact that so many of you will listen to the podcast and then check out the stories, so thank you for that.
Elsewhere in The Japan Times, visitors to Japan exceeded pre-pandemic levels in October according to the Japan National Tourism Organization. This is the first time that has happened since the relaxation of border controls put in place because of the pandemic. The number of foreign visitors for business and leisure rose to 2.52 million last month.
And some of those visitors may have tried checking out Samurai Restaurant Time. Contributing writer Laura Pollacco checked that place out for our food section, it’s done by the same people behind the very popular Robot Restaurant that closed down during the pandemic. So is all the kitschy, borderline problematic entertainment worth the price of admission? You can read about it at our website, japantimes.co.jp.
This past week Japan announced it was planning to do away with a requirement that drugs developed overseas be tested on Japanese individuals before they can be made available in the domestic market. This policy came under criticism during the pandemic when COVID-19 vaccines developed overseas were required to undergo additional testing before they could be offered in Japan. Getting rid of this requirement is expected to get medicines into the country in a shorter period of time. According to the Office of Pharmaceutical Industry Research, 72% of new drugs approved in Europe and the United States have yet to receive approval in Japan.
Another final piece I wanted to point out comes courtesy of Tomohiro Osaki from AFP, he wrote about a report from Human Rights Watch that heavily criticizes Japan’s treatment of women prisoners. Some of the abuses suffered by women included being handcuffed during labor and immediately after giving birth, being separated from their newborn babies and insufficient care for elderly inmates.
Deep Dive from The Japan Times is produced by Dave Cortez, our outgoing music is by Oscar Boyd and our theme music is by the musician LLLL. I’m Shaun McKenna, podtsukaresama.