Ōkami – in the foosteps of the Japanese wolf

Photographic essay

The deer slowly moved towards the group of tourists and bowed his head: with this greeting, he asked for a piece of shika sembei, the only food allowed to be given one of the 1300 deer that roam free in Nara Park. Sold for less than €2 in small stalls all around the park, these cookies allow the many tourists who rush in the site all day to approach the animals; but among them, the most daring will not hesitate to come and help themselves, chew jackets and straps or dig in a shopping bag abandoned there by a careless visitor.

While most Sika deer remain in the park, some of them, sometimes accompanied by their young, do not hesitate to cross roads, stopping traffic and walking to the many shops to claim food. The wildest ones remain in the nearby forest. Long protected and now being one of the main tourist attractions of the country’s former capital, the deer are considered as messengers of the gods. And they proliferate, becoming a problem for the Nara prefecture and for the island’s biodiversity: the bark of the trees is eaten away, some plants they love can no longer renew themselves while others, abandoned, abound.

Sampling shots have finally been authorized and organized to try and contain the species, while preserving the turistic interest it represents.

In other prefectures, including the most agricultural ones, the problem is identical: sika deer and wild boars proliferate and cause enormous crop damage and accidents.

« In recent decades, the deer and wild boar population has increased in Japan, and this overcrowding has destroyed vegetation, causing mountainous areas to collapse, sediment discharge, debris flow and flooding, disrupting the natural ecosystem itself, » says Professor Naoki Maruyama, PhD in agriculture and specialist in animal ecology. « Deterioration and collapse of terrestrial ecosystems also affect coastal marine ecosystems, and coastal ecosystems die in the same way as terrestrial ecosystems due to oversupply of land and sediment and reduced nutrient inputs from the land. It is clear that the main cause is the increase in deer and wild boar and the lack of ecosystem management by humans who cannot control it. »

The archipelago has few hunters: one estimates that there are about 200,000 hunters for a population of 125 million inhabitants. Firearm ownership seems difficult in Japan and even mountainous regions that culturally eat game have changed their diet with the development of infrastructure for the delivery of fish or farmed meat. Finally, the Fukushima power plant disaster would have introduced the risk of consumption of wild animals of uncertain health status. In the absence of a natural predator, an entire ecosystem is getting out of control and is costing Japanese society a lot of money.

One has to go a few hundred years back in time to find the trace of this natural predator. In 1905, near Nara, an American traveller, Malcolm Anderson, was on a Japanese animal specimen collection mission for the London Zoological Society and the British Museum of Natural History when three hunters, having learned the purpose of his trip, came forward to sell him a wolf’s carcass. After discussing the price, the animal is purchased and sent to the British Museum. No one knew then that it was probably the last one of Canis Lupus Hodophylax, the Japanese wolf, to have been seen and killed. Since then, the canine is considered officially extinct in the Japanese archipelago: it has joined its cousin the wolf of Hokkaido, named after the great northern island, officially extinct since the 1880s.

The loss of the predator is the cause of a significant imbalance for the biodiversity of the Japanese islands and, unlike France, for example, there is no hope of seeing it or any of the members of a subspecies of this genus return via borders. In the face of disasters caused by fallow deer or wild boar to forests, crops and landscapes, one solutions would be an artificial reintroduction of a wolf, option supported by the Japan Wolf Association.

Created in the early 1990s, this association, under the chairmanship of Professor Naoki Maruyama, campaigns for the reintroduction of a subspecies of wolves into the mountains of the archipelago.

When I join him at the foot of Mount Fuji, he was invited by a group of hikers to come and lead a conference on the subject. Two days later, other members of the association gave a similar conference in Nagano, further north. With nearly 600 members, the association struggles to make the Japanese population aware of the problem, even if, during the past 25 years, public opposition to the presence of the wolf has dropped considerably, from 44 to 10% of those questioned: « All problems between humans and wolves are due to human misunderstanding of wolves and nature« , he tells us. « The problem is the same in Japan. Many people still believe that wolves are ferocious animals. » Nevertheless, indifference prevails in public opinion, with nearly 40% of respondents: « It is much more difficult to convince people who are simply not interested than to turn those who are opposed (to the reintroduction of the wolf)  » he adds.

At 76 years old, his enthusiasm remains intact: publishing magazines (« Forest Call »), books, conferences, seminars… the activities of the association and its president to bring information and knowledge to the general public are diverse and the schedule is full.

There are many reasons why the Japanese wolf may have disappeared. The Meiji era, which saw Japan open up a little more to the world and enter modernity, is often credited with a change in behaviour towards the predator, shifting him from a feared and prayed-for spirit to an animal that had to be disposed of. The increased presence of foreign travellers (Dutch in particular) is probably not unrelated to this change in status. In addition to hunting and poisoning, rabies damage, transmitted by dogs, will soon be added.

Photographer Michiko Hayashi worked for several years on the Honshu wolf and produced an artist’s book on the subject, « Hodophylax, the Guardian of the path« . The relics of slaughtered wolves, such as the skin, the tail, the teeth or skulls that she photographed, have long been used as talismans and ingredients in traditional Japanese pharmacopoeia.

The animal was a valuable aid against the damage caused by fallow deer and wild boars to crops in most prefectures and, especially in the mountains, helped to safeguard autumn and winter harvests and helped people to protect themselves from famine. But for horse breeders in northern Honshu Island, he was a predator of the herds. Village legends keep track of wolf hunts organized in response to excessive predation. However, the hunter who killed a wolf exposed himself and his family to the risk of spiritual punishment. Several old stories tell how misfortune, death or poverty hit the families of wolf killers.

For most Japanese people, it was considered above all as the spirit of the mountains, to the point of being the object of several Shinto shrines (which became the official religion during the Meiji era) in the prefectures of Saitama and Nara and the protagonist of many legends.

The Mitsumine sanctuary, in the mountains surrounding the small town of Chichibu, at about an hour and a half by train west of Tokyo, is probably the best known. This sanctuary has several wolves as guardians instead of the usual lion dogs. People come here to acquire « charms » or lucky amulets in the image of the wolf and pray to protect themselves from bad luck.

Legend has it that Yamato Takeru, a war hero from the province of Yamato, founded this sanctuary on the top of the mountain. On his way north on mission, he got lost in the fog of the Okuchichibu Mountains, a vast mountain range covering several prefectures. A large white wolf would then have emerged from the mist and guided the warrior back to the track and safety.

Many other wolf sanctuaries exist in these mountains (there are reportedly nearly 90) and in Tokyo. The small Igari sanctuary is located a little off one of the roads that connect Chichibu to Ogano, among dozens of others scattered in the surrounding mountains. In the capital, one of them (the Miyamasumitake sanctuary) is only a few meters from the huge Shibuya railway station, separated from the hustle and bustle of the city by a few steps and surrounded by skyscrapers, while another Mitsumine sanctuary is in Setagaya in the middle of a small residential area of Tokyo: in both cases, they are local shrines where people pray in the middle of other activities during the day.

Legends with wolves are numerous in the mountain villages. In ancient Japanese society, there was indeed a separation between the world of the village and the world of the mountains, a source of mortal danger, which can be imagined by walking today through the steep territories covered in dark forests.

In particular, there is a well-known belief about the « escort wolf », according to which a wolf follows a person walking alone in the forest at night until home is reached safely.  The duality in this belief reveals both the gratitude to wolves for their protection against dangers and evil spirits and the fear of being attacked and devoured if one stumble.

After being venerated for centuries, one might think that the story ends there and that the animal has disappeared definitively since the beginning of the 20th century. Except that in recent years, many accounts of encounters and observations, reports of howling and other discoveries of all kinds have led some to argue that the Japanese wolf is still alive and waiting to be rediscovered.

Among those, Hiroshi Yagi is certainly the most emblematic: his life took a decisive turn in October 1996, when, on a small road at the bottom of the Chichibu mountains, a short-furred animal with pointed ears and a tail with a dark tip appeared in the light of his headlights. He had been hoping for this meeting for about thirty years: at the age of 19, a young graduate, he was working in a mountain refuge when one evening he heard a scream in the forest. Convinced that this is not coming from ordinary dog, he returns to the shelter, forgetting the delivery of the bag of rice he was carrying. This delay had unexpected consequences: the delivery was postponed to the next day and he missed the bus that was supposed to drive him back to town. A few hours later, that bus got involved in an accident on a mountain road.

This « encounter » and its consequences pushed him to embark on the mission of his life, which found an apotheosis with this encounter on a mountain road. He succeeded in taking 19 photos of the animal, which led to a tough taxonomic debate.

These debates are explained by the fact that the zoological status of this Japanese wolf has only been determined very recently.

« Before the beginning of the 20th century, categories of dogs remained diverse and depended on social situations and ecological contexts, » writes Brett L. Walker in his book ‘Lost Wolves of Japan’. « Wolves ( ōkami), sick wolves ( byōro), mountain dogs ( yamainu), honourable dogs ( o-inu), big dogs ( ōinu), wild dogs (yaken), bad dogs ( akuken), village dogs ( sato inu), domestic dogs ( kai inu) and hunting dogs ( kari inu) crossed all borders of the professional, religious and regional status and understanding of dog categories. »

The few specimens to be found and preserved are rare and do not seem to clarify the debate. Three stuffed wolves are in Japan, one of which is presented to the public at the Tokyo Museum of Natural History, one is in the Netherlands and the last one at the British Museum. The animal Hiroshi Yagi photographed would look like the one from the Leiden Museum in the Netherlands and was therefore called a yaken (wild dog).

During the ascent on the steep mountain path, Yagi gives us some of the many testimonies of encounters with a wolf type animal, which have never really been disclosed. But with articles in the local press and reports on television, the word is spred, especially to the members of the Yagi association. While some of the testimonies may seem completely far-fetched, others deserve attention. He tells us that in 1985, one of the rescue teams sent to these mountains in search of survivors of the Japan Airlines flight 123 allegedly came across a couple of wolves: the story was never told.

In the vicinity of Chichibu, more than one hundred and fifty testimonies have come to Yagi: screams heard, animals observed, footprints, excrement found. It is difficult for amateur and volunteer observers to sort through the multitude of reports that must be checked and contextualized each time. And falling on a wolf is rare: the Japanese mountains are known to be dangerous and groups of hikers do not forget to hang a small bell on their backpacks to avoid an unfortunate encounter with a bear, many in the forests. Under these conditions, it is difficult not to be spotted several hundred meters away.

Alex Martin, on the other hand, became passionate about this subject. Nothing really predestined this journalist from Tokyo to take an interest in the wolf until his mother, who owns a small house near Chichibu, told him a unsetting story. One of her friends reportedly found herself facing an unknown animal in her garden, a few metres away from the Anya River. She is convinced that this was a wolf. A series of articles later, he is, like Yagi, totally transported when the subject is discussed. He also ended up installing cameras in his mother’s garden after she heard screams nearby.

Unfortunately, there is insufficient photographic evidence to establish with certainty the survival of the « pure God with a big mouth » (Oguchi no Magami) and there is a lack of will and funds to organize large-scale scientific research. Professor Maruyama absolutely does not believe in the possibility that the Japanese wolf may have survived in the Japanese mountains. Yagi, fully understands the Japan Wolf Association’s approach but still wonders: Japan being an island, releasing a foreign animal could have unforeseen and dreadful consequences, especially if an endemic species has managed to stay there.

The wolf debate in the Japanese archipelago seems far from over and goes on a par with a necessary ecological awareness. Superstitions and legends are part of the Japanese daily life in a country where the border between nature and the spiritual is thin, even in large cities. The wolf-spirit has never left the daily life of the empire of the rising sun. The return of the wolf-animal could be a revolution in the country of technology and miniaturization.

Written by Thomas