There are two species of bear found in Japan: the Asiatic black bear and Ezo brown bear. Black bears are found throughout Honshu and Shikoku. Some have even been seen prowling around the streets of Kyoto. They are the same as Asiatic black bears found in China, India, Southeast Asia and Russia.

Japanese black bears are divided into seven recognized subspecies. There are healthy numbers of the main subspecies that lives mostly in mountainous areas of central and northern Honshu but the other six — in Kyushu, Shikoku, eastern and western Chugoko, the Kii Penninsual of Wakayama Prefecture, on the Himokita Peninsula in Aomori Prefecture — have been designated as endangered. The Kyushu subspecies is probably already extinct.

No one knows how many black bears there are. A study by the Environmental Ministry in 1991 estimated the number to be between 8,400 and 12,600. There are currently thought to be 10,000 to 20,000 of them, with some living a few dozen kilometers west of central Tokyo in the Kaone Mountains and Tanzawa Mountains of western Kanagawa Prefecture.

The Asiatic black bear is classified as “vulnerable” on the International Union of the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of endangered species. They are threatened by losses to their forest habitat and excessive hunting to gain bile and other body parts for the traditional Asian medicine trade. These are problems that bears face more elsewhere in Asia than in Japan. See China, Health, Chinese Medicine

The number of black bears in western Honshu has been dramatically reduced by the prevalence of introduced cedars and cypresses, which produce no acorns for the bears to eat.

Asiatic Black Bear Characteristics and Behavior in Japan

Most Asiatic black bears weigh between 50 and 80 kilograms, with large males reaching a weight of 120 kilograms when the are fattened up at the end of autumn. Both males and females are deep black in color except for a white or cream crescent-shaped mark on their chest, which gives them the common name of “moon bear.” The size and shape of the crescent varies greatly and may even be completely absent.

Black bears have excellent hearing and sense of smell but have relatively poor eyesight. They are excellent diggers, tree climbers and swimmers. They can outrun a person on open ground and have been observed swimming 300 meters in Japan. In some places they build feeding platforms — high up in beech and oak trees and made by bending and snapping branches — that are used to feed on nuts and acorns.

Japanese black bears roam forests from sea level to the subalpine zone high on mountainsides. They are omnivores that eat nuts, fruits, insects, ants, insect grubs, river crabs, honey, leaves, acorns, other items from the forest and meat. Most of the meat they eat comes from carcasses although they have been observed hunting small deer and other animals. Acorns are the primary food source for black bears in Japan. Their diet changes with season. In the spring and summer they load up on new shoots, buds, flowers, bulbs and tubers. In the autumn they feast on acorns, chestnuts and beechnuts as well as berries if they can find them.

Bears in Japan hibernate for around four months generally beginning in late November. When they become sufficiently fattened up they seek a cozy den in a cave, rock shelter, partially rotted log or the hollow of an old tree. While they are hibernating their body temperature drops only a few degrees and they can easily be woken up. Bears are very active in the autumn as they seek food to sustain themselves through winter hibernation. When autumn food is in short supply some bears will remain active through much of the winter. At the Ueno Zoo a bear has been artificially-induced to hibernate by replicating the conditions in the bear’s home territory.

Black bears mate in the early summer with females giving birth in their winter den. A females gives birth to one or two cubs every two or three years, a relatively slow rate of reproduction. Young bears stay close to their mothers for the first two years of their lives, gaining protection and learning skills they need to survive on their own.

In Japan, black bears sometimes make treetop bear’s nest known as are enza “ in Japanese. Terry Domico wrote in “Bears of the World”: “Resembling crows’ nest, the structures are common in cherry, beech, oak and dogwood trees. “ Enza “ are formed by the bear as it sits in a high fork, bending branches backwards in order ro reach its fruit, as broken branches accumulate around and under the bear, a kind of nest is formed. I have seen up to six or seven “ enza “ in a single oak grove...Asian black bears are also said to build “basking couches.” These elevated, oval-shaped beds constructed of twigs and branches probably allow the bears to conserve body hear by getting off the ground during wet and cold ls spells. Some beds have been reported as high as 65 feet (20 meters) in the tree, while others are only centimeters off the ground.”

Asiatic Black Bears, See Separate Article Under Animals in Asian Topics

Brown Bears in Japan

Ezo brown bears live in Hokkaido. Some eat Pacific salmon returning to the rivers. These bears are often seen on the Rusha River on the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido. They are closely related to brown bears found in Siberia and distantly related to grizzly bears in North America. Brown bears in Hokkaido usually hibernate from mid-December to late March. They eat plant shoots and salmon and sometimes attack Yezo shika deer.

By some estimates there are around 3,000 brown bears in Japan, all of them in Hokkaido. This is about four times the number of grizzly bears found in the continental United States. They occasionally eat livestock and kill people. Mushroom hunters and fishermen have been mauled but mostly the bears keep their distance from people. For a long time brown bears were viewed as pests in Japan. Only fairly recently have they been embraced by animal lovers and conservationists. Brown bears are threatened by loss of habitat to farming and logging and human control of salmon rivers. In 2012, a photograph of an abnormally skinny bear was shown in the media that implied some bears were starving.

Ainu Bear Rituals

The Ainu had great reverence for bears, Bears were providers of food, fur and bone for tools. They hunted them, kept them as pets, and performed exorcisms involving bear spirits. Sometimes bear cubs were caught and nursed by women. The bear supplied fur and meat and brought gifts from the deities and was regarded as the important mountain god in disguise.

The most important Ainu rite was the “iyomante”, or the bear sending ritual. Conducted in the spring, it was essentially a funeral ritual for the most important Ainu deity and was intended to give the bear and mountain god spirit a proper send off before it returned to the mountains. A female bear and her cubs were caught. The bear was killed and her spirit was sent to the gods in a special ceremony. Her cubs were then raised by the Ainu for several years and they too were returned to the gods.

During the ceremony people donned their best clothes and there was a lot of drinking, dancing and feasting. Prayers were said to the fire, house and mountain gods. The bear was taken from the bear house and killed with arrows and by strangling it between logs. The bear was then skinned and dressed and placed before an altar hung with treasures and then placed through a sacred window. The ceremony ended when the head of the bear was placed on the altar and arrows are fired to the east so its spirit could return to the mountains. Among some Ainus a male bear was killed and its penis, head and other body parts were taken to a sacred place on the mountains. The four-day-long ceremony was supposed to send the bear back to the mountains gods as an honored messenger of the village.

Without guns the Ainu killed bears used bamboo arrows poisoned with a preparation made from the roots of a small purple-flowered plant called are “Aconitum yesoense” . Hunters tested the potency of the poison by placing a tiny bit on their tongue or between their fingers. If there was a burning sensation it was strong enough. When struck by a poisoned arrow the bear ran 50 to 100 meters and collapsed as a result of the fast-acting poison. [Source: the book “Bears of the World” by Terry Domico]

Bears that were ritually killed and eaten were bears captured as cubs that were usually raised for about two years in the local community. The cub was raised by village women who often took turns nursing them with their own breasts. Noako Maeda, curator at the Noboribersu Bear Park, has studied the Ainu and bears and suckled bear cubs with her breasts. She told the writer Terry Domico they nurse very gently, more gently than her own children.

The ceremony was presided over by the community leader. Even though iyomante was prohibited by the Japanese it was practiced into the 20th century. The Japanese government formally forbade the Ainu bear festival in the early 1960s. Today, watered-down versions of the festivals are sometimes performed for tourists. The Ainu continue to worship and revere bears but they no longer ritually kill them.

Bear Hunting in Japan

After the introduction of Buddhism in Japan, which prohibited the killing of animals, the Japanese compromised by devising different strategies in hunting bears. Some, such as the inhabitants of the Kiso area in the Nagano Prefecture, prohibited the practise altogether, while others developed rituals in order to placate the spirits of killed bears. In some Japanese hunting communities, black bears lacking the white chest mark are considered sacred. In the Akita Prefecture, bears lacking the mark were known by matagi huntsmen as minaguro (all black) or munaguro (black chested), and were also considered messengers of yama no kami. If such a bear was shot, the huntsman would offer it to yama no kami, and give up hunting from that time on. Similar beliefs were held in Nagano, where the completely black bears were termed nekoguma or cat-bear. [Source: Wikipedia]

Matagi communities believed that killing a bear in the mountains would result in a bad storm, which was linked to the belief that bear spirits could affect weather. The matagi would generally hunt bears in spring or from late autumn to early winter, before they hibernated. In mountain regions, bears were hunted by driving them upland to a waiting hunter who would shoot it. Bear hunting expeditions were preceded by rituals, and could last up to two weeks. After killing the bear, the matagi would pray for the bear's soul. Bear hunts in Japan are often termed kuma taiji, meaning "bear conquest". The word taiji itself is often used in Japanese folklore to describe the slaying of monsters and demons.

Bears as Pests in Japan

In recent years bears have increased in numbers, expanded their range and lost their fear of people and have increasingly come in contact with them. They have traditionally been most visible between May and August when they descend from the mountains in search of food like sprouts and skunk cabbage.

In 1996, 1,725 bears regarded as pests were shot. In Kyoto, one bear cut off electricity to 850 houses when he climbed a utility pole and was electrocuted. Some bears reportedly killed for destroying crops were in fact killed so their gall bladders could be sold. Sometimes gall bladders can fetch $100 a gram. A total of 7,001 bears were killed between March 2005 and March 2007.

Hunting of brown bears was banned in 1982. Since then the sighting of the bears has increased — from 41 in 1993 to 489 in 2003 — and there has been more potentially dangerous encounters. Because they are no longer hunted brown bears don’t fear people like they used to. They no longer are fazed by noise makers, whistles or bells and have made half -hearted charges at tourists. In 2004 some footpaths were closed because of worries about bear attacks and elevated walkways were built to protect tourist in the future.

Bears have been blamed for destroying apple and permission orchards. They are particularly fond of persimmon and often raid crops in places where there is thick bush for them to hide and the population is made up primarily of relatively non-threatening elderly people. A study of bears in Tochigi prefecture found that bears there lived mainly on persimmons and cherries from village orchards rather than nuts found in the mountains. Black bears sometimes badly damage timber trees, with reports of a single bear scrapping the bark off 40 trees in a single night.

A lack of food and unseasonably warm weather boosted bear sightings in the winter of 2006-2007. Many bears were spotted when it was thought they should be hibernating. A large number of motherless cubs were also seen which may have been due to their mothers being killed.

Bears in Urban and Residential Areas

Bears are popping up more and more in residential areas. Hiromasa Takeda and Takahiro Komazaki wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “In October 2010, a black bear appeared in a park in a busy district of Uozu, Toyama Prefecture, about 100 meters from JR Uozu Station. Police officers and members of a local hunting association pursued it through a residential area near the park. The bear, estimated to be 5 years old, was finally shot dead after it ran into a house. As the gunshots rang out, local residents were in an uproar.” [Source: Hiromasa Takeda and Takahiro Komazaki, Yomiuri Shimbun, October 24, 2010]

“In Kudoyamacho, Wakayama Prefecture, on the same day, a bear escaped from an animal trap in a field. In Iidemachi, Yamagata Prefecture, three bears that seemed to be a family were spotted in a residential area on Thursday. A couple days before in Sharicho, Hokkaido, two brown bears gave local residents a scare when they appeared in a central district of town.” Bear sightings are being reported almost every day between April and September. A total of 2,366 bears had been caught in that time, most of which were later killed.

Bear Attacks in Japan

Asian black bears are known for having short tempers. Each year they kill one or two people in Japan and injure 10 to 20. Many attacks occur in the spring when people collect wild bamboo shoots, which the bears also fancy. People have been killed by bears in Hokkaido and the Tohuku region of northern Honshu. In May 2001 in southern Hokkaido, a 53-year-old man was killed and buried by a bear. In 2003, a man was badly mauled in the face by a bear in the Okayama area. Two deaths from bear attacks were recorded in both 1985 and 2004.

In the summer and autumn of 2004 there was an unusually high number of bear attacks. Newspapers ran headlines like “Bear Injures Four in Kimono Shop” and “Five Elderly People Injured in Three Prefectures.” Bears were caught in hen houses eating chickens and spotting in persimmon trees munching on the orange fruit. One person was killed and almost a 100 were injured, almost 10 times the usual number. There was a particularly high number of attacks in Toyama on the Sea of Japan.

In June 2004, a hiker in Nikko National Park was seriously injured in an attack by a black bear. In the same area two men were seriously injured by bear as they walked along a plank path on Ozegahara marsh. In Toyama two school children were attacked and scratched on their upper torsos. In Iwate Prefecture three people were attacked in three towns, and one person was seriously injured. In July, an 81-year-old woman suffered a broken cheek bone after she was attacked by bears as she was gathering butterburs in Akita Prefecture.

In October 2004, two people were attacked and hurt in separate attacks by bears in Hyogo and Hiroshima prefectures. In Hyogo, a bear attacked an 82-year-old woman as she gathered flowers. She suffered serious injuries in her head. The same month a pair of bears attacked three different people in separate incidents in Toyama. A 77-year-old woman and a 76-year-old woman suffered facial scratched. A 90-year-old man broke his arm.

In 2006, three people were killed by black bears and 136 were injured. This the highest number of deaths by bear attacks ever, recorded. Bears showed up in many residential areas where they had never been seen before. In September 2006, a male middle school student in Otrimura, Nagano Prefecture was seriously injured in an attack by a bear on his way to school. In October a 71-year-old man was attacked and killed in Toyama Prefecture.

In November 2008, a bear attacked a woman at a vacation home in Karuizawamachi, Nagano Prefecture, leaving her with minor back injuries. The beare attacked the woman after jumping out of thicket of bushes and is believed to have been a cub that had just left his mother. In September 2009, a black bear attacked nine people at a bus terminal in a mountainous area of Takayama in Gifu Prefecture. Four people were hospitalized with injuries such as bite marks to the face but none were in serious condition. More than 100 people were at the bus terminal at the time.

Disturbing a hibernating black bear can be dangerous. Describing one such encounter during a research trip with biologist Kazuhiko Maita, Terry Domico wrote in “Bears of the World”: “The bear was inside a fallen tree trunk that lay on the ground at a 45 degrees angle. By using a radio locator to pinpoint the exact location if the bear, we calculated that it was asleep some 10 feet or so from the entrance at the high end of the log...As Maita’s team cautiously approached th den entrance with their equipment, a very large (485 pound, 225 kilogram) male Asian black bear exploded from the entrance in attack. The team dropped everything and scattered, but the bear had singled out one of the graduate students who had fallen through the snow crust while trying to escape. In a moment the bear closed in on him. That was when I sprayed the animal with a blast from my can of deterrent. The graduate student scampered away, and the bear immediately turned on me, face to face, I hit him with another blast of spray. This time the bear wheeled around and ran down the mountains out of sight.” The active ingredient in the spay was red pepper oil.

Bear Attacks Four People in Iwate in 2001

In the 2000s, black bears began terrorizing the forest-surrounded town of Iwaizumchi in Iwate Prefecture. The problem started when the animals began raiding cow barns in search of food. By 2009, about 40 bear-related problems were being reported a month. Farmers that suffered the most were given bear detecting devices and bear repellants that produced loud noises to scare the bears away. High voltage electric fences were also installed and hunters were hired to kill the bears.

In September 2001, the Mainichi Shimbun reported from Hanamaki, Iwate Prefecture: “Four people, three of them elderly, were injured after a berserk black bear attacked them here Monday before it disappeared back into the woods. None of the injuries sustained were serious, but local officials are urging people in the area to be on the alert. Members of the Hanamaki Municipal Government and a local hunting club are currently searching for the bear, which could be the same animal spotted near a hot springs resort over the weekend. [Source: Mainichi Shimbun, September 24, 2001]

"When I first saw it, I thought it was a big black dog. But then I noticed a tuft of white hair on its chest and realized that it was a bear," said Hisako Morikawa, 71, the first of the bear's victims, who was bitten on the knee as she cut the grass in the garden of her home. "I've lived here for decades, but it's the first time I've ever seen a bear come this close to the city."

Morikawa said the bear was about 1.4 to 1.5 meters long. She said she had just picked up some chestnuts shortly after 6 a.m. and was heading into her house when she noticed the bear about 50 meters away in some nearby woods. The bear suddenly rushed at the old woman, who vainly tried to flee. The bear slammed into her back, knocking her to the ground. As Morikawa lay in terror, the bear nipped her knee before fleeing. Moments later, it attacked a 31-year-old woman in the neighborhood before again making its escape. About an hour later, it set upon a 67-year-old woman about 1.3 kilometers away from the scene of the earlier attacks. It was another hour before the bear struck again, this time assailing a 75-year-old man. Having completed its rampage, the bear fled to the safety of the woods.

Bear Attacks in 2010

Between April and September 2010, 82 bear attacks with 84 victims were reported in Japan. This is higher than the 52 bear attacks with 64 victims in 2009 but not as high as the 113 attacks in 2004 and 150 attacks in 2006. Of the 84 people attacked by bears, four — two in Hokkaido, one in Fukushima Prefecture and one in Tottori Prefecture — were killed.

Most of the attacks were like this one. In October 2010, in Kitaakita, Akita Prefecture, a 63-year-old man gathering mushrooms ran into three bears, apparently a family. The youngest bear bit the man on the leg, inflicting light injuries, before all three ran into the woods. [Source: Hiromasa Takeda and Takahiro Komazaki, Yomiuri Shimbun, October 24, 2010]

Encounters between bears and humans are often just as scary for the bears as the people. Toshiaki Shiraishi, an official of Toyama Municipal Family Park Zoo, said, "Usually making a noise or saying 'hey' or something will make a bear run away." But if a bear is agitated, taking more defensive measures could be required. "If you can't escape, squat down and curl up into a ball," Shiraishi said. "Covering your neck and the back of your head with your hands could help save you from a deadly wound." [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 24, 2010]

Causes of Bear Attacks in Japan

Japan Brown bear
Many of the bear attacks have been blamed on a shortage of acorns due to typhoons and other bad weather which forced the bears into populated areas in search of food. A campaign organized by a group called the Bear and Forest Association aimed to collect acorns from parks in the cities to help feed the bears.

Some attribute the problem to: 1)a shortage of nut-bearing trees and berry-producing shrubs created as a result of artificial cedar and pine forests that don’t produce food the bear can eat; and 2) the exodus of people from the countryside, leaving inviting, quiet villages filled with lots of crops and food — often left unharvested in fields, which attracts bears — but few young people to scare them off. In areas where there a plentiful supply of nut- and acorn-bearing oaks and beech there have been no attacks.

Allowing fields to become fallow and overgrown and the bluring of the areas of the region that demarcated the forest and farms have also contributed to the problem. This has encouraged bears to move nearer to where people live. Brown bears in Hokkaido have been observed going after deer after the emerge from hibernation in part because supplies of other kinds of food are in short supply. In 2005 there were plentiful food supplies in the mountains and relatively few bears caused mischief in places with large human populations. The number of bears trapped or killed because they were deemed as pests was less than 1,000.

Reasons for Bear Attacks in Japan in 2010

Reasons for the attacks include shortages of food in mountainous areas and a reduction in hunting. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Some experts have suggested changes in forests and farmland are also behind the spate of bear encounters. Forests in mountainous areas were once maintained by forestry workers, but this work has been increasingly neglected in recent years as people drift away from these areas. More and more farmland is being left unattended, and plants have grown among the abandoned crops. These plots are often close to residential areas and provide bears with food with cover from prying eyes.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 24, 2010]

Iwate University Prof. Toshiki Aoi, a researcher of wild animal controls, told the Yomiuri Shimbun bears are no longer afraid of people. "With fewer hunters around, bears are no longer afraid to approach people. The current situation is basically an open invitation to bears to come into areas where people live," Aoi said.

Acorn Shortage Behind Wandering Bears

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Many experts have agreed that this year's dearth of acorns — on which bears feed — explains why dozens of the creatures have come out of forests and into towns and cities across the country in recent months. These bears have wandered into human settlements this year to look for food before going into hibernation, they said... A mature black bear usually weighs about 100 kilograms. But a mature bear captured in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, on Oct. 10 weighed only 45 kilograms.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 24, 2010]

"This year, oak trees didn't grow enough buds due to unusually low temperatures in spring," an official of the Nagano prefectural government's wildlife problem section told the Yomiuri Shimbun. "And then the scorching weather in summer made the acorns fall from the trees before they had grown to full size." Kazuhiko Maita, head of the Institute for Asian Black Bear Research and Preservation, a nonprofit organization based in Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, believes a baby boom three years ago is partly to blame for the spate of bear sightings. "In autumn 2007, acorns were plentiful and bears were healthy and gave birth to many cubs," Maita said. He said there was an abundance of acorns the following autumn, too. "Bears born in these years have now become very active, partly because acorns are in short supply," Maita said. There were also a high number of attacks in 1986 when there was a failure of the acorn crop.

However, some experts disagree that an acorn shortage has caused the bears to wander into residential areas. Manabu Miyazaki, who has filmed wild animals in the Central Japanese Alps, believes the bears do not rely on acorns for their diet. "Acorns aren't the only food bears eat," he said. "Bears are food connoisseurs who select and eat only tasty nuts." In fact, an Ishikawa prefectural government analysis of the stomach contents of 141 bears captured since September 2004 found 55 had eaten persimmons.

Brown Bears Attacks in Japan

In May 1999, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported, a man was killed by a bear in Hokkaido. Two others were seriously injured. It was the first fatal bear attack in Japan in 9 years. The man was collecting wild plants when he was fatally attacked. When he did not return his family sent a search party out for him and found him dead. A short time later two women were out in the forest and presumably the same bear attacked them. They were not killed and are listed in serious condition in the hospital. Any animal is most dangerous when it loses it's fear of people. This bear was tracked down and killed. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, May 9, 1999]

In October 2005, a zookeeper died after being mauled on his head and leg by a brown bear at the Fuji Safari Park in Shizuoka. Japan Today reported: “Tomohiro Tamura, 34, who had been in charge of bears for three and a half years at the zoo, was pronounced dead at a hospital from blood loss, the police said. He had suffered injuries to his head and left leg. [Source: Japan Today, October 25, 2005]

Sankebetsu Brown Bear Incident of 1915

The Sankebetsu brown bear incident, also referred to as the Rokusensawa bear attack or the Tomamae brown bear incident was the worst bear attack in Japanese history, killing seven settlers in Rokusensawa, Sankebetsu, Tomamae, Rumoi, Hokkaido.The incident took place between December 9 and 14, 1915 after a large brown bear woke up from hibernation and repeatedly attacked several houses in the area. [Source: Wikipedia]

At dawn on in mid-November in 1915, an Ussuri brown bear appeared at the Ikeda family's house in Sankebetsu Rokusen-sawa, about 30 kilometers inland from the west coast of Hokkaido-. The surprise encounter panicked the family horse, but the bear fled after taking only harvested corn. On November 20, 1915, the bear reappeared. Worrying about the safety of the horse[citation needed], the head of the Ikeda family called on his second son, Kametaro-, and two Matagi from his own village and a neighbouring village. When the bear reappeared on November 30, they shot it but failed to kill it. The next morning they followed the bear's footprints, but a snowstorm forced them to turn back.

On December 9, 1915, at 10:30 a.m., the giant brown bear turned up at the home of the O-ta family. Abe Mayu, the farmer's wife, and Hasumi Mikio, a baby being taken care of by Mayu, were at the house. Mikio was bitten on the head and killed. Mayu fought back, apparently by throwing firewood, and tried to escape. She was overtaken, knocked down, and dragged into the forest. According to contemporary descriptions the scene resembled a slaughterhouse, with blood puddled on the farmhouse floor.

December 10 of the Sankebetsu Brown Bear Incident

Early in the morning on December 10, Saito- Ishigoro- and Miyoke Yasutaro- left the village on their respective errands. Meanwhile a search party comprising thirty men was organized to capture the brown bear and recover the remains of Mayu. This group entered the forest and had advanced no more than 150 meters when it met the brown bear. Five men shot at the bear, but only one managed to hit it. The enraged animal nevertheless retreated, and the men escaped injury. After the bear had fled, the hunters scouted the area and discovered dried blood on the snow at the base of a Sakhalin fir tree. Beneath the snow was the corpse of Mayu with only the head and parts of the legs remaining. The bear had cached the body of Mayu in the snow in an attempt to preserve it, as well as to hide it from scavengers. The villagers believed that once the bear had a taste for human flesh, its return to the settlement was assured. [Source: Wikipedia]

Later, Yayo, Miyoke Yasutaro-'s wife, was preparing a late meal while carrying her fourth son, Umekichi, on her back. She heard a rumbling noise outside, but before she could investigate, the bear broke through a window and entered the house. The cook pot on the hearth was overturned, dousing the flames, and in the ensuing panic the oil lamp was put out as well, plunging the house into darkness. Yayo tried to flee the house, but her second son, Yu-jiro-, clung to her legs, tripping her as she ran. The bear attacked her and bit Umekichi.

Odo had remained at the house as the only bodyguard. When he ran for the door, the bear released the mother and child to pursue him. Yayo then escaped with her children. Odo attempted to hide behind furniture, but was clawed in the back. The bear then mauled Kinzo-, the third son of the Miyoke family, and Haruyoshi, the fourth son of the Saito family, killing them, and bit Iwao, third son of Saito- family. Next to be targeted was Take, Saito- Ishigoro-'s pregnant wife. As the animal advanced she pled for her life and that of her unborn child, but it was in vain. She too was attacked, killed, and eaten.

The corps of guardsmen who had tracked the bear downriver realized that they were not, in fact, on its trail. As they hurried back to the settlement, a seriously injured Yayo met them and related the attack at the Miyoke family's house. The corps raced there to rescue any survivors. When they arrived, the house was dark, but sounds of an attack emerged. Believing that the bear had killed everyone inside, some of the guardsmen proposed setting the house on fire. Yayo, hoping that some of the children still lived, forbade this.

The guardsmen divided into two groups: one, consisting of ten men, stood guard at the door while the other group went to the back of the house. When given a signal, the group at the rear set up a racket, shouting and rattling their weapons. As expected, the bear appeared at the front door. The men there had bunched up, with lines of fire blocked by the guard at their head, whose own rifle misfired. Amid the general confusion and risk of crossfire, the bear escaped into the night. Carrying torches made of birch bark, they entered the house and beheld the results of the attack.

Rikizo- and Hisano, first son and daughter of the same relatives, were injured, but lived. The village people gathered in the school, and seriously injured people were accommodated in the Tsuji family house near the river. In two days, six people had lost their lives, one of them pregnant. After the incident, only veterans of the Russo-Japanese War remained at their posts. Yamamoto Heikichi and "Kesagake" Meanwhile, Saito- Ishigoro-, unaware of the family's fate, filed a report with authorities and the district police before returning to Tomakomai and lodging at a local hotel there. Miyoke Yasutaro- had heard that a man named Yamamoto Heikichi was an expert bear hunter, and so paid a visit to his house. Yamamoto was certain that the bear was "Kesagake" or "the diagonal slash from the shoulder", which had previously been blamed for the mauling and deaths of three women but by now he had pawned his gun for money to buy alcohol, and refused Miyoke's request for aid. Unable to return home, Yasutaro- stayed in Onishika, now Obiracho-.

December 11th and 12th of the Sankebetsu Brown Bear Incident

On December 11, Miyoke Yasutaro- and Saito- Ishigoro- returned to Sankebetsu. Noticing the villagers gathered at the branch school, the two pieced together the story of the mauling. A group of men was formed to kill the bear, including Miyoke and Saito-. They decided to wait for the bear at Miyoke's residence, believing that the bear would reappear. The night passed with no attack. [Source: Wikipedia]

The news of the bear's appearance in Sankebetsu reached the Hokkaido- Government Office, and under the leadership of the Hoboro (now Haboro town) branch police station, a sniper team was organized. Guns and volunteers for the team were gathered from nearby towns, and after getting permission from "Teishitsu Rinya kyoku" (the Imperial Forestry Agency", now "Rin'ya cho-"), the sniper team went to Sankebetsu that evening. Chief Inspector Suga, the branch office commissioner, went up the Rokusen sawa with the aim of viewing the Miyoke family house and assessing the state of the sniper team and met all those who got off the mountain pass.

The brown bear did not appear on December 12. Thinking of the future, the team decided to exterminate the bear even if they had to mobilize every possible resource. It was decided that the brown bear would most probably try to retrieve the bodies of those it had killed but there were no remains in the Miyoke family house. Therefore, a new plan was proposed: to attempt to lure out the brown bear with the corpse of a victim. The plan was widely condemned, especially by the O-ta, Saito-, and Miyoke families but it was decided that, for the future of the village, it was the best plan. Within the day, the strategy was executed. The sniper team consisted of six members, which now included Yamamoto Heikichi waited, but the bear stopped and appeared to check the inside of the house then returned to the forest. The bear did not appear again that night, and so the plan ended in failure.

At dawn, a search team discovered that the O-ta family's house was ransacked. The bear had eaten the people's winter food stockpile and ransacked the houses. The bear had damaged at least eight houses, but so far no one could find it. Suga motivated the men by cheering from the village outside. Given that there were now 60 armed men, it was decided that they should hunt in the surrounding mountains. Kesagake now seemed to lack prudence and stretched its territory downstream. The police captain, Suga, recognized the increasing risk of the situation. He made an ice bridge as a line of defence, then arranged snipers and guards.

That night, a sniper at the bridge thought he saw something in the shadows of the tree stumps on the opposite shore. Receiving this information, Suga thought it might be a man's shadow. When he spoke to it, however, he received no reply and ordered the snipers to open fire. At that moment the shadow, obviously that of the bear, disappeared into the forest. They were disappointed, having failed to kill the bear, but the captain thought he had heard some response from it.

End of the Sankebetsu Brown Bear Incident

The next morning, a team investigated the opposite shore and found a bear's footprint and blood there. Given that Kesagake had again been wounded, that snowstorms appeared imminent and since fresh snow could cover any tracks, it was decided that this was the most critical opportunity to hunt down and kill the bear. It was Yamamoto and Ikeda Kamejiro-, a guide, who immediately set out after the bear. Yamamoto decided to track the bear with a team of two, as they would be quicker than a larger team. This was particularly important given the possibility of a snowstorm and the loss of any tracks. [Source: Wikipedia]

Yamamoto was familiar with Kesagake's behaviour and successfully tracked him down. Yamamoto spotted Kesagake resting near a Japanese oak. He approached to within 20 meters of the bear and shot at Kesagake. His first shot hit the bear's heart and the second shot his head. When measured, the bear was 340 kg (749 lbs) and 2.7 m (8.85 ft) tall. A necropsy was carried out on the bear during which parts of his victims were found in his stomach. While at the time the skull and some of the fur of the bear were kept, they later were lost and no traces of Kesagake are left. Aftermath

Yayo, who received head wounds in the attack, made a full recovery, but Miyoke Umekichi, who was bitten by the bear as the child was being carried by its mother, died less than three years later from the wounds he had suffered. Odo recovered from injury and returned to work, but next spring he fell into a river and died. It was unclear whether the injury inflicted by the brown bear had caused the accident. After the attack, most of the villagers of Rokusen sawa soon left, and the town rapidly transformed into a ghost town.

O-kawa Haruyoshi, who was seven years old and the son of the Sankebetsu village mayor at the time of the incident, grew up to become an excellent bear hunter. He swore an oath to kill ten bears for every victim of the attack. By the time he reached the age of 62, he had killed 102 bears. He then retired and constructed the bear harm cenotaph, a shrine where people can pray for the dead villagers. Takayoshi, Haruyoshi's son, in 1980 — after an eight-year chase — hunted down a 500 kg brown bear who was nicknamed the north sea Taro.

Six Bears Escape from a Bear Park and Kill Two People

In April 2012, six bears escaped from their enclosure at Japanese park, killing two women before hunters shot them dead. AP reported: “Police in northern Japan say a group of bears that escaped from their enclosure at a park have killed two people. Police said that two female employees in their 60s and 70s at the park near Kazuno City in Akita prefecture were believed to have been feeding the bears from outside the concrete fence before they escaped. Their mangled bodies were found hours after a colleague escaped and called for help. Hunters later shot and killed all six escaped bears. Police believe the bears climbed over the fence by climbing onto high-piled snowdrifts. They are investigating the case as possible professional negligence causing death. The privately owned park owns 32 other bears. [Source: AP, April 20, 2012]

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Rescue workers witnessed a bear climbing over a concrete wall to escape from an open-air play area at the Hachimantai Bear Farm in Kazuno, Akita Prefecture, where two female employees were killed by brown bears, sources said. Six bears, including the one seen by rescue workers, were killed by local hunters. They were believed to have escaped from the enclosure, climbing over the 4.5-meter-high wall by climbing up accumulated snow left in a corner of the play area. The Akita prefectural police found several bear tracks in the snow when they searched the site on suspicion of professional negligence resulting in death. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 22, 2012]

“Meanwhile, a male employee who was unharmed admitted to The Yomiuri Shimbun that the farm's employees had not removed any snow from the play area this winter. According to a local fire station, three rescue workers arrived near the farm's entrance at about 10:30 a.m.. When they inspected the site based on a report that bears had escaped, they saw a bear climbing over the wall. The police said the two victims were believed to be Tachi Tatehana, 69, and Take Tatehana, 75, both of the Hachimantai-Sakabitai district of Kazuno.

Dealing with Pesky Bears in Japan

In 2004, the year of a high number of bear attacks, people became very scared. Rural people began wearing bells and other noisemakers. Children were escorted to schools. Elderly people traveled in groups. After numerous bear sightings in 2010, Hiromasa Takeda and Takahiro Komazaki wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Patrols have been organized and other precautions taken in areas frequented by bears...The city government of Uozu has issued an emergency warning about wild bears, and the town government of Iidemachi has advised residents to refrain from going outdoors in the morning and evening, when bear sightings have been most common. The Iidemachi government has given all local primary and middle schools loud bells to drive away bears, and some primary schools have asked parents to transport their children to and from school by car.” [Source: Hiromasa Takeda and Takahiro Komazaki, Yomiuri Shimbun, October 24, 2010]

“Sakue Ono, 60, who cultivates apples in Numata, Gunma Prefecture, sets off flares every morning to scare away any bears that might be near his property. He also installed electric fences, but even that has failed to stop bears from intruding in his field.” "I'm afraid the bears might have learned how to get around the fences. For example, maybe they push a fence over by using their hip, so the thick fur protects it from electric shock," he told the Yomiuri Shimbun.

“A local government in Kyoto Prefecture has set up buffer zones between forests and residential communities by clearing undergrowth at the foot of mountains, where wild animals sometimes hide, so that people can easily spot them. While many such trial-and-error efforts are continuing across the nation, none have been successful in totally preventing bears from approaching areas where humans live.” An official of the local government in Kyoto Prefecture said: "We're dealing with wild animals. All we can do is try every possible option, one by one."

In Hyogo Prefecture black bears have been trained to fear humans. Pesky bears that have frequently showed up in residential areas have been caught and frightened with firecrackers and pepper spray and other means and then released with transmitters so their movements could be monitored. After being released 75 percent of the bears avoided residential areas. Of these 62 percent did not go within two kilometers of residential areas and 12 percent came near residential area but did not enter them.

The Fukui government spent $800,000 to outfit four bears with radio collars and GPS device to monitor their progress. In Tochigi Prefecture their travel patterns are observed using a satellite designed to check the migratory patterns of whales.

Killing Pesky Bears in Japan

In 2006, another year of a high number of bear attacks, the number of black bears trapped or killed because they were pests totaled 4,737, twice as the number of the previous record in 2004. Of these 4,251 were killed at the time or destroyed later. By some estimates this was 30 percent to 50 percent of the total bear population in Japan. Most were caught in Tohuku in northern Japan and the Nagano-Niigata regions. The high number of bears wandering into areas with human populations was again blamed on low yields of acorns and natural nuts.

In October 2006, hunters in Nagano were asked to voluntarily refrain from hunting black bears out of concern that their numbers might be declining as so many bears had been killed as pests.

It is not rare for bears to be caught and killed, but there are increasingly fewer hunters doing the job. Tadashi Kawagoe, 70, is chief of a division of the Yamagata prefectural hunters association that is responsible for eliminating harmful animals. He told the Yomiuri Shimbun "There are about 300 members who can work in the prefecture, and they've been dispatched almost every day since late August. I also canceled a planned trip to deal with the bears.”

“Some people are stressing for the need to protect bears as wildlife,” Takeda and Komazaki wrote. “In Karuizawamachi, Nagano Prefecture, a nonprofit organization called Picchio tries to teach bears of the risks of approaching populated areas, without killing them. Bears that become caught in traps are harassed for a time by barking dogs and then released back to the wild, hopefully with a lesson learned.”

In mid 2000s, a hunter had to be rescued after getting stuck in the cave of a hibernating bear for 24 hours in mountains in Takayama, Gifu Prefecture. The hunter got stuck in the three-meter-long cave while trying to pull the bear out after killing it with a shotgun. He stayed warm by huddling next his dog. A rescue was launched after his wife reported that he had not come home.

Image Sources: 1) 2) 3) 4) 5) Animal Trials 6) Ray Kinnane 7) 8) Japan-Animals blog 9) Wikipedia 10) Hubpages 11) Akita Prefecture site

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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