Four line snake
There are lots of snakes in Japan. Most of them are not venomous. They thrive in the rice paddies where they feed on frogs and small rodents and compete with wading birds who feed on the same animals and even snakes themselves. Snakes are associated with the water goddess Benzaiten. Many shrines for her have images of snakes. There are two main species of nonvenomous snake: the rat snake and the hibakari. The rat snake is often seen in urban areas and around rice paddies. It has red eyes and four distinct black stripes. Equally home in the water and on land, they feed on rats, mice, other mammals, frogs and bird eggs. They swallow their prey whole.

Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Japan is home to about 50 species of snake, the majority of which are endemic species found in the islands between Kyushu and Taiwan. These include the tiny 20-centimeter Miyakohime-hebi, or Pfeffer's reed snake (Calamaria pfefferi), a rare endemic restricted to two islands, Miyakojima and Erabujima; and the habu pit viper (Protobothrops flavoviridis), a thick, deadly venomous species reaching lengths of over two meters. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, January 3, 2013]

In contrast to the Ryukyus, Japan's main islands are inhabited by only eight species of snake. The best known of these is the aodaisho rat snake (Elaphe climacophora). Large specimens can stretch out to close to two meters. The bite is not venomous, but from rich personal experience I can tell you it is extremely painful. Snake teeth are small but sharp, and slanted backward to better grasp prey for suffocating or swallowing.

Snakes Considered Mystic Messengers of Japanese Water Spirits

Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “In addition to being one of the 12 animals of the traditional Asian almanac, snakes are widely revered as messengers and familiars of local deities. Here in Japan, they are primarily associated with water spirits. A good place to look for spiritual snakes is at tame-ike irrigation ponds. In the Kanto region, these are usually formed by damming the upper reaches of a narrow valley, at a spot where water naturally springs or seeps from the surrounding slopes. The water is held in the pond, then directed downstream though a series of canals and ditches to the waiting rice paddies. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, January 3, 2013]

Japanese civilization was built on irrigated rice cultivation, and securing a sufficient source of water has always been the key to successful farming. Naturally, the Japanese, as did people in most of the world, place a high cultural value on spots that form their major source of water. Tame-ike irrigation ponds have traditionally been treated as sacred places, inhabited and protected by spirits known generically as Suijin (literally water deities).

Suijin are typically revered in shrines constructed on small islands in the pond, or at least on chunks of land jutting out from the shore. A good example of this arrangement can be seen at Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park. The Suijin enshrined here is an extremely popular Buddhist deity known as Benzaiten. Benzaiten is sometimes depicted with a coiled snake sitting on top of her head. In rare instances she also appears in a very special avatar, with the body of a coiled snake and the head of a human being. This avatar is known as Jatai-Benzai, or "Snake-body Benzai." A closely related Suijin, also often revered at irrigation ponds, is called Ugajin.

Snake-body Suijin are rare, but you can see a stone statue of Ugajin just above the pond at Inokashira-koen park in western Tokyo. At one tiny irrigation pond in the Saitama countryside, I discovered a wonderful statue of a snake-body Benzaiten, only about a half-meter high, along with a tile plaque depicting a snake that serves as her familiar. In this case, the sculptor went through considerable effort to depict a real snake. The short but thick body, fat head with puffed cheeks holding the poison glands, and mottled markings are clearly those of a mamushi pit viper!

It is perhaps natural that snakes in Japan be associated with water and water-spirits. Snakes here prey heavily on frogs and other small animals that live around the water. The mamushi in particular prefers moist habitats. Also, most snakes have only one developed lung, but this is long and extends well down into the body. When filled with air the lung serves almost like an internal float, allowing the snake to swim effortlessly across the surface of the pond.

Non-Venomous Snakes in Japan

Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: Seven species of snake inhabit the countryside around Tokyo.” Particularly numerous in the past were the rat snakes, classified in the genus Elaphe. These are all relatively large, nonvenomous snakes that feed on frogs and small mammals. Several dozen species of Elaphe ratsnakes are identified worldwide, mostly in the Northern Hemisphere. Here in Japan, there are six native species. Three of these; the aodaisho or Japanese ratsnake (E. climacophora), the shimahebi or Japanese four-lined ratsnake (E. quadrivirgata), and the jimuguri or Japanese burrowing ratsnake (E. conspicillata); are found on the main islands. The aodaisho, whose name means "green general," is the best known of the Japanese ratsnakes. This species, reaching lengths of close to two meters, is the largest of all Japan's snakes, and was once very common in the agricultural countryside. Aodaisho prey heavily on rodents, and as such were considered as valuable allies by the farmers. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, June 21, 2012]

“Twenty years ago, I often encountered massive aodaisho crawling across a farmstead yard, totally oblivious to people working there. When I expressed surprise the farmers would grin and say: "Oh, that's just our o-nushi." This term translates as something like "Honorable Master," and is indicative of the high esteem in which the farmers held these snakes. Aodaisho are excellent climbers, and are able to slither their way right up into the rafters of storage sheds. I was frequently told that they are much better than cats at controlling the local rat and mice populations.

“The shima-hebi resembles the aodaisho in general coloration, but shows more distinct black stripes. Also, the head is slimmer and more pointed, and the eyes reddish rather than deep brown. Shima-hebi feed heavily on frogs, and were once very common in rice paddies and irrigation ditches. The jimuguri, with beautiful reddish brown markings all over their heads, are unmistakable. This species, whose Japanese name means "burrower," spends much of its time in the leaf litter on the forest floor.

“The number of snakes has decline in the satoyama countryside. The reasons for the decline of snakes are still unknown, but one factor may be loss of prey. Snakes are exclusively carnivorous, and will take only live, moving prey. Better systems for storing grain may have reduced rodent populations around many farmsteads, while forest and grass-field rodent populations, as well as frogs, may also be decreasing due to shrinking or deterioration of habitat. Interestingly, farmers I talk to consistently report that pheasant populations have been increasing, and that they frequently see pheasants eating young snakes. Male pheasants are highly aggressive omnivores that will eat just about anything they can catch moving on the ground. Pheasants are also popular game birds, and local hunters sometimes release chicks as a means of increasing the populations.

The aodaisho rat snake can reach lengths of 3½ meters. In Iwakuni City, Yamaguchi Prefecture, there is a natural population of albino rat snakes. They are pure white and have pink eyes. This is the only place in the world where there is an entire population of white snakes. They are thought to bring good luck and because they are believed to be messengers of the good luck goddess Benzau-ten. These snakes are protected by law.

The hibakari is a small snake with a yellowish color and white slash-mark behind the eyes. It is often seen in woodlands and feeds on Japanese tree frogs.

Most cold-blooded reptiles and amphibians hibernate in the winter.

Websites and Resources

Good Websites and Sources: Snakes of Japan ; Venomous Snakes in Japan ; Japanese Giant Salamanders on ARKive ; Wikipedia article on Japanese Giant Salamanders Wikipedia


Good Sites on Wild Animals: Animal Info ;Japan Animals Blog / ; Hub Pages on Wild Animals in Japan ; ARKive (do a Search for Japan or the Animal Species You Want) Animal Picture Archives (do a Search for the Animal Species You Want) animalpicturesarchive

Venomous Snakes in Japan

There are three species of venomous snake in Japan: the Japanese keelpack, the “habu” and “mamushi”. The Japanese keelpack(“yamakagashi”) has distinctive yellow, red and black markings and can be as thick as a man’s arm. Even though it is quite venomous it is generally quite docile and lacks an effective poison delivery system and can even be handled. It is often seen in rice paddies and often feeds on frogs.

The Japanese keelpack possess two poisons: one that is ejected from inside its mouth that subdues prey; and another squirted from special glands at the back of the head that is used against attackers such as weasels, feral cats and tanukis. The keelback’s short fangs at the back its head drip poison in through an open wound and thus they have to bite hard and for a long time for the poison to be effective.

The “habu” is a kind of pit viper found on Okinawa and Amami Oshima island. Related to the mabushi, they are green and brown and often found crawling around on the branches of trees. Habu fatalities are rare. Of the 1,500 people who bitten by them in the 1990s only three people died. The remainder became very sick and had swollen limbs. The last fatality was in 1992.

The longest known habu snake measured 225 centimeters and was displayed at the Okinawa World’s Habu Park. Cobra and mongoose fights and habu and mongoose fights were a form of amusement until 1999 when the fights were banned by new animal protection laws.

Mamushi Pit Viper

The mamushi pit viper is Japan’s most dangerous snake. resembling a copperhead, it has features found in other pit vipers: 1) huge poison glands that puff out their cheek and give their head a triangular shape; 2) long hollow fangs in the front of the mouth that are folded down when the mouth is closes but automatically open when the mouth opens.

Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “The most dangerous snake in the main islands is the mamushi pit viper (Gloydius blomhoffii), a close relative of the North American copperhead and water moccasin. Although armed with a very potent venom, this well-known snake is only a half meter or so long, and usually not very aggressive. Similar species are found on the Asian mainland as well, and dried and powdered mamushi, often mixed with soft-shelled turtle (suppon) has long been used as a general restorative and male sexual enhancer. In Japan, mamushi are also placed in bottles of clear liquor, which is then drunk to prevent or cure colds. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, January 3, 2013]

The mamushi hunts in the day and at night. They have heat sensitive glands that allow them to locate birds and mammals in the dark. They hunt frogs and small mammals and have fangs that inject poison like hypodermic needles. Despite their fearsome appearance they are shy creatures that avoid human contact. People that bitten by them usually try to handle them or accidently step on them. They are sometimes pickled in sake or alcohol are consumed as a health tonic.

Their bite causes tissues to liquify. The father in law of a friend was bitten in the leg by a mambushi while working in a rice field in Okayama. The bit causes the tissues in his calve muscles to melt. His spent some time in the hospital and now has a chunk missing from his lower leg and has some difficulty walking.

Japanese Man Killed by Pet Shop Snake

In April 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “A 66-year-old man has died after apparently being bitten by a nonvenomous snake at a pet shop run by his son in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture. Shoji Fujita's wife found her husband lying on the ground with blood running down his head and arm at the breeding facility attached to the pet shop at about 11 p.m., according to police.Fujita was later pronounced dead at a hospital. An autopsy will be conducted to determine the cause of death. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 17, 2012]

“The police said Fujita went to the breeding facility to check the room temperature at 10:30 p.m. His wife later went in and found her husband lying near a 6.5-meter-long reticulated python, which had escaped from a wooden box. Reticulated pythons are native to Southeast Asia.

Lizards in Japan

Common lizards in Japan include the grass lizard, the Japanese gecko and the five lined skink. The latter is very fast. Young ones have a bright blue tail, which may serve as a diversion against predator attacks. Sometimes they play dead if the are captured. Skinks tend to be fatter than other kinds of lizards.

Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Japan is home to about 30 native species. Most of these, however, are small and inconspicuous, and lizards are not a particularly obvious element in the Japanese fauna. Japan's most common and most frequently encountered lizard is the Japanese grass lizard (Takydromus tachydromoides), found from Kagoshima Prefecture's Yakushima island northward throughout the four main islands. This lizard is called Nihon-kanahebi in Japanese. Although the word tokage is the most widely recognized generic term for lizard in Japanese, in actual species names this term is applied to skinks, which have fatter bodies and shorter legs than the kanahebi, or grass lizards. Geckoes are generally called yamori.” [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, May 2008]

Grass lizards are the most frequently encountered lizards in Japan. Found throughout the four main islands of Japan and colored such that they blend easily with the grass and are hard to spot, they fed on spiders, worms, pill-bugs and various ground-dwelling insects. They mate in the summer, with the males clamping the jaws onto the females rear legs and sliding their bodies underneath to copulate. Short wrote: “The Japanese grass lizard is a quick, agile species. Body length ranges from 15 to 25 centimeters, but about two-thirds of this is accounted for by the long, whip-like tail. Color is an inconspicuous brown with mottled markings in various light and dark shades, and is designed to blend into the leaf litter on a forest floor. When sitting still the grass lizards are thus hard to spot, and to find them you have to watch for rustlings in the grass or leaves.”

“Like most lizards, this species runs by alternately moving the front right and rear left legs together, and then the front left and rear right legs. This action gives the lizards their distinctive "wriggling" motion, which contrasts sharply with the smooth gliding motion of a snake. With a little experience you can instantly tell if a rustling movement on the ground is being made by a lizard or a snake.”

“The Japanese grass lizard will attempt to bite when picked up, but is absolutely harmless. When catching lizards, try to grab them by the body rather then the tail. If held down or picked up by the tail, lizards will often discard it. They do this by squeezing special muscles against a definite fracture plane between the vertebrae. The tail pops off and continues to wriggle, while the muscles also pinch close the blood vessels, minimizing blood loss. Lizards can regenerate a lost tail, but it costs them dearly in terms of energy expenditure.”

“Like most lizards, the Nihon-kanahebi is a predator, feeding on spiders, worms, pill-bugs and various ground-dwelling insects. These lizards are excellent climbers, and will occasionally scurry up tree trunks in search of prey. In turn, grass lizards made delicious snacks for snakes, birds and mammals such as weasels, foxes, tanuki, badgers and even black bears and wild boar.”

“Japanese grass lizards mate and reproduce throughout the summer months. Males clamp their jaws onto the base of the females' rear legs, then slide their bodies underneath to copulate. The eggs are fertilized inside the female's body. A clutch consists of up to eight small white eggs, but a female may mate and lay several times over the course of the summer. The eggs take a month to a month and a half to hatch, and the newly born lizards emerge fully formed and ready to fend for themselves.”

“Many of Japan's lizard species, including the Japanese grass lizard, are endemic, which means they inhabit here and nowhere else. The Japanese grass lizard is widely distributed within Japan, but two other related species have very narrow distributions. The Sakishima grass lizard, or Sakishima-kanahebi (T. dorsalis), for example, is endemic to the Yaeyama Islands in southern Okinawa Prefecture; while the rare Miyako grass lizard, or Miyako-kanahebi (T. toyamai), can be found only on Miyakojima island! Only two other species of lizard are common in the Japanese countryside. These are the Japanese five-lined skink, or Nihon-tokage (Eumeces latiscutatus); and the Japanese gecko, or Nihon-yamori (Gekko japonicus). The skink can easily be distinguished from the grass lizard by their fat bodies and much shorter tails. The geckos also have shorter tails and legs, with splayed toes.”

Frogs and Toads in Japan

Japan is home to 40 species of frogs in five families. The most common is the tiny Japanese tree frog, which is usually green but can change its color to match its background, and the Japanese rain frog. American bullfrogs are commonly seen in Japanese ponds.

Fifteen of Japan’s frog species are regarded as endangered. The Japanese brown frog, which spawns in rice paddies on the coldest days of the year, are now endangered because many of paddies it use to spawn in are drained in the winter. Known in Japan as the Japanese red frog, it lays its eggs in round masses that contain several hundred eggs.

There are Japanese folk stories of giant toads, two to three meters in height, that found high up on mountain streams. According to legend they can breath out great rainbows and use the rainbows to slide prey into their mouth and are able to walk on their hind legs. They are said t be particularly numerous around in the mountains of the Suo region of Yamaguchi Prefecture.

Brown Frogs

The Japanese brown frog (Rana japonica) is a medium-size amphibian that is reddish brown in color (the Japanese name nihon akagaeru means "Japanese red frog"), with an angular dark brown or black patch just behind and below the eye. Two clearly distinguishable ridges run down the back in straight, almost parallel lines. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, February 14, 2011]

Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “These brown frogs are primarily a ground-dwelling species. The webbing between the toes of their back legs is poorly developed, and their sleek and stylish bodies are designed more for continuous high-speed hopping than for actual swimming. Although they do not cover any great distance with each single jump, they land in a way that allows them to immediately take off again. Fleeing across a field or forest floor they look more like miniature hares than frogs.”

“Adult brown frogs spend much of their time on the forest floor, where their color allows them to blend in with the leaf litter. Here they find a wide variety of tasty prey items, including earthworms (mimizu), pillbugs (dango-mushi), ground beetles (osa-mushi), hunting spiders (hashiri-gumo) and centipedes (yasude). They must, however, be constantly on guard against their greatest enemies, rat snakes such as the aodaisho and shima-hebi.”

“Being amphibians, however, the brown frogs must lay their eggs in the water. For some reason, perhaps to minimize predation and avoid competition with other frog species, they breed very early in the season. During warm years they might start as early as the end of January. This year, however, they have waited until mid-February, as least in the Hokuso region of northern Chiba Prefecture. Few people actually see the brown frogs mating. They are active only after dark, and their breeding season tends to be very short. Most of the eggs are laid over a period of only two or three nights. In addition, their mating calls are softer and more subdued than those of other species.”

“The brown frogs' preferred spawing habitat is shallow, still water. They avoid both swiftly running streams and deeper ponds and lakes. In the agricultural countryside, their traditional favorite has been the corners and edges of rice paddies, where water tends to collect even during the off season. Each female deposits her eggs in a round gelatinous mass, about the size of a grapefruit or softball and containing several hundred individual eggs.”

“After spawning, the adult brown frogs return to their winter rest spots. The eggs develop quietly for a month or so before hatching into tadpoles, which will molt and grow throughout the spring and early summer, when the paddies are filled with water for the rice crop. They metamorphose into baby frogs in mid-June, well before the paddies are drained. The tiny baby frogs, fresh out of the water, are as quick of foot as the adults.”

“Like many species of frog worldwide, the Japanese brown frog is facing serious problems. The species is still quite common on the national level, and is not on the Red Data List of endangered species drawn up by Japan's Environment Ministry. In many local areas, however, these frogs are on the verge of disappearing. To survive, the Japanese brown frogs require excellent forest habitat for feeding, as well as aquatic habitat for breeding. In the past, they relied heavily on well-managed oak coppices and traditional wet rice paddies. Recently however, oak coppices have been abandoned and become clogged with dense stands of dwarf bamboo, which completely block the forest floor. Also, the drainage systems for rice paddies have been improved, and many paddies are now completely dry during the fallow season. These well-drained paddies are easy to turn over by tractor, but offer no breeding area for the brown frogs.”

Brown frogs not only require rich woodland and water habitat, they must be able to move freely back and forth between the two. In many areas, deep, straight-sided concrete irrigation channels are being dug between the paddies and the adjacent woodlands. Vertical-sided concrete channels require less space than traditional V-shaped dirt ditches. They are also maintenance-free, while dirt ditches must be dug out by hand each year, a backbreaking task for elderly farmers. The brown frogs, however, are unable to cross the new channels.”

New Frog Species Found on Sado Island in Japan

In December 2012, the Asahi Shimbun reported: “A frog discovered 15 years ago on Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture is a new species, researchers say. Ikuo Miura, an associate professor of genetics at Hiroshima University, along with researchers from the university, Niigata University and the Preservation and Research Center of Yokohama, said Dec. 11 the frog was confirmed as a new species following an examination of its genes and reproductive capacity. [Source: Ryoko Takeishi. Asahi Shimbun, December 26, 2012]

Named “sadogaeru,” the amphibian is the first frog species in 22 years to be recognized in Japan, excluding the Nansei Islands of southwestern Japan, a treasure trove of new species. The frog, around 4 centimeters in length, is similar to the wrinkled frog, a species commonly found in watery environments in Japan. But it differs in the fact it is smaller and has a distinctive pattern on its back and a yellow abdomen.

Since creatures on Sado Island are similar to those on Japan's main island of Honshu, the researchers said it had been believed the chances of finding a separate species on the island would be low. They added that the frog had likely evolved into a unique species after Sado Island was separated from Honshu between 200,000 and 800,000 years ago.

Japanese Toads

Japanese toads are fairly large, measuring to 15 centimeters in length. They inhabit woodlands and bamboo groves and are commonly seen in farming areas around around shrines, temples and farmhouses. They hibernate in the winter and emerge from their burrows around mid-March and gather in shallow ponds and ditches to mate, with males often managing in wrestling matched the Japanese call “ kaeru gassen “. Some matches go on for days.

Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Japanese toads, officially known as hiki-gaeru but familiar to most people as gama-gaeru, or even simply gama.These are large, bulky amphibians, with fully grown adults measuring 15 centimeters from nose to tail. Their skin is warty to various degrees, and their overall brown bodies are decorated with irregular black and cream markings. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, April 7, 2011]

“Toads spend most of their lives on land, favoring the forest floor but also common around shrines, temples and farm buildings. They feed on earthworms, pill bugs, centipedes, spiders and various ground-dwelling insects. Clumsy and slow-moving, they seldom chase after prey, preferring to sit quietly and wait until a choice morsel wanders close by. Then they zap the unfortunate critter with their long, sticky tongues.”

“Although normally lethargic, at this time of year the toads, at least the males, put forth a short but brilliant burst of energy. Just as the kobushi flowers open, dozens of toads assemble in their local pond or drainage ditch. Here the males wrestle each other for the right to mate with the slightly larger females, putting on a spectacular show that rivals that of any professional wrestling troupe. As soon as a female arrives, several hopeful males attempt to position themselves on her back, kicking and pushing and pulling each other for the privilege. Usually one strong male manages to get his powerful forearms locked around the female's waist, then spends the next several hours kicking away potential interlopers.”

“A male toad's waist squeeze is incredibly powerful. Not only are the males' arms heavily muscled, but the upper surfaces of their hands are covered with tough black callouses, called nuptial pads (konin-ryu or daki-dako) in Japanese. These abrasive pads are dug deep into the female's waist, to prevent slipping. To test the power of this grip all you have to do is pick up one of the smaller males that has been kicked aside, and place him on your arm near the wrist. Male toads are exceptionally randy, and will latch onto anything that is about the same size as a female's waist. It's nearly impossible to forcibly pull him off your arm, and in the end the only way to escape is to pry his fingers up one at a time.”

“Eventually the female is ready to spawn, and begins sending out long string of eggs. Fertilization is external, with the male directly on top ideally positioned to spray his sperm over the eggs as they emerge. Smaller males that have been kicked around like footballs also get in on the act, sneaking in from the side and usually managing to contribute at least some of their own sperm. When laying the eggs the female also secretes some chemicals that react with the water and expand into a jellylike substance that surrounds and protects the already fertilized eggs. A single female can lay several thousand eggs, and when finished her string may reach lengths of up to five meters.”

“Once the mating show is over the adults retire from the pond or ditch, going back to their slow, solitary lives. The eggs will soon hatch into tiny black tadpoles, which will in turn metamorphose into baby frogs by mid to late summer. So randy are male toads that they will even attempt to mate with other males. When grabbed (or picked up) by the waist a male toad will emit a series of rapid "guh-guh-guh" cries. This is a release call. In other words he is informing the grabber, be it toad or person, that he is a male himself, so let him go.”

Japanese toads are actually quite easy-going. Normally they patiently allow themselves to be handled, even a bit roughly. They do, however, have a secret weapon to call upon when absolutely necessary. Along a raised ridge behind the eyes are numerous tiny holes. These are the parotoid glands, from which the toad can squirt a milky liquid that contains powerful poisons known as bufotoxins. This poison, if squirted into the mouth of a small to medium-size natural predator, such as a fox, weasel or marten, or even a domestic dog or cat, is strong enough to kill the animal. Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling toads or any amphibians!”

Alien Frogs and Toads in Japan

One of the most commonly seen frogs in Japanese ponds is the American bullfrogs. These behemoths were first introduced to Japan in the early 20th century as poor farmers were looking for new ways to make money and thought they could boost their incomes by exporting frog legs. The program worked. Farmers did make some extra cash but some frogs escaped from ponds and began breeding and multiplying in ponds, rice paddies and irrigation canals. The bullfrogs don’t appear to have disrupted local ecosystems too much. They prefer ponds while indigenous Tokyo daruma pond frogs favor irrigation canals.

Poison marine toads, native to South America and similar to cane toads brought to Australia, were brought to Ishigaki island in Okinawa to combat pests that damage the sugar canes crops there. They have multiplied quickly and spread to Iriomote island, where they present a threat to Iriomote cats who may eat the toad’s venomous skin.

Giant Salamanders in Japan

Among the 22 species of salamanders and newts in Japan, 19 are found nowhere else in the world. These include the Japanese giant salamander; the Japanese fire-bellied newt, with bright red and orange spots on its undersides. Some species are found only in very specific areas. The Hokuriku salamander is found only on the Noto peninsula and hills of Toyama prefecture near the Japan Sea. Abe’s salamander lives only in the Tajima area of Hyogo prefecture.

The Japanese giant salamander can reach lengths of over a meter and can live almost 100 years. It almost as big as the Chinese giant salamander, the world’s largest amphibian, which reach lengths of a meter and a half. Japanese giant salamanders live mainly in rivers in central and western parts of Honshu as well as Shikoku and Kyushu. They used be hunted for food and traditional Asian medicines but now are protected by law, having been designated a special natural monument in 1952.

Chinese giant salamanders and Japanese giant salamanders are very difficult to tell part. Before an international ban on trade of these salamanders came into effect many Chinese giant salamanders — which are raised in farms in China for human consumption — were imported live to Japan for food. One dealer in Okayama obtained 800 of them for sale to restaurants. Some of those that were imported escaped or were released and have interbred with the Japanese species and competed with them for nesting sites and food.

Many of the Japanese giant salamanders seen in rivers in central and western Japan are actually Chinese giant salamanders, which biologists regard as threat to their Japanese cousins. DNA analysis of giant salamanders caught in the wild reveal that many are Chinese not Japanese, with some Chinese ones even showing up in the Tokyo area. One 140-centimeter Chinese giant salamander in the 1990s in Saitama Prefecture’s Arakawa River is still alive and is the largest salamander in captivity in Japan.

In July 2010, the Smithsonian National Zoo announced it would set up a breeding center for Japanese giant salamanders.

In August 2010, Japan’s oldest giant salamander, throught to be more than 100 years old, died of old age in the hot spring resort of Yubara in Okayama Prefecture, where it has been on display since 1971. As it had never been properly measured or weighed claims that it weighed 28 kilograms were not taken seriously. A few days earlier a giant salamander that was at least 55 died Kushiro in Hokkaido. It had been on display for 45 years and weighed 19 kilograms.

Turtles in Japan

Turtles are common sites in ponds at parks, shrines, temples and gardens. They are commonly seen sunning themselves on rocks and logs. Natives species include the grass turtle (“kusagame”), which is found mostly in muddy ponds, lakes and canals, and stone turtles (“ishigame”), which prefer clear water in streams and rivers. The grass turtles are identifiable by yellow-green, scribble-like makings on the sides of their heads. Their shells have three ridges.

Turtles are consumed as a delicacy in Japan. Japanese men consume the blood and meat of local, aggressive soft-shelled turtles and snapping turtles, sometimes mixed with meat and blood of the mamushi pit viper, as an aphrodisiac and a health tonic.

The restauranteur Ryuji Hirasawa came up with an innovation that has changed the face the of the snapping turtle industry. Diners in Tokyo restaurants pay up to US$75 for the pleasure of eating on the delicate, chicken-like flesh, but until Hirasawa came long the reptiles hibernated four months of year and took up three years to mature. Using water from natural springs Hirasawa found that when the water is heated to 88̊F "the turtles forget about sleeping altogether and eat anything that's put in front of them." [Source: Tracy Dahlby, National Geographic, January 1994]

Alien Turtles and Crawfish in Japan

These days one of the most commonly seen turtles in Japanese ponds is the Mississippi red slider, a species native to North America that many Japanese buy when they are young as cheap house pets and then release into ponds when they grow up. The same is also true with snapping turtles introduced to Japan. Huge ones, weighing 10 kilograms, have been found in the Imba Marsh in Chiba. In June 2009, a 37-kilogram alligator snapper was caught in a river in the middle of Nagoya near Nagoya Castle.

Image Sources: 1) 3) 4) Japan-Animals blog 2) Ray Kinnane

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 2021

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