Tanukis threatened by
American racoons
Many species and relicts not found in neighboring countries are included in Japan’s fauna. Just as its plant life is greatly diversified thanks to widely differing climatic conditions from north to south, so are the Japanese islands inhabited by animals from contrasting climates: Southeast Asiatic tropical animals, temperate-zone Korean and Chinese animals, and Siberian subarctic animals. Brightly colored tropical coral fish, turtles, and sea snakes flourish in the tropical sea of the Ryukyu Islands, which is also home to the dugong and the black finless porpoise. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

In the sea to the north of central Honshu we find sea lions, fur seals, and beaked whales. Arctic region animals such as the walrus sometimes visit Hokkaido, the northeastern side of which faces the Sea of Okhotsk. On land in Japan’s southern extremity, the Ryukyu Islands are inhabited mostly by tropical animals such as the crested serpent eagle, the flying fox, and the variable lizard. On the mainland islands of Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu wander “tanuki “(racoon dogs), “sika “deer, and mandarin ducks, which are from the deciduous forests of Korea as well as central and northern China. From the Siberian coniferous forests come the brown bear, hazel grouse, and common lizard. The distribution of animals tends not to be continuous because historically the Japanese islands have repeatedly separated from and rejoined the Asian continent, resulting in animal migration that is extremely complex. Furthermore, the animals found in a particular part of Japan are not always the same as those found in corresponding areas of the continent; many are found only in Japan.

Among the species that are endemic to the Japanese mainland are the Japanese dormouse, the Japanese macaque, the copper pheasant, the Japanese giant salamander, and the primitive dragonfly. Likewise, in the Ryukyu Islands, which scholars believe became separated from the continent much earlier than the mainland did, live Pryer’s woodpecker and the Amami spiny mouse. The Shimokita Peninsula, at the northern end of Honshu, is the northernmost habitat in the world of any simian.

In the depth of the sea, such living fossils as the horseshoe crab, the slit shell, and the frilled shark can be found. Still other Japanese aquatic animals are the giant spider crab (the largest crustacean in the world) and the freshwater Japanese giant salamander (the largest amphibian on earth, also said to live almost 50 years).

Asian land salamanders, cicadas, and dragonflies inhabit the islands in many forms. There are eight species of swallowtail butterflies on the mainland alone. Many animals in Japan, however, are facing extinction. For example, the Japanese crested ibis (“Nipponia Nippon”) became extinct in 1997. The endangered species include the Iriomote cat (“Mayailurus iriomotensis”), Japanese otter (“Lutra nippon”), albatross (“Diomedea albatrus”), and stork (“Ciconia ciconia boyciana”).

Animals and Japanese Culture

Animal figures are important in the culture of Japan. Chinese classical literature is the source of many of the beliefs embraced by the Japanese about various animals. In the protohistoric and ancient periods, the Japanese elite adopted from the Chinese such traditional animal symbols as cranes and turtles (for happiness and longevity) and swallows (for a faithful return). Certain animals have special places in the folklore of Japan. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

“The “tanuki “(racoon dog), often seen near villages, has traditionally been thought of as a weird creature with supernatural powers. In old tales it often bewitches people, although its tricks are more frightening than harmful. In fact, it is usually depicted in figurines as a rather comical animal with a big belly and huge testicles, carrying a “sake “bottle.

“The fox has also been considered an animal with supernatural powers, and a messenger of Inari Myojin, the deity of agriculture. Foxes are thought to be clever and tricky. In the olden days they were said to cast a spell on people traveling at night. Sometimes, it was said, foxes would even possess people and make them insane. Belief in Inari still exists today, and the fox is worshipped at Inari shrines throughout the country.

“Buddhist teachings have influenced people’s attitudes toward animals. Until late in the nineteenth century, for example, almost no Japanese would slaughter a four-legged animal, relying instead on fish for their animal protein.

“Then there is the sexagenary cycle of the ancient Chinese calendrical system, in which one animal (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, cock, dog, and boar) represents each subcycle of 12 years. The year 2010 is the year of the tiger, and the next year, the rabbit. Even in today’s Japan, virtually everyone associates his or her birth year with a particular animal’saying, for example, “I was born in the year of the horse” — and it is assumed that one’s character and fortune in life are influenced by the animal representative of their birth year.

Alien Animals in Japan

Alien animals, indigenous to places outside of Japan, have caused havoc in Japan. They have disrupted the local ecosystem and threaten indigenous wildlife. Among the animals that have shown up are alligators, piranhas and goats. Over 200 foreign animals and 246 insects have been counted in Japan.

Alien animals are a threat everywhere but Japan is particularly vulnerable to them because it has a delicate island ecosystem with unique species that have not faced threats from competitors like animals living on the continents.

Gem-faced civets brought in from Southeast Asia, nutria from Latin America, minks from North America and golden-backed tree squirrels and Taiwan squirrel have all caused crop damage and threatened local species. Feral goats are blamed for eating rare plants on the Amami Islands. Siberian weasel introduced to Japan in some places are displacing Japanese natives. Rabbits set free by pet owners are blamed for eating rare kinran orchids in the Tokyo area.

Coypus are small mammals that look like a cross between a beaver and a rat. Native to South America, they were introduced to Japan in the 1930s and bred for their fur, which was used to make winter clothing for the military. Some of the animals were let go or escaped and bred quickly because they have no natural predators. Now they are particularly plentiful in Tottori Prefecture where they are blamed for damaging crops. They have become such pests there that the local government pays a ¥2,000 bounty for every one killed.

North American raccoons, imported as pets in the late 70s following the success of a popular animated series about a boy and his pet raccoon, now range in large numbers across Hokkaido and other places. With no natural predators, they breed freely, eat corn, other crops, chickens and ducks and defecate and urinate and set up nests in the attics of houses. Racoons threaten foxes and the nests of grey herons and other birds. They are particularly threatening to tanukis, severely injured them in fights and aggressively claiming their food, causing tanuki populations to drop.

Raccoon running loose in Kyoto temples are blamed for making holes in roofs, knocking over Buddha statues and eating goldfish in World Heritage Site temples. A campaign has been launched to exterminate them there and other places. Wildlife people catch racoons using a mixture of dog food, caramel corn and sugar-coated, fried bread as bait.

Mongooses, brought to Amami Oshima island south of Kyushu in 1979, were introduced to eradicate the poisonous habu snake. The mongoose population exploded, eating many native animals, such as the rare Amami rabbit, but largely leaving snakes alone. This is because the mongooses are primarily diurnal animals and the snakes are nocturnal. The first mongooses in Japan were brought to Okinawa in 1910 to control rats and habu snakes there. Rats and habu snakes have continued to thrive while less hardy native species have suffered.

In the 2000s, there were a number of unexplained kangaroo sighting in the woods around Asaki in Miyagi Prefecture in northern Honshu. The area is regarded as too cold for kangaroos.

Alien insects are a problem. They can damage the environment and farms. Rare cross breeds of stag beetles have been released, threatening local species.

Websites and Resources

Good Websites and Sources: Ministry of Environment on Alien Species ; Invasive Alien Species Act pdf file ; Alien Raccoons in Japan pdf file ; Alien Invasive Slider Turtles ; Lake Biwa Fish Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Journey to Lake Biwa


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

Alien Fish in Japan

Alien fish which have shown up in Tamagawa River in Tokyo included piranhas, tiger oscars and silver arowana from the Amazon, alligator gars from North America, crown loach from Indonesia and polypterus palmas from Africa. Most of are believed to have originated in household aquariums.

Black bass and blue gills, introduced from the United States, have increased rapidly in Japanese lakes and squeezed out indigenous fish such as “koi” (carp) and “funa” (crucian carp). Other introduced species such as American channel catfish, which can reach a length of four feet, and alligator gars, aggressive fish with big teeth, also threaten local fish. In some rivers there are large populations of guppies that have bred from pet fish left in the river.

Black bass (also known as large mouth bass) are a favorite catch for fishermen in the United States. They were intentionally released in Japan by fishing enthusiasts and bait salesmen as well by some local organizations hoping to attract fishermen. Black bass can lay eggs up to three times year and they are voracious carnivores that feed on the eggs and fry of other fish. The first black bass were reportedly brought from California and placed in Lake Ashi near Tokyo in 1925 by a fishermen who found them sporting to catch. Over the years more were introduced and spread, with some even finding their way into the moat around the Imperial Palace.

Blue gills are fast-reproducing and highly adaptive fish that feed on the eggs of indigenous fish. It is not uncommon to see children with a bucketful of them after a day of fishing in a local canal or lake. They have been intentionally released by fishing enthusiasts and bait salesmen because they are easy to catch and grab at almost any bait. The first blue gills were reportedly given as a gift in 1960 to the crown prince of Japan by the mayor of Chicago.

Hard clams — a species native to North America and the basis of clam chowder — are thriving in Tokyo Bay. They were first found in the 1990s and likely arrived in the ballast of commercial ships. Alien species found in the Tanawa River which empties into Tokyo Bay include black bass and tropical fish such as guppies and arowana. The Northern Pacific starfish, a species native to waters off Japan, has been carried in ballast water in Japanese ships to Australia, where it has damaged fish farms.

Among the species adopted for the “if you can’t beat ‘ em, eat ‘m” strategy are channel catfish which are fried and made into catfish burgers and crawfish which are used to make capriccio, salads and soups. Both species are native to North America. In some places the channel catfish are sliced up as sashimi and marketed as “river fugu” (fugu is the famously toxic puffer fish, which is regarded as delicacy in Japan).

Alien Fish in Lake Biwa

The problem with foreign species is particularly acute in Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake, near Kyoto. Thirty-five species of foreign fish have been caught by local anglers while numbers of indigenous fish have declined. By some estimates blue gills now make up 80 percent of the lake’s total fish population. One a fishermen who caught 300 fish in one spot said all the fish he caught were blue gills.

The problems has become so worrisome the local authorities have introduced harsh penalties for anyone caught releasing foreign species and set up patrols to look for them. In April 2003, a new law took effect that penalized any fishermen for releasing a foreign fish after it is caught. Fishermen sharply opposed the ban. They say that releasing bass after they are caught is a fundamental aspect of bass fishing and that bass don’t cause a serious problem the blue gills do. About $2 million a year is spent on trying to get rid of blue gills in Lake Biwa.

Catching heaps of black bass and bluegills is fine but what do you do with all the unwanted fish? Recipes for bluegill sushi and fermented bluegill have been introduced on website to encourage people to eat the fish. A company called Suzuki Shofudo has come up with the rather novel idea of carbonating the fish by steaming them for a day and letting them dry out until they are black and selling them as deodorizers that are said to be more effective than even the best charcoal filters.

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.

Crawfish from the United States were introduced to feed the frogs. They too escaped are bred and multiplied and are now one of the most numerous species in Japan, found throughout Kyushu and Shikoku and everywhere on Honshu except the northern part of the island. Crawfish have thrived in places were local fish and crabs have been wiped out by declining water quality. They are an important food source for weasels and birds such as egrets and kingfishers.

The signal crayfish is an alien species from North America released is Lake Mashu in Hokkaido in 1930. Conservationists blame it for driving local species of crayfish but gourmet value it as a tasty food often referred to as lake lobster.

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 poisonous skin.

Cane toads — creatures that have caused major havoc in Australia after being introduced there — are also taking over Ishigakijima Island in Okinawa Prefecture. The toads — which are 8 to 16 centimeters long and produce a strong toxin — are vociferous eaters and lay up 50,000 eggs at one time. The toads were introduced to the island in 1979 to help exterminate a scarab beetle that damages sugar cane.

Pesky Animals in Japan

Damage caused to agricultural products by deer, wild boar and other wild animals has been rising year by year, reaching over $250 million in 2009, up $17 million from the year before. One of the biggest problems controlling these animals is that there are not enough hunters to hunt them and the hunters are getting older and older. Few young people are interested in hunting, plus many Japanese find the idea of killing animals abhorrent and don’t like guns.

Reports of crop damage by animals such as raccoons, wild boars, deer, civets and bears is often tied with shortages of wild nuts and other food eaten by the animals in the wild.

Netting and fencing have been set up in some parks and reserves to protect rare plants from foraging deer and other animals.

In 2008, local governments began obtaining hunting license for some of their employees so they could help cull monkeys, bears, wild boars and other animals that raid crops and cause other problems because not enough hunters could be found.

In October 2010, a driver killed six wild boars on a road in Mitoyo, Kagawa Prefecture but was not hurt himself.

Deer Problems in Japan

Large-scale deer culls are being carried on Yakushima island and in other places because of the damage the deer cause to local flora.

Deer also cause a lot of problems for Japan’s railway companies. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Hokkaido Railway Co. trains were involved in 2,029 incidents’such as collisions and emergency stops — with Yezo shika deer in fiscal 2009. That figure is about 1.5 times the 1,317 incidents reported in fiscal 2006.The number of deer-linked dramas reported by Kyushu Railway Co. jumped from 139 in fiscal 2006 to 259 in fiscal 2009. And Central Japan Railway Co. has had to deal with 479 collisions with deer and other animals in fiscal 2009, up from 271 in fiscal 2005.” [Source: December 11, 2010]

“On a single day in October, nationwide freight train operator Japan Freight Railway Co. reported four collisions with animals on the Sanyo Line, which runs between the border of Hyogo and Okayama prefectures and in Hokkaido. Long-haul trains operating between Tokyo and Fukuoka stations on that day were delayed by as long as eight hours due to inspections after the incidents.”

“According to the Environment Ministry, about 250,000 deer were captured through control efforts in fiscal 2008, up from 190,000 in fiscal 2005. The ministry offered several possible reasons for the apparent population increase: 1) Deer have expanded their grazing range in recent years due to less snow; 2) Abandoned farmland in mountainous regions has been providing good feeding ground for the animals, which has encouraged more breedingl 3) Fewer people are hunting, a change attributed to the aging of the population.

Dealing with the Deer Problems in Japan

Lion droppings were the basis of one theory tested by West Japan Railway Co. The firm got the droppings — the scent supposedly scares deer away — from a zoo in Wakayama Prefecture and scattered them around railway tracks.

The ploy was effective at first, but deer gradually became used to the smell and became unafraid. The tendency for rain to wash the lion droppings away proved to be another flaw in the plan, but not the last. "It smells terrible," a JR East spokesperson told the Yomiuri Shimbun . "And it's not effective enough to be worth putting up with, so we gave up on the plan."

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported, “Now, the company is reducing the speed of trains traveling through accident-prone areas at night, when it is most difficult for drivers to spot deer. For about 10 years, JR Hokkaido drivers have been trying to scare deers off by flicking the trains' headlights off and on. Two-meter-tall stainless-steel wire fences have been erected to keep animals off the tracks, but only along 38 kilometers of 2,500 kilometers of track.

Image Sources: Japan-Animals blog

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 July 2012

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