Because of densely populated areas like Tokyo, Japan is usually not considered a refuge for wildlife. However, contrary to popular belief, Japan is home to many unique animals, some not found in any other part of the world. In fact, Japan has a long history of revering animals and holding them in deep regard. Wildlife, and the natural surroundings in which animals live, is one of the most important foundations of Japanese culture and spirituality. During the Edo period, heavy restrictions were placed upon the hunt and capture of animals. During this time, animals flourished and grew in number. However, once the shogun rule ended in 1868, and Emperor Meiji reigned, the laws concerning animals were relaxed, and animals were once again hunted and killed.
In the plain areas, where Tokyo is located, animals are maintained at a minimum and aren’t seen as part of the landscape. However, in the more fertile terrain and in the mountainous areas, the climate is such that it makes the perfect home for a number of exotic, beautiful, and rare animals.
Perhaps the most well-known animal that comes out of Japan is the snow monkey. An Old World monkey, (the real name is the Japanese macaque), this animal is native to Japan and can be found in the central and northern forest areas. The macaque has a bright red face that is hairless and has thick brown or gray fur. The snow monkey grows to be about two to four feet in length and weighs anywhere between 20 and 40 pounds. The male snow monkey is usually about twice the size of a female, and most live in groups of a dozen to over 100.
Snow monkeys are inherently intelligent, and have interesting social skills. They have been seen using ‘tools’ that are made from forest items, and they have a dynamic communication system between them. Snow monkeys seemingly make reference to, or at least recognize age, strength, size and family relationships. In Japanese culture, the snow monkey is revered, even seen as a messenger of the Shinto gods and often as a sign of success, fortune or fame.
The snow monkey can survive in even the harshest environment, but they are increasingly threatened with endangerment due to the increase of human population and development. As more developments encroach upon the habitat of the snow monkey, this animal is forced to survive by raiding orchards and fields for food. While trying to survive, these survival endeavors put the snow monkey at risk of being killed by farmers.
Another animal that is indigenous to Japan is the red-crowned crane. Many migratory birds find their home in Japan in the winter months. This particular bird measures about five feet tall, and weighs approximately 25 pounds. The red-crowned crane has a long black neck with a white nape and a red crown (thus their name). The body of the red-crowned crane is completely white, except for their secondary and tertiary feathers which are black. Red-crowned cranes have an intricate mating performance. When mating season draws near, the male and female cranes bow, run, jump and flap their wings for each other. They court each other with songs, calls and other vocal notes. The dances and songs help the cranes to form and thus maintain a bond as a pair, which lasts for a lifetime among cranes.
The red-crowned crane lives on the island of Hokkaido in the northern Japanese islands and is semiaquatic, inhabiting marshes, grasslands, bogs, rivers and streams. The red-crane is a Japanese icon and is used in Japanese imagery in both art and history. Red-crowned cranes have recently been near the point of extinction. During the 20th century, this was particularly true because they were hunted to such a large degree. However, the Japanese government enacted strong protection measures and there are now about 1,000 red-crowned cranes living in Japan. In similarity to the plight of the snow monkey, the red-crowned crane now faces an uncertain future due to the encroachment of agricultural and industrial developments threatening its’ habitats.
Whooper swans are another migratory bird that makes Japan their home during the winter months. The whooper swan is a large white swan with a black and yellow bill and a wingspan of about seven feet. The whooper swan is closely related to the North American trumpeter swan. Their natural habitat consists of lakes, estuaries, bogs and marshes, and the bird needs a large area of water to exist because their body weight cannot be supported by their legs for a very long period of time. Because of this, the whooper swan spends most of its’ time swimming or looking for food on the bottom of water bodies. Whooper swans feed by sticking their head and neck into the water to eat invertebrates and aquatic plants. Like the red-crowned crane, the whooper swan usually mates for life. They are highly social and can be very aggressive and defensive.
The Steller’s Sea Eagle is one of the heaviest eagles in the world, and makes its winter home in Japan. The average size of this eagle is about 33 to 41 inches long and it’s wingspan is 77 to 91 inches long. Females, on average, weigh about 15 to 20 pounds, with males averaging a little less, anywhere from 11 to 13 pounds. The Steller’s Sea Eagle feeds mainly on salmon, trout and cod. Outside of fish, the Steller’s eagle also preys on water dwelling birds like ducks as well as a few mammals like seals.
The Japanese Sika Deer is native to Japan, but has been since introduced to other regions of the world. However, the Sika deer remains common in Japan, as opposed to scattered and reduced in number in other areas of the world. In Japan, there are hundreds of thousands of Sika deer still inhabiting the land. In fact, because of recent decades of conservation, and virtual extinction of wolves (the main predator of the Sika deer), Japan has an overpopulation problem with regard to the deer. Hunting is now encouraged, so that the farmlands will not be threatened by the deer. The Sika deer is one of the only types of deer that does not lose its spots with age. The spot patterns are usually associated with region or habitat. The coloring of the Sika deer ranges from a brown/mahogany to black. They are very rarely white.
Japanese folklore has long accounted for the existence of the Tanuki, or Raccoon Dog. The raccoon dog is not a dog at all, but rather resembles a raccoon because of the dark black circles around their eyes. But, the raccoon dog is also not closely related to the raccoon either. The raccoon dog is actually a member of the canid family, which consists of wolves, jackals and coyotes. This ‘dog’ resembles the South American fox, and is usually a grayish-brown color, with darker stripes on its’ tail (although its’ summer fur is a little lighter, almost reddish-brown. Raccoon dogs feed on mice, amphibians, birds and fish. Fruit and plants are considered highly valuable to the raccoon dog for food, and in Japan, they are often seen searching for fruit in high trees. They are able to climb high trees by using their curved claws.
Raccoon dogs were commonly hunted and killed for their fur, even though their fur is generally considered coarser than other animals. Typically, the fur was used for fur linings. And, in some parts of Japan, the Raccoon dog flesh was used as a Japanese delicacy and their bones have been used for medicinal purposes.
The Japanese River Otter is a member of the weasel family and can reach about 28 inches in length. This otter was populous among the rivers throughout Japan, but because of pelt hunting, the number of river otter has dramatically decreased. The official animal symbol of the Ehime Prefecture, its’ coat has a thick, lush fur and is dark brown in color. It is a nocturnal creature, and only leaves its den at night in order to search for food.
The last sighting of the River Otter was in the southern part of the Kochi prefecture in 1979. Since that time, confirmation of the existence of the river otter has not been officially confirmed. It is now categorized as a “critically endangered” species. Researchers are still working to verify whether or not the river otter still exists in Japan today. During the 1990’s, various attempts were made at proving the existence of the river otter. On one occasion, the Environmental Agency of Japan set out to find evidence of the otter, and found both tracks and hair, thought to belong to the otter. The agency claimed that this was solid evidence of the otter’s existence. A few years later, a zoological excursion set up cameras for over a year in order to record the river otter, but no animal was caught except a few raccoon dogs. Still, even after such expeditions to locate the river otter, Japan has no official record of the otter’s existence.