Waiting for Wolves in Japan

This is a very interesting book, concerned with attitudes to wildlife in the mountain villages of a small region in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. It’s more interesting than that makes it sound, because that draws in attitudes to nature more generally from all across Japan, although the focus is on the one small region where the author did fieldwork.

Throughout the book, he considers the perspectives of three groups; farmers, foresters, and hunters. However, he makes it clear that a large number of people belong to more than one of these groups, because it is very hard to make a living doing any one of them exclusively. Indeed, many residents of the villages have other sources of income as well. The central focus of local attitudes is the damage that wild animals do.

After an introductory chapter explaining the basic situation in Japanese mountain villages, the following chapters consider one type of animal each: Wild Boar, Monkeys, Deer and Serow, Bear, and, finally, Wolves. Wolves stand out because they are generally believed to be extinct in Japan, although there are a few who believe that they are still there in the deep mountains, and the debate is largely about re-introducing them.

None of the animals are subjects of pure hostility, although the damage they do to crops and tree plantations is enough to inspire farmers and foresters to commission hunters to employ lethal force. There is still a recognition that post-war forestry policies have left the animals with little choice about where to get their food, and the declining and aging population of the villages means that it is increasingly difficult to simply scare the animals away.

The clearest message that came from the book was that the rural areas of Japan need a new approach. Since no Agriculture and Forestry Minister has lasted longer than a couple of months this year (one suicide, two resignations, and one who lost his job when the Prime Minister who appointed him resigned), it seems rather unlikely that any leadership will come from the centre. This may be all to the good; it seems that the people living in the mountains believe that the people living in the cities neither understand nor care about their problems, so it is probably better for them to change things for themselves.

The problem with local change is that, when half of the village population is over 60, there isn’t a great deal of surplus energy, and the villages tend to be poor. Since an effective policy is likely to involve tranforming the forests on the mountains, among other things, it’s something that needs long-term commitment, substantial resources, and a lot of energy.

It seems quite possible that people will simply cease living in the mountains of Japan. There are already a number of villages that are completely abandoned, given back to the wild. I’ve seen a couple of documentaries visiting them, and they’re rather eerie. There were no disasters; everyone simply left, when the local authorities could no longer afford to maintain basic services, or when there was no-one else willing to live there. I’m not at all convinced that this is a good trend; the cities are already very crowded. But the imagination and leadership necessary to reclaim the mountains, and create a way of life in which both people and animals can survive, seems to be almost completely lacking.

Posted in Books, Japan.

One Comment

Leave a Reply