A history of Japan's wolves packs some hard-hitting ecological lessons
Excuse me while I howl. I’ve been reading Brett Walker’s book on “The Lost Wolves of Japan” and it’s a sorry tale. Japan’s last wolf was killed by hunters near Washikaguchi, in the eastern Yoshino mountains, in January 1905. A monument marks the spot.
For much of Japan's history, wolf and human had rubbed along well enough. Wolves rarely attacked people, and people tended to hunt them only when lupine depredations got out of hand. (It seems that Japanese wolves had a special weakness for fresh horse.)
Indeed, the wolf was often seen as a kind of guardian spirit. Up near Morioka, in the North Country, when farmers encountered a wolf, they’d ask “O lord wolf, what do you say? How about chasing the deer from our fields?" Elsewhere, at shrines dedicated to a wolf-spirit known as the Large-Mouthed Pure God, his help was invoked to keep the fields clear of deer and other pests. The Ainu elevated the wolf to an even higher place in their pantheon. Their wolf-deity, Horkew Kamuy, is the hero of a resurrection myth.
The live-and-let-live attitude to wolves ended in the eighteenth century, when a devastating rabies epidemic spread through Japan. Infected wolves turned into ferocious killers; some even came down into the villages to attack people. (In Kaga, it is recorded, the animals acquired a particular taste for young serving wenches.) Village councils and feudal authorities took the matter in hand, organising mass hunts to deal with the menace.
In Hokkaido, the story was different. When modern ranches were set up in the 1870s to raise cattle and horses, wolves threatened their profitability. In one case, the Niikappu ranch lost 90 foals to wolves within a week. Why were those Hokkaido wolves so aggressive? Perhaps because they were hungry. The woodland deer on which they would normally feed had been decimated by severe winters and also by human predation – canneries had recently been set up in Hokkaido to export venison.
Whatever the reason, the ranchers responded without mercy. Taking their cue from American advisors, they set out traps laced with strychnine and even dynamite. An effective bounty scheme was set up: a wolf pelt or set of feet was worth seven yen. Wolves appear to have been extirpated in Hokkaido before they succumbed in Honshu.
A century later, many of Japan’s mountain regions are overrun with deer. Overgrazing has stripped hills that just twenty years ago were still lushly vegetated. If wolves still existed, they certainly wouldn’t go hungry.
Do they still exist? From time to time, hikers or foresters report that they’ve seen large dog-like creatures running through the woods. A few years ago, writes Professor Walker in his epilogue, members of a wildlife protection committee played recordings of howling Canadian wolves in the woods of eastern Yoshino - in the hope of luring out any survivors. But the forest remained silent.
Brett L. Walker, The Lost Wolves of Japan, University of Washington Press, 2008.
This post is (misleadingly) tagged as a review, but it can't in this space do justice to the depth and range of Professor Walker's book - which also delves into the evolutionary history of the Japanese wolf; investigates the question whether, in fact, there were two species of wolf or wolf-like creature roaming the backwoods; and compares various theories about the wolf's extinction.
See also Wolves in the snow: should Japan reintroduce the wolf?