Tourists flock to Japan year after year for its deeply-rooted traditions, exquisite cuisine, and vibrant popular cultures. However, nature lovers can also indulge in the rich biodiversity that Japan offers. Its vast mountains and forests, coupled with snowy Hokkaido in the north and tropical Okinawa in the south, is home to many interesting and unusual wildlife.

(Raccoon dogs

Often depicted in anime, tanuki can be found throughout Japan, even in the suburb of Tokyo. They were thought to be able to change into human form or into objects, and were mischievous but untrustworthy creatures. However, many temples and noodle shops have tanuki statues for good luck!

Tanuki” by Hideyuki KAMON is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

A typical tanuki statue would have these 8 features, each with a specific meaning:

  1. Hat – protection against trouble or bad weather
  2. Big eyes – to analyse the environment and help make good decisions
  3. Sake bottle – represents virtue
  4. Big tail – provides steadiness and strength until success is achieved
  5. Over-sized testicles – symbolise financial luck
  6. Promissory note – represents trust or confidence
  7. Big belly – depicts boldness and calm decisiveness
  8. A friendly smile
Tanuki Looking Suspicious
Tanuki Looking Suspicious” by Eric Kilby is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Nihonzaru ニホンザル
Japanese macaques)

I’m sure most of you have seen photographs of “snow monkeys” enjoying a hot spring bath. These Japanese macaques are native to Japan and are excellent swimmers. In winter, their fur increases in thickness to keep them warm in temperatures as low as -20°C.

Snow Monkey (4) : a baby watching grooming
Snow Monkey (4): a baby watching grooming” by Takashi Muramatsu is licensed under CC BY 2.0

A popular tourist attraction, Jigokudani Monkey Park (Nagano Prefecture) features hundreds of these monkeys playing in the snow.

Toki トキ
Japanese crested ibis)

With a scientific name as patriotic as Nipponia nippon, the toki deserves our attention. Extensively hunted until 1908, the last wild-born toki died in 2003. Fortunately, captive breeding efforts has successfully reintroduced several of these beautiful birds in Sado Island (Niigata Prefecture), which is one of Japan’s most rice-productive areas. The toki depends on the rice paddy fields to find their prey such as loaches, frogs, snails and more.

Nipponia nippon
Nipponia nippon” by Danielinblue is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Visit Sado toki-no-mori Park to catch a glimpse of this rare bird!

Tsushima yamaneko 対馬山猫
Tsushima leopard cat)

As the name suggests, this critically endangered species can only be found on Tsushima Island (Nagasaki Prefecture). They face threats such as road kills, diseases transmitted from domestic cats and habitat loss. Although similar in appearance to domestic cats, they can be distinguished by a white spot behind each ear.

ツシマヤマネコ (Tsushima Leopard Cat)
ツシマヤマネコ (Tsushima Leopard Cat)” by Toshihiro Gamo is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Those who wish to see them can visit Fukuoka city zoological garden, Inokashira park zoo, Zoorasia Yokohama zoological garden, Toyama family park zoo, or Ishidake zoological garden.

Esayari 餌やり
Animal feeding)

Touted as a national pastime, many Japanese love to feed the animals, from the usual cats and dogs to tanuki, bears, fishes, monkeys and a whole variety of other wildlife. Even tourists, hikers and photographers know to attract these fearless animals with food, so that they can get close for photographs or for pleasure. It is not unusual to see animal feed being sold in temples, shrines, parks and other recreational spots such as “wild monkey parks”.

ヒツジに餌やり” by Ryuta Ishimoto is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Why is this so popular? Some of the possible reasons include taking pity on the animal and wanting to “tame” it, especially when it begs for food.

However, we need to note that esayari is actually NOT ENCOURAGED! Feeding the wild animals allows them to become overly familiar with humans and acquire a taste for human foods, which can result in them raiding our crops. Several Japanese prefectures have taken action against feeding the wildlife through slogans such as:

“Wild animals are not pets.”

“For the sake of coexistence with humans, stop feeding pigeons.”

“Wild monkeys come down to the village and cause a nuisance. Please don’t feed them.”

“To protect their way of life, please do not feed the deer.”

“Food is something we [animals] will find for ourselves.”

“Offering food is not the same thing as love.”

In order to prevent unnecessary killing of wild animals due to human-wildlife conflicts, we should not be feeding them! What do you think?

*Header image by Andrea Schaffer is licensed under CC BY 2.0




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