2017/05/20 What's On
A Guide To Unique Japanese Animals
by Jordan Mounteer
One of the benefits of being an island nation is that Japan plays host to a whole variety of unique animals that can only be found there, in much the same way that Australia has its share of endemic flora and fauna. But unlike Australia, Japan’s wild animals are a bit more affable – whatever it is about Japanese culture that seems to engender the idea of “cute”, the critters that call Japan home seem to have gotten the memo too. We look at some of the more unique species that are well known in Japan.
It’s nearly impossible to spend any amount of time in Japan and not come across tanuki – and while you may not actually see the live version of the animal, there are numerous statues and icons of the furry racoon-like creature. They have long played an important role in Japanese mythology, and have often taken on the role of shapeshifters or jokesters, in much the same way that Canadian First Nations have the Raven as their trickster spirit. To look at one, you would easily figure it to be a cross between a racoon and a badger, and indeed in many cases they can be just as mischievous, getting into garbage bins and stealing food. But whereas racoons are treated poorly, there is an embedded respect for the tanuki – despite the fact that as figurines and statues they are often displayed with exaggerated and enlarged scrotums, a feature that was humorously picked up on and added during the Kamakura period.
Just as the tanuki is seen as a mischievous creature, the kitsune (or fox) has an equally robust and obscure reputation as being a spiritually significant creature. They were often thought to be able to shapeshift into human form, and unlike their racoon brethren did so in order to fool or tempt human beings. This was usually done by shifting into a beautiful woman. At the same time, there are plenty of stories of them acting as guardians or companion spirits, and their power was often rooted in how many tail they had. The more tails, the more power they were able to exert, and this eventually gave birth to the idea of them being messengers of the Shinto deity Inari Okami. In reality, the foxes of Japan are curious creatures, and unusually docile, although the truly wild ones do their best to keep their distance from humans. They are divided between two sub-species of red fox, and are very loosely related to modern day canines. There is even a fox sanctuary in Shiroishi where numerous fox can be seen and even interacted with in a large open enclosure.
Large Japanese Hornet
Well, not all creatures in Japan are that pleasant. Because it is a semi-tropical climate, there are also a number of varieties of insects and arthropods that aren’t quite as cuddy. Of these, the large Japanese hornet is perhaps the most fearsome. Like other wasp species, they usually build their paper-like nests in trees but have been known to build them in dry alcoves (like a stump) or in the sides of hills and dirt mounds. They are considered the world’s largest hornet and grow up to 4.5 centimeters in length and have a wingspan of 6 centimeters. The sheer size of these insects contributes to their Japanese name which translates roughly to ‘giant sparrow bee’. These hornets have often been known to attack honeybees in order to feed on them, flying right into a nest, and it is estimated that one hornet could kill upwards of 40 honey bees in a minute. A whole swarm of hornets could knock out an entire bee colony in less than ten minutes. Luckily, though, the bees have a defense mechanism – when they isolate the hornet as a threat they release a pheromone and swarm the hornet with their bodies. By flapping their wings furiously and holding onto the hornet, they actually create a convection like oven effect, cooking the hornet and killing it with heat. If you are ever walking in the woods and hear a gentle thrumming sound, this is a good indication that there are hornets around, so step carefully!
Red Crowned Cranes
Another animal with a mythological history is the red crowned crane. In Japanese folklore they are often seen as a sign of good luck and of prosperity and long life, and were once believed to be able to live for 1000 years or longer. They are easily identified by their black and white bodies which resemble herons, and by the red crest on top of their heads where they get their names from. They tend to live in wetter areas like swamps and marshes, and their diets consist of a variety of other animals including frogs, fish, and other reptiles and amphibians. What really makes them stand out though is when they’re flying. Their snow white bodies and bellies are a sharp contrast against a blue sky, and the black frills along the edges of their wings almost seem to highlight their elegant colors. In fact, they’re such an iconic bird that you’ve probably seen one already – they’re the bird displayed on Japanese Airlines logo!
Another ‘not so cute’ animal endemic to Japan, but an important one nevertheless, is the giant spider crab. This huge creature is one of the largest species of crab anywhere in the world, and its long legs, sometimes reaching upwards of six feet in length, have contributed to their analogy of being ‘spiders of the deep’. Ironically these giant creatures weren’t always on the top of the menu, but they have become a bit of a delicacy nowadays in Japan and abroad, and can cost a pretty penny. Early fishermen once noted that the crabs were particularly dangerous due to their claws and pincers, which could inflict considerable damage if you weren’t careful. In recent years this benthic giant has been the subject of conservation efforts as overfishing and crowding have begun to diminish their numbers.
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