We’re experiencing some of the coldest weather for years. Snow has been forecast on a few days but hasn’t fallen to any real extent. Instead, we’ve experienced days of single digit maximum temperatures – including at least one when the maximum outside converged with fridge temperature, and another when the pipes froze up enough to stop all water to our kitchen until after 11!
Apart from birds – and we know the logistical problems of photographing those with a mobile phone – the possibilities for finding interesting wildlife to write about are quite limited.
I thought I’d take a break from nature and look at some folklore and mythology, and borrowed some books about ghosts and supernatural creatures from my local library. But an apparently real historical account with a strange animal grabbed my interest.
According to the Kikaishu, a pair of strange animals were sighted at a shrine in Edo in the summer of 1799. The larger one escaped, but the smaller one was struck with a stick and brought to the home of the land owner.
The actual description is quite vague. The animal revived, and was observed to eat chicken, fish, and fruit, but ignore grains. It was about the size a small dog, but looked like a weasel. Its colour was black with a yellowish-red patch from its chest to its jaw, interspersed with black spots, but no information is recorded as to the number of toes, whether or not it could climb trees, and the like. What is certain is that the observers were familiar enough with weasels to recognise it as something other than a weasel, ermine or marten.
The illustration is not particularly helpful either – we have no idea as to whether the artist even saw the creature in question.
The creature described in the Kikaishu
However, I believe the mystery animal is a civet.
A masked palm civet, courtesy of Wikipedia
I’ve mentioned the masked palm civet (Paguma larvata) in other posts, and there are arguments as to whether or not it is a native species, a species introduced centuries ago, or a late-19th century or early-20th century import, or possibly even a combination of the above.
I personally suspect its official status as an invasive species and unofficial status as agricultural pest are interlinked – it is easier to declare an animal a pest if it is perceived to not be native.
So, if the masked palm civet (or possibly other civet species) existed in Japan pre-1869, where is the evidence? There appears to be no fossil evidence of viverrids in Japan. However, there are regional variations in Japanese civet’s coat patterns, and differences in skull measurements between Japanese and overseas specimens, suggesting the existence of a native sub-species. And while there are no old records specifically of civets – there was no Japanese name for them at that time – it is easy to imagine them included under the old names of mujina and mami.
Furthermore, there are dozens of cryptids in Japanese folklore. Some believe the civet to be the basis of (at least some of) the legends of the raiju. Raiju (雷獣) – literally “lightning beasts” – were believed to live in the skies but occasionally fall to earth during thunderstorms.
Raiju in an 1841 print by Takehara. These creatures bear more than a passing resemblance to masked palm civets, don’t you think?
The raiju has many regional –and often bizarre – variations, including appearing like a six-legged, two-tailed wolf, a crab that walks on four claws, and a seahorse-like beast. The ones relevant to this post, however, are typically described as: being the size of a dog, cat or mujina; possessing a racoon dog-like coat; having five eagle-like claws; having sharp teeth; and being racoon dog-like in appearance. More about the raiju can be found here.
Masked palm civets are sometimes confused with racoon dogs, badgers, raccoons and even cats to the extent that pest control companies, local governments and NPO groups publish pamphlets on how to distinguish and identify the animals in question. If semi-rural people in the internet age have trouble telling a racoon dog from a civet, imagine how much harder it would have been for an urbanised Edo-ite.
Masked palm civets are partially arboreal and generally nocturnal. However, it is not hard to imagine individuals being knocked out of or forced down from a tree during a thunder storm. Growing to a body length of around 60 cm and a tail of 40 cm, it is significantly larger than a weasel and matches the size of some of the cryptid animals described above. Equally important, civets have five toes on each foot, distinguishing them from cats and racoon dogs. They are omnivores, and like fruit with high sugar content, in addition to small prey.
Now, nothing I’ve said proves anything about the origins of Japan’s masked palm civets. I personally believe that they were most likely introduced – possibly unintentionally – several hundred years ago. I’d be even happier, though, if solid evidence could point to a native population. Hopefully, research will throw more light on the subject.