Invasion of the Turtles

27 Apr

Hi blog.

We’ve had some glorious weather, perfect for cycling to work.  The home trip is not quite as satisfying, mostly because of the tiny flying insects that swarm under the trees in the late afternoon and collide with my face.

I’ve spotted pheasants, both male and female, a masked palm civet, seen the feeding habits of crows, heard the cries of thrushes and bush warblers… pity that the ride ends at work!

I’ve seen the Mississippi red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) too.  I’ve mentioned them in an older post, and have often wondered why the local governments don’t seem to be doing anything about them.

Alien invasion! Walk for you lives!

Then this article from the Japan Times made its way into my news feed:

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/04/26/national/social-issues/alien-red-ear-sliders-greatly-outnumber-japans-turtles/#.VyB6bzCLTIW

 

Alien red-ear sliders greatly outnumber Japan’s own turtles

BY DAISUKE KIKUCHI

STAFF WRITER

APR 26, 2016

Invasive red-ear slider turtles now vastly outnumber endemic Japanese turtles and are causing significant stress to the ecosystem, the Environment Ministry said Friday.

A study has put the number of red-ear sliders at 8 million, eight times the total population of endemic species.

Originally from the United States, the animals are widely kept as pets. However, they can grow to a considerable size and are often dumped in ponds and rivers when they outgrow their lodgings.

The species is known in Japan as midorigame and in some other countries as the red-ear terrapin.

“The growing population of red-ear slider turtles would mean the depopulation of insects, fish and other turtles that live on water weeds,” Masato Morikawa, an official in charge of monitoring alien species, told The Japan Times on Monday. “The population has gradually but continuously been increasing over the years.”

The species is believed to have been introduced after World War II. From the 1970s, the animals were widely sold at matsuri (festivals) and pet shops.

It is only one of several invasive turtle species now displacing local species.

The ministry said red-ear slider turtles have mainly colonized waterways in Kanto, Chubu and the Inland Sea areas. The entire population is estimated to consume up to 320 tons of water weeds each week.

Morikawa conceded that the need to control other alien species is more pressing as they can cause harm to humans: the poisonous red-back spider and the snapping turtle, which can bite off a finger, are among the priorities.

“At this point, the red-ear slider turtles are exterminated only in areas that are extremely overpopulated, but we are strengthening measures against them,” he said.

The ministry plans to restrict imports, crack down on the abandoning of pets and step up culls.

Article ends.

The writer did make a noticeable mistake in the article – baby red-eared sliders are known as midorigame whereas the species is known as akamimigame or, more correctly, mishishippi akamimigame.

Many people are unaware that it is not a native species.  Others simply take the dichotomal view that it is “foreign” as opposed to “Japanese” – rather than the infinitely more accurate and helpful “introduced” or “feral” as opposed to “native”- and therefore has some natural advantage.  (Much the same way foreign-born sumo wrestlers somehow have an unfair natural advantage… because…  er… reasons)

Red-eared sliders do have certain advantages in this case.  Firstly, they mature at an earlier age than the native turtles they compete with.  They also grow larger, enabling them to successfully compete for basking and nesting space, plus acting as a deterrent against would-be predators.  Thirdly, they are omnivores – the young have a tendency towards carnivorous habits while older turtles prefer plant material – and will feed on either plant or animal matter as need dictates.  Finally, the Japanese suburban and semi-rural environments lack predators that significantly impact their population.  The Mississippi red-eared slider’s natural enemies include alligators, raccoons, and skunks, all missing from the Japanese ecosystem.  Foxes and badgers may prey upon young turtles, but these are noticeably absent from most suburban environments.

My take: The reason for these turtles damaging the environment can be put down to human irresponsibility.  No kind of permit is required to buy the babies sold at shops or even stalls.  A lack of understanding of the responsibilities involved (“What?  I’m supposed to look after this for the next 30 years?”) plus a complete absence of any understanding of the biology of the sliders – like that they don’t remain babies forever.

They start off small, cute and green… but grow to be not small, not cute and not green.

I really have a disdain for killing reptiles, but I feel that culling will be the only way to control their numbers, in addition to banning further imports and restricting ownership.

Stop Hogging Our Island!

19 Apr

Hi blog.

This one showed up on my news feed today.

Courtesy of the Japan Times.

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/04/19/national/sea-borne-invasion-wild-boars-japanese-island-leaves-residents-despair/#.VxYa3DCLTIV

Sea-borne invasion of wild boars on Japanese island leaves residents in despair

BY NAZUNA NAGAI

KYODO

An increase in wild boars has upturned the balance on a small island in the Genkai Sea, with the animals outnumbering residents three-to-one.

Over 300 boars are now living on the 2.8-sq.-km Kakara Island, which lies off the coast of Saga prefecture.

While there have been no injuries so far, “People will be forced off the island if the current situation continues,” said a resident of the islet, population 100.

The boars arrived about 15 years ago. They are thought to have swum the 3 kilometers from Kyushu.

Even today, boars are occasionally seen swimming off the island. Teruki Kawasaki, 27, a local Japan Coast Guard official, saw a pair of boars swimming while he was aboard a patrol boat. They were “good swimmers,” he said.

Boars have thrived on Kakara due to an absence of natural predators and an abundance of crops, including pumpkins and sweet potatoes, said a an official of Karatsu city, Saga Prefecture, which the island belongs to administratively.

Islanders had hopes of producing cosmetics from camellias growing in clusters on the island to generate revenue and promote tourism, but the boars have inflicted widespread damage.

The island has steep cliffs, making it difficult to hunt the boars with dogs. So islanders set up traps in bushes and capture around 50 boars a year, but they are unable to keep up with the growing population. A sow can give birth to five or six piglets each year.

At night, islanders are forced to use cars when they go out because the boars roam close to their homes. The two children on the island are driven to and from the local elementary school by their parents.

An increasing number of villages in Japan sell boar meat as a specialty, but most households on Kakara rely on fishing. “We cannot become hunters. . . . We have our hands tied,” said Toshiyuki Tokumura, a 66-year-old squid fisherman.

Article ends.

Hmm… an interesting problem.  It sounds like an inability to adapt that is driving the island to extinction rather than wild boars alone…

Scary Statue

19 Apr

Hi blog.

Sorry things have been too quiet for too long at Wild in Japan.  I’ll save you the excuses and get on with this quick post.

Unfortunately, between me starting this post and now that series of large earthquakes struck Kumamoto and Oita, leaving dozens dead and thousands homeless.  My thoughts are with the people trying to put their lives back together.

I’ve actually had this on the back-burner for  several years, waiting for a suitable opportunity to photograph and research some statues.

Well, I have changed schools, and in an attempt to avoid the heavy traffic of route 50, my chosen route takes me past this particular statue.

 

Apparently, this Jizo was erected in 1685, some 20 years after the land development of the village of Mizuno began.  It is thought that the statue is to the placate the souls of those who died during that period.  Some also claim that it cures children’s illnesses.

This particular Jizo has the names of 48 people associated with its construction carved into it.  Interestingly, the descendants of some of those very people work the very same fields that they opened some 350 years ago.

Many Jizo statues have a nickname, and this one is no exception – it has no fewer than three names:  Bake-Jizo (化け地蔵), Yonaki-Jizo (夜泣き) and Bakku-Jizo (抜苦地蔵).

The Jizo. That is Sanskrit on the bib and the post to the right. The Kanji at the top of the post links it to the Shingon sect.

The most common of these is Bake-Jizo – basically “Ghostly Jizo” – and it is said to have stemmed from a prank involving a face carved into a watermelon with a candle placed inside and strung from a tree near the statue.  A traveller at night reported seeing the ghostly spectacle and the name stuck.

Others, however, say the name simply comes from its remote location.  I’m also willing to believe it may simply be a corruption of Bakku-Jizo (bakku being derived from the Buddhist term bakku-yoraku (抜苦与楽) about the release from suffering).

Keeping my eyes open on the trip、 I noticed at least three stone markers on the same stretch of road.  The area also has several private cemeteries, so it is a haven for stone monument fans.  Pheasants are also sometimes to be seen, and I have spotted a male there several times in the last week or so.

A late 19th century Bato Kannon stone.

 

A stone marker.

 

Another Bato Kannon.

Finally, I was recently stopped by police in that area.  A patrol car passed me and pulled me over.  The officer asked for some ID.  When I asked what was up, he replied that it was a security measure for the local transformer station ahead of the G7 Summit – several hundred kilometres away!!

Oarai for Sharks

27 Mar

Hi blog.

Well, much of March was was mediocre at best – by the mid-point of the month we had experienced our coldest March for some 32 years.  Rain and cold was the order of the day.  Then we had some splendid weather, and then winter’s revenge.

I’ve been busy with work functions, and the lack of wildlife was really going to keep me away from the keyboard – until an early-morning call from the in-laws.

“Do you want to go to the Oarai Aquarium?”

(I don’t care if that question was aimed at the kids.  You know what my answer is.)

Aqua World in Oarai, Ibaraki, boasts the largest number of shark species of any aquarium in Japan.  It managed to find its 15 minutes of fame a couple of years ago, thanks to one of its sand tiger sharks.

From the Metro News, May 2nd, 2014

http://metro.co.uk/2014/05/02/shark-tries-to-swallow-smaller-shark-in-japanese-aquarium-tank-4716833/

You’re gonna need a bigger aquarium.

Staff at Aqua World in Oarai, Japan, witnessed the brutal hierarchy of the sea when a large nine-foot sand tiger shark attempted to eat a smaller white tip reef shark with whom it shares its tank.

The attacker attempted to eat his intra-species prey for 40 minutes, until giving up due to it being too chewy.

A caretaker on an early morning shift caught the star attraction predator attempting to swallow the smaller fish whole after failing to puncture the reef shark’s tough skin.

The sharks in the tank tend to ignore each other as they are fed regularly to avoid such incidents.

The sand tiger shark in question had not been eating for weeks, leaving staff worried about its lack of appetite.

The reef shark was finally rescued by staff members but was too badly mauled and later died from its wounds.

 

The New York Daily News had a similar article, but managed to get the species of shark wrong!

 

A female also expelled a still-born foetus in December last year, the first time one of the species has been confirmed pregnant in captivity in Japan.  The official web page (in Japanese only) can be found here.

 

The sand tiger shark (Carcharias taurus) has several other English common names – in Australia, for example, it is usually known as the grey nurse shark.  The Japanese name is, as some of my regular followers may remember,  shirowani (白鰐).

The business end of the sand tiger shark.

Sand tiger shark patrolling its tank.

Apart from the sharks, there was plenty of other marine life on display.

Japanese spider crabs

 

Moon jellyfish

 

Green turtle with a school of Japanese pilchards in the background.

 

A whirlpool of Japanese pilchards. Unfortunately, some people think that the tank label should include a recipe!

Unfortunately, the dolphin and sea lion show tends to also draw crowds.  I never really feel entirely comfortable watching animals perform, especially when they are purely for entertainment purpose (the names of the species were not even mentioned).  I might be a little more forgiving if there was less emphasis on music and lights and more of “this is a bottlenose dolphin…”

Other than that, however, I enjoyed the trip.

 

 

 

Stupid in Japan

13 Mar

Hi blog.

The signs of spring are well and truly here – cherry blossoms have made their appearance, I’ve heard the call of bush warblers, daffodils are flowering, turtles can be seen on warm days, and the graduation/entrance ceremony double-punch preparations are underway.  That doesn’t mean the cold is over, however; the minimum temperature one day might exceed the following day’s maximum.

Unfortunately, I have developed mild hay fever, specifically to cryptomeria.  All those years of mocking the Japanese “allergy to nature” have come back to haunt me…

The 27th anniversary of my first arrival in Japan is approaching, along with my seventeenth year of teaching English.  I’m feeling a tad cynical again, so I think we’ll look at some of the silly things that I have experienced over the years.

 

Amazingly, I can still remember the first thing any student ever said to me on my first day at Ryokuyo High School, Obihiro, Hokkaido in April 1989.

“Hi, I am baseball player.  You like Bon Jovi?  You like sex?  You teach me sex?”

So at school barely five minutes, and I already wanted to punch someone in the face.  (It probably also helped establish baseball’s status as my mortal enemy)

During my first month, I was subjected to meeting Tom Cruise  at least a dozen times…

Seriously, this happened several times a day for weeks on end.

And, of course, I was the subject of much curiosity – remember, we are talking about a school in a remote city in Hokkaido in the 1980’s that had never hosted an exchange student before – so there were what seemed to be a billion questions.  The most frequent questions or exchanges that I found myself on the receiving end of were of the the “Blah, blah, blah, America, blah” variety.

  • “You speak English well.  Have you been to America?”  (Err, I’m a native speaker…)

 

  • [Typically as a conversation opener] “I have never been to America.” (No?  Well that makes two of us.)

 

  • Total stranger: “Excuse me, are you from America?”

          Me: No, I’m from Australia.

          Total stranger: “Oh.” [Walks off]

          Me: …

  • Total stranger: “What part of America are you from?”

           Me: I’m not from America.  I’m from Australia.

           Total stranger: “…”

 

  • Total stranger: “Where are you from?”

           Me: I’m from Australia.

           Total stranger: “What part of America is that?”

 

As you can imagine, it could get quite frustrating at times.

 

But the singularly most frustrating and single most frequent thing that kids (and sometimes adults) would shout out upon spotting me was “This is a pen”.

“But you don’t even have a pen!”

 

While we are now in the 21st century, some things never change.  I can still expect that a pair of unknown school kids coming from the opposite direction will suddenly go quiet until we have passed each other, before shouting out something in (usually poor) English.  It can still be quite harrowing…

This happens only with strangers.

Yes, I may be socially inept awkward.  But I feel that my difficulties stem not so much from a lack of people skills as a lack of f***tard idiot skills.

Maybe that’s why I love wildlife so much.  Wildlife doesn’t discriminate, other*, or make assumptions.

I hope to photograph some wildlife to blog about soon.

 

*View or treat (a person or group of people) as intrinsically different from and alien to oneself

(Oxford English Dictionary)

Bronze Sword with Shark Engraving

1 Mar

Hi blog.

March has arrived, and so have the battles between the high and low pressure cells across the Kanto, leading to gusty winds (often from the north when I’m cycling – northwards – to work, and then from the south when I’m cycling home), alternating warm-ish (I’m Australian, don’t forget) and cold weather, and increased humidity.  At least my frostbitten toe should get better soon.

I first saw this article in Japanese on a news poster at work and waited to see if an English translation would come out.  Although it is an archaeology article, it is relevant to Wild in Japan in that the sword in question was found in the old Inaba area and the shark image just may have some connection with the tale of the White Hare of Inaba

Article from the Asahi Shimbun: http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/social_affairs/AJ201602260038

Image of shark found on ancient bronze sword

February 26, 2016

By KUNIHIKO IMAI/ Senior Staff Writer

Tests on an ancient bronze sword taken out of storage in the Tottori Prefectural Museum have surprised researchers.

The blade of the weapon from the second century B.C. bears an engraving of a shark, the first time an image of this kind has been found on a bronze object.

The problem is that the provenance of the weapon remains a mystery. It was donated to the museum 26 years ago by the family of a collector who lived in the prefecture and had died. Other than that, nothing is known of the sword. There are no records of where it was found.

Researchers are curious because earthenware vessels and wooden objects from the Yayoi Pottery Culture (300 B.C.-A.D. 300) have been discovered at sites facing the Sea of Japan with images of sharks, but never on a bronze object.

The artifact has been dated to the mid-Yayoi period.

The finding was announced Feb. 10 by the Tottori prefectural government and the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties.

The sword is about 42 centimeters long.

The Nara research institute recently examined the blade and noticed the 2.3-cm-long etching of a shark. Based on its streamlined shape and the characteristics of two dorsal fins and other details, researchers concluded it is not an image of a dolphin or ordinary fish.

Researchers already know that Japanese people in ancient times were familiar with sharks as the fish feature in the mythological story of “Inaba no Shirousagi” (Hare of Inaba). Inaba is the old name for the eastern part of Tottori Prefecture.

Earthen vessels and wooden objects from the Yayoi period with drawings of sharks have been unearthed at archaeological sites such as Aoyakamijichi in Tottori, Hakaza in Toyooka, Hyogo Prefecture, and Shiroedakojin in Izumo, Shimane Prefecture.

“In the Sanin region (primarily Tottori and Shimane prefectures) during the Yayoi period, a cultural unity existed through trade, and people there probably drew sharks as a symbol,” said Isao Yumura, a researcher with the Tottori Prefectural Archives. “Sharks repeatedly shed and replace their teeth. Shark meat also is rich in ammonia, which makes it difficult to go rotten. Perhaps sharks were a symbol of regeneration or longevity.”

Yumura’s office is currently engaged in compiling a book on the prefecture’s history. It had asked the Nara research institute to examine the bronze sword as part of that effort.

The shark engraving was probably applied with a sharp stone or metal tool.

“I suspect the bronze sword may have come from a different area and that the engravers etched their own mark,” said Yozo Nanba, director of the Nara research institute’s Center for Archaeological Operations.

The artifact will be exhibited in the Tottori Prefectural Museum in Tottori city until May 8.

This ancient bronze sword from the Yayoi Pottery Culture period bears an image of a shark. (Eijiro Morii)

This ancient bronze sword from the Yayoi Pottery Culture period bears an image of a shark. (Eijiro Morii)

Article ends.

I’m so glad they decided to put this one out in English.  It’s certainly another piece in the puzzle in the origin of the tale.

White

23 Feb

Hi blog.

Although the coldest part of the year has officially passed, it is still cold here.  The main difference is we now have variations – cold and dry or cold and wet.  It won’t be long until the dust storms start.

There are a few signs of life – mume in full blossom, buds appearing on my hydrangeas, new shoots from tulips, and songs from a bird I can’t identify.

My last post was about a new species of sea cucumber.  This time, we have a new take on a known species.

From the Japan Times: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/02/18/national/visitors-flock-see-fukuoka-aquariums-albino-sea-cucumber-stroke-good-luck/

 

Visitors flock to see Fukuoka aquarium’s albino sea cucumber

Kyodo

A rare white namako (sea cucumber) has wowed visitors to an aquarium in the city of Fukuoka recently, prompting many to make their wish for good luck on the marine creature.

The white sea cucumber is thought to be an albino, with its pigments mutated for unexpected reasons. The rare marine life recently debuted at the Marine World Uminonakamichi aquarium in Fukuoka.

Aquarium official Takumi Orii pitched the new exhibit, saying: “It may bring good luck. We’d like people to come and see it.”

The namako is about 15 cm long and weighs 75 grams. A local fisherman found it in January and offered it to the aquarium.

With the assistance of aquarium staff, visitors can even “feel” the namako by touching it, the aquarium said.

Article ends.

 

My inner cynic is snickering at the thought of people touching an albino sea cucumber for good luck.  Maybe they’ll learn something at the aquarium (although I’m convinced that some people think that aquariums are merely holding tanks for sushi bars)

Regular readers of Wild in Japan will no doubt remember that namako is written in kanji as (海鼠), a fact most Japanese don’t know.

New Species of Sea Cucumber

15 Feb

Hi blog.

The weather is somewhat erratic right now – February 14th brought temperatures exceeding 20℃ at around 3:00 PM; February 15th was around 15 degrees lower at 3:00 PM.  Mume trees are in blossom, hydrangeas are beginning to bud, and the worst of the cold is behind us – I hope.

I stumbled across this article while trying to find any English language press coverage of a sea cucumber that apparently has a sushi-like pattern.

I normally associate Wakayama with the infamous Tajima dolphin hunt, but here is a more encouraging story, courtesy of the Asahi Shimbun.

http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/social_affairs/AJ201601200028

New species of sea cucumber squirms into the spotlight

January 20, 2016

By HIKARI MOKUTA/ Staff Writer

SUSAMI, Wakayama Prefecture–It might look like a discarded overripe banana, but an unassuming creature found on a beach here has been heralded by scientists as a new species of sea cucumber.

The species inhabits shallow waters and probably escaped detection for so long because it remains buried in the sand during the day.

It belongs to the thyone genus, a type of sea cucumber that uses its 10 tentacles to gather food, and has been named “thyone susamiensis” after its place of discovery, the town of Susami.

“I hope visitors realize the richness of Wakayama’s nature and biodiversity,” said Yusuke Yamana, a curator of the Wakayama Prefectural Museum of Natural History in the city of Kainan, near Osaka. “It may look like a common sea cucumber, but it is a rare and newly-found species.”

The marine creature was discovered and examined by three researchers, including Yamana, working at the prefectural museum and the Susami Crustacean Aquarium in Susami.

Yamana and his team compared “thyone susamiensis” with over 60 known species in the thyone genus. A paper printed in Species Diversity, an academic journal published in English by the Japanese Society of Systematic Zoology, last November concluded that it was indeed a new species.

Some of the sea cucumbers, measuring between 5 and 10 centimeters, went on display at the Wakayama Prefectural Museum of Natural History and the Susami Crustacean Aquarium from Jan. 20.

Article ends.

“… And we’ll throw in a pair of giant isopods”

27 Jan

“I will hug him and squeeze him and call him George”

Looney Tunes

Hi blog.

From the local vernacular news, a regional product out of the ordinary.

The hometown tax (“furusato nozei”) has caught on, mostly as a variation on online shopping.

This month, the city of Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture announced that it will send, in return for donations of ¥10,000 or more, a pair of live giant isopods (Bathynomus doederleinii), shipped by home delivery service within about three weeks.  The isopods, about 7 cm in size, are caught by fishermen in Suruga Bay.

The website requests that would-be owners make preparations for keeping the isopods before placing an order.  Apparently, even though they are nominally deep sea creatures, they can live in an appropriately cool and dark aquarium.

You can view the site here.

One TV news program took up the story and reminded viewers that isopods can also be eaten… (see here for an older story in English on the topic)  This news made a bit of a splash last year.

My favourite part of this whole circus is that the official website reminds readers that these are not Bathynomus giganteus, which are the giants of the isopod world.

A screenshot of the website, showing a close-up of the isopod, along with the the recommendations about preparing an appropriate environment (without actually stating what that is…)

Much of the feedback has been negative, ranging from concerns about trading live animals to people without the knowledge or means to care for them properly, concerns about the image Yaizu is projecting, to just “they’re gross”.

My take: I have no objections to people willing to invest the time, effort and money into providing an appropriate environment for these animals.  However, I’m pretty sure there will be people who take them first without the faintest idea how to take care of them.

I have to admit though, a pair of those would look pretty cool…

Sweet Dreams and Life Imitates Art

18 Jan

Hi blog.

This winter had been warmer than usual – ski resorts were having to resort to snow machines, ice smelt fishing areas remained closed due to lakes not freezing over, and golf courses unexpectedly found themselves open for business.

Then the cold came, bringing frost on the ground and on leaves, and freezing up my bike’s gear shifter.  Believe me, riding to work stuck in bottom gear is NOT fun.

My brain was equally stuck for ideas for new posts when inspiration struck.  Why not write about animals whose names were inspired by myth?

The two mythical creatures I want to look at both have their origins in China.

The first is the kirin (麒麟), which is the Japanese reading of the Chinese qilin.  Legends concerning this creature go back to antiquity – one was said to have appeared before the mother of Confucius –  and descriptions have changed over time.  They have been said to resemble deer but with a dragon-like head, horse-like hooves and a golden mane.  They have been depicted as either being hornless or having one, two or three horns (more like deer antlers than actual horns), with the single- and double-horned  versions being best-known in Japan.  Other attributes include not treading on living grass or eating anything that lives.

Kirin, from the Wakansansaizue.

 

Qilin/Kirin are sometimes known as Chinese unicorn, but there are very few similarities between the two animals.

In Japan, images of the kirin tend to be limited to Buddhist art or as carvings on shrine buildings.  In a previous post I mentioned kirin as guardians of the Yasaka Shrine.  

What appears to be a horned kirin at the Yasaka Shrine.

However, the best-known image is commercial – the logo of the Kirin Brewery Company on its fine, fine products.

The offical Kirin beer logo kirin.

As a piece of trivia, the name Kirin appears as three katakana symbols hidden within the kirin logo (with the キ and リ in the mane and the ン in the tail) on the beer labels.

Where to find the hidden “kirin” on the label. This is great to know at drinking parties.

Before this turns into a beer commercial, let’s look at the real-life animal that takes its name from the mythological one.

In 1419, one Zheng He returned to the Ming court from a voyage to eastern Africa.  and presented the emperor with gifts of live animals including leopards, lions, zebras and giraffes.  The emperor particularly liked the giraffes, which were declared to be qilin.

A Ming attendant with the gift giraffe. This may or may not be the original 15th century artwork. Taken from Wikipedia.

The name filtered through China’s sphere of influence, including the Korean peninsula and Japan, although most modern Japanese use the katakana script when referring to the giraffe.

Curiously, the modern Chinese name for giraffe no longer reflects any connection to the mythological beast.

 

“Devour, O Baku ! devour the dream !”

Lafcadio Hearn

The second mythological creature also originates in China, but has made firm footing in the Japanese imagination.

Known as baku (獏)  in Japanese (very different from the Chinese “mo”), it has undergone a few transformations.

The animal was described as having the trunk of an elephant, the eyes of a rhinoceros, the body of a bear, the tail of an ox and the legs of a tiger.

Baku from the Wakansansaizue

In China the mo was said to prevent illness, and that a pillow made from the creature’s fur would prevent nightmares.  Following its transition into Japan, the baku became an animal that ate nightmares.  (Some are of the opinion that the baku was confused with a nightmare-devouring Chinese god read as “bakuki” in Japanese).

Baku by Hokusai.

There have been customs since then of placing a picture of a baku under one’s pillow to ensure pleasant dreams, or of having a baku-shaped pillow or having a picture of a baku on one’s pillow.  The treasure boat of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune sometimes has the character for baku written on the sail.

Baku makura, pillows depicting baku. From the Tokyo National Museum.

Carvings of baku can be seen at temples and shrines.  They could be mistaken for elephants with short trucks, except for their clawed feet.  Look for them on the corners of large shrines.

Look at the carving at the top right – notice the trunk and tusks? That is the baku.  At the Mitsumine Shrine.

Now, as for the real animal… it is the tapir!

Many modern Japanese are unaware that there is actually a difference between the mythological baku and the real tapir, and depict the former as the latter.

A bronze statue based on Shigeru Mizuki’s cartoon art. Taken from Wikipedia.

There are theories that Malayan tapirs may have existed in China in early times, along with elephants and Indian rhinoceroses.  One professor claims that a bronze statue of a Malayan tapir has been dug up at a Chinese archaeological site.  

Maybe the real animal is named after a mythological animal which was modelled on the real animal…

 

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