Mystery Solved

18 Oct

Early 16th century: alteration (by association with grand ‘big’) of Old French grapois, from medieval Latin craspiscis, from Latin crassus piscis fat fish.

Oxford English Dictionary

Hi blog.

Lacking encounters with wildlife has been a bit depressing.  The need to blog is there, but the material is not.  Then inspiration flashed.

This post is the culmination of random information floating around inside my head for over 23 years that has recently crystallised.

Our first year English textbook (yuck!) has a chapter on a pod of killer whales around Hokkaido, and Kotoe Sasamori, a whale and dolphin researcher.  The text uses the word orca exclusively, completely ignoring the term killer whale – the preferred term in science.

I did a Google ngram search on the terms “orca” and “killer whale”, and until fairly recently, killer whale appeared more frequently in books than orca.

Since Orca is the name of the genus, it will almost always appear in scientific texts that mention killer whales, so there will be some double-dipping in its favour.  However, certain interest groups have been promoting the term orca for image purposes – “killer” sounds a little gruesome.

Exception might be taken to the name bestowed upon this whale, on the ground of its indistinctness. For we are all killers, on land and on sea; Bonapartes and Sharks included.

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale


I decided to write a small information sheet on the English names of toothed whales.  That included, of course, orca and killer whale, and lead me to the archaic “blackfish” (which can also refer to false killer whales, pilot whales, and other toothed whales) and the equally antiquated “grampus”.

Grampus.  Where have I heard that name before?

Flashback to 1993.


I was living in Nagoya at the time the J-League came into inception, and the local heroes in what was to overtake sumo as Japan’s number 2 spectator sport were the Nagoya Grampus Eight.  The logo depicted a killer whale kicking a soccer ball.

“What does Grampus mean?” Not only did I get asked that, I asked it myself!

“Grampus?  What is that?”  You’ll have to forgive me – I was 20-21, hadn’t yet read Moby Dick, and was completely unaware of some of the obscure and obsolete words that had made their way into Japanese-English dictionaries in preference to vastly more common lexical items.  I simply guessed that it was a loan word from another language but mistaken for or mixed with English.  (Not like it’s the first time that has happened)  I also thought the eight referred to the number of players.  (When you are as apathetic towards ball sports as I am, do you really care how many players there are on a soccer team?)  I have since done some research and discovered that the eight is merely a random rendering in English of the official Nagoya logo – a kanji for eight (八) in a circle.

An eight in a circle. I spent a year in Nagoya and was completely oblivious to this.

An eight in a circle. I spent a year in Nagoya and was completely oblivious to this.

It appears that grampus was once used to describe killer whales but, like the term blackfish, could refer to other cetaceans – it is in fact the genus for Risso’s dolphin – and the name is also used for an American whip scorpion and also a large American salamander.

So far, so good, but how do we end up with a killer whale representing Nagoya?  The answer is in Nagoya Castle.  Or more accurately, on Nagoya Castle.

My own experience of Nagoya Castle in 1992 was disappointing.  The reconstruction was essentially a ferro-concrete office building in the shape of a castle.  “Ah, that must be the elevator the Tokugawa lords used.”  Nagoya, however, needed a symbol, and its historical connection with one of the most important castles in the country could not be severed by something as small as the destruction of that castle…

Back to 2016…

My mum and niece were visiting Japan and had found their way into Nagoya.  They asked about places to see, and I suggested the Atsuta Shrine and Tokugawa Museum.  My father-in-law asked why I didn’t direct them to Nagoya Castle to see the kinshachi…

Nagoya Castle has always been famous for the kinshachi, gold-plated shachihoko on its roof.  Shachihoko (鯱), sometimes translated as golden dolphins or golden carp, are mythological beasts with tiger-like heads and piscine bodies, said to be capable of controlling rain and therefore associated with protection from fire – fire being the major threat to temples and castles.

Avid followers may recognise the name from a previous post and realise that shachihoko can also be read as shachi, meaning… killer whale!

One of the two golden Shachihoko on the roof of Nagoya castle.

One of the pair of golden Shachihoko on the roof of Nagoya castle.


The Antipodes Strike Back

6 Oct

Hi blog.

After several weeks of frequent rain, work, rain, family commitments, rain, typhoons… did I mention the rain? … well, I’ve bitten the bullet and have gotten behind the keyboard again, in spite of having no wildlife-related topic to write about.  Not a good way to celebrate Wild in Japan’s fifth anniversary.

No, it’s October, and that means my annual battle with Halloween.

You see, the Japanese tend to have fixed ideas about other cultures.  Basically, the Japanese see other cultures as represented by America.  That one can be a native speaker of English but have no cultural relationship with Halloween just does not enter the equation.  

As an English teacher in Japan I have often been asked to do something special for Halloween.  Usually it is a Halloween themed game, but sometimes the request is basically “Please talk about how you celebrate Halloween in your country.”

The difficulty in this kind of case it that the person who asked the question is not prepared for the answer: basically, we don’t.

OK, that statement needs a little more qualification.  Essentially, Halloween is not an important date in Australia.  Many calendars printed do not mention Halloween at all, or mark it as a minor date.  For those of my generation or older, it was largely seen as a foreign cultural import.  We all were aware of it, largely due to its inclusion in American films and TV programs, and sometimes it would come up in a social studies class.  Urban nightclubs and cinemas would try to cash in by having Halloween nights, and some people threw fancy-dress parties to coincide with the date, but the making of Jack-o-lanterns and trick-or-treating was not done at all.

The irony that the meme uses American cartoon characters is not lost on me.

The irony that the meme uses American cartoon characters is not lost on me.

There seem to be two main reasons for the Halloween’s lack of popularity in Australia.   One is the seasonal difference – the notion of a harvest festival seems out of place at time when harvest is several months away, although the seasonal difference has never stopped the exchange of Christmas cards depicting snowy scenes.

The second factor is British influence in Australia’s formative years.  The very same reason Australians like to put up a Christmas tree may be the very same reason they have rejected Halloween – Queen Victoria.  Victorian principles held a dislike for extravagance and there was some attempt to rid Britain of Halloween celebrations, right at the time when settlers from Britain were making up the majority of the population in Australia.  Had the New Holland colonies begun a couple of decades earlier or ended a couple of decades later, Australia may well have been a Halloween-loving nation.

I can't get enough memes taken from a line in a film that was not in the book the movie claims to be based on.  It's just like Halloween!

A meme taken from a line in a film that was not in the book the film claims to be based on. It’s just like Halloween!

Meanwhile, Japan, a world centre for costume parties – they did, after all, invent the word “cosplay” – has  taken Halloween on board over the last decade, at least in terms of decorations and fancy dress.  In other words, the most visible and marketable elements.  However, this has also had its dark side.

A few years ago, a group of revellers from various countries organised a party on a train (admittedly, not the greatest idea in the history of not great ideas) only to be harassed and threatened by local right-wingers and told that “Halloween does not belong in Japan”.  (Somebody tell the Japanese that!)

And just last year there was a huge Halloween event in Shibuya, leading to all kinds of traffic nightmares despite the 800 police called in to oversee it.  But the worst part was the comment by a police big-wig who suggested that people wearing costumes was a security threat because “you can’t tell who the foreigners are”!!

Not to mention my hatred of the popular media’s lack of research.  Leading up to the afore-mentioned party in Shibuya, one morning program managed to present Halloween to the audience as a “Western” tradition (as opposed to being of Gaelic origin) and the accompanying illustrations depicted a 17th century Thanksgiving celebration.

In short, I’m sick of being told to do something for Halloween because the Japanese think it’s part of my culture.  A bit like me demanding that the Japanese should do more activities related to aikido or Yakumaru Jigen Ryu.

End of rant.

Lies, Damned Lies and Research

19 Sep

Hi blog.

This interesting and revealing article appeared on my news feed.

From the Japan Times

Did Japan fudge the truth about whaling?

Did Japan fudge the truth about whaling?



 SEP 17, 2016

If you’ve been following the tragic farce that is Japan’s official stance on whaling, you’ll know that the arguments made by the country’s Institute for Cetacean Research (ICR) to try and justify the hunting of whales have been soundly rejected. Japan maintains it needs to kill whales as part of a scientific research program to learn more about whale populations and determine if larger-scale commercial whaling is sustainable. Few people really believe this and even the International Court of Justice ruled in 2014 that Japan’s whaling program was not scientific. Since 2005, the judges said, some 3,600 minke whales have been killed, and just two research papers have been published.

Many supporters of whaling don’t even claim that the program is useful for gathering scientific data. Those who support whaling often cite tradition and culture as reasons for continuing to hunt whales. In fact, whaling doesn’t have a significant history in Japan. It was conducted on a very small scale until after World War II, and then only on a larger scale for 20 years or so.

So I was interested to see a paper published last week suggesting that Japan had falsified its whaling data for whale catches in the Southern Hemisphere. Researchers behind the paper claim Japan all but lied to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) about the whales it was catching.

I spoke to Phillip Clapham, leader of the Cetacean Assessment and Ecology Program at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, about what he had uncovered.

Clapham and his colleague, Yulia Ivashchenko, compared the length data of whales captured by the Soviet whaling fleet in the 1960s and ’70s with that reported by Japan to the IWC. They found a large mismatch, with the whales caught by Japanese vessels reportedly much longer than the whales recorded by the Soviet boats. The researchers concluded that the difference in length data could only be explained if the Japanese fishing boats had exaggerated the lengths of their catches so that it looked like they were catching legal-sized animals. “It indicates cheating on a large scale,” Clapham says. Clapham and Ivashchenko’s study is published in the Royal Society Open Science journal.

Why would Japanese whaling vessels misreport their catches? “Presumably because they wanted to kill as many whales as possible, including undersized animals — those under the IWC’s minimum legal length, which was instituted to protect females,” Clapham says. “That required them to fake the lengths of many of the whales in the catch.”

Clapham knows more than most about the truth behind Japan’s whaling program. Last year, he published a study suggesting that Japan operated a large-scale, illegal whaling program in the North Pacific in the 1960s. Then, as now, whaling was conducted by ships dedicated to harpooning and catching the animals, operating in tandem with a factory ship, where the whales were butchered.

How on earth could Japanese whalers get away with such behavior? The answer is simple: No entity existed to check the validity of the catches until 1972, when the International Observer Scheme was introduced.

Yet even when this system was introduced, Japanese vessels allegedly continued to falsify data beyond 1972. How?

“This system had an independent inspector on board — one of a different nationality than the factory ship, so, in theory, it ruled out cheating,” Clapham says. “But we know from Soviet biologists that it didn’t entirely. Inspectors couldn’t be on the processing deck 24 hours a day and they were sometimes intentionally distracted with ‘celebrations’ by officers who took them to drink in their cabin when something illegal was about to come aboard.”

Japanese whaling has changed — to an extent. As mentioned earlier, the International Court of Justice decided that Japan’s whaling program was not scientific in 2014, but it did not ban research whaling altogether. The IWC allows whaling by indigenous people, and this provision is applied to Greenland and Alaska. It also theoretically allows whaling for research purposes, which is how Japan tries to justify its activities.

Since Japan’s (privately run) Institute for Cetacean Research sets its own quotas for the number of whales its boats can catch, there aren’t rules to break like there were in the 1960s and ’70s. Well, that’s not quite true. It’s not permitted to catch lactating females and calves, although Clapham says there’s good photographic evidence that this does happen. Incidentally, in March this year, the Fisheries Agency reported that Japan’s Antarctic whaling fleet caught 230 female minke whales, 90 percent of which were pregnant.

The ban on commercial whaling has allowed whale numbers to rebound after dropping to dangerously low levels. Whale numbers have also been increasing in the Arctic as a result of sea-ice loss. These factors will increase the number of calls for the ban on commercial whaling to be lifted. That would cause no end of problems, Clapham says. “The whaling nations today maintain that the system of inspection proposed should commercial whaling resume is adequate, yet it’s clear from genetic analysis of what’s being sold in the Japanese market that there’s stuff there that you can’t account for through the whaling we know about,” Clapham says.

Japan and the other whaling countries have refused to accept a truly independent, third-party system that monitors every step, from the catch to the market.

Polls indicate that most people in Japan don’t care one way or another about whaling. Perhaps the public would feel more strongly if they knew more about what happened in the 1960s and ’70s. Many people were misled back then, because Japanese whalers are believed to have fudged the data on the length of whales they were catching. I hope this realization will help shift the mood in Japan from indifference to disgust.

Article ends.

Why am I not surprised?  Since I don’t have anything nice to say, I’ll let you make up your own mind.


The Sting

14 Sep

Hi blog.

I’m in a particularly busy cycle right now, with both sports day and the English speech contest coming up, which means I’m leaving for work earlier and coming home later.

I’ve been meaning to write about hornets for some time – they are not only a staple of summer-autumn wildlife, they are the wildlife in Japan most likely to kill you.  That said, I have removed several from classrooms without incident and also very recently “took out” one that appeared in the middle of a group during a meeting, before it could cause any panic.

Then this appeared on the evening news and in the Japan Times the next day.

Hornets sting over 110 runners in Gifu marathon

Hornets sting over 110 runners in Gifu marathon


 SEP 11, 2016

Medical personnel said 115 people taking part in a marathon Sunday in Hida, Gifu Prefecture, were stung by hornets, but no one suffered serious allergic reactions.

The runners were treated by doctors and ambulance attendants who were on standby along the marathon route, according to police.

A nest of yellow hornets was found under a bridge located along the route, firefighters said.

The runners were among 697 participants in the half-marathon section of the race, the event’s organizer said. A total of 1,539 runners took part in the event.

Article ends.

To add a bit of sting, another two days would pass until the nest was removed.

Local wisdom holds that while a first sting is extremely painful, being stung a second time is likely to kill you by anaphylactic shock.

“…with my bear hands”

3 Sep

Hi blog.

News  is largely dominated by the wake of Typhoon number 11 and the destruction it wreaked in the Tohoku region and Hokkaido, leading to over a dozen fatalities and a massive loss of crops.  Between that and sports reports, the news is a bit depressing.

However, a rather interesting article that showed up on my news feed.  This one combines two of my favourite things: wildlife (when I can find it) and karate (if someone will ever let me go back to training)

From the Japan Times:

Gunma bear driven away by karate punches after picking fight with wrong person


 SEP 2, 2016

A black bear got the surprise of its life when it attacked a 63-year-old man who happened to be a high-ranking practitioner of karate, police in Gunma Prefecture said.

The man, from Naganohara, was fishing on the nearby Jizo River when what appeared to be an Asian black bear crossed paths with him at around 1:45 p.m. Thursday, police officials said.

The roughly 1.9-meter-tall bear reportedly sprang when they locked eyes.

But its human opponent, standing only 1.7 meters tall, happened to be a high-ranked karate man who fought back with a fierce determination, punching the predator repeatedly in the eyes until it gave up and ran away.

The man emerged from the ordeal with a scratched up face and bites on the head, forehead, right arm and right thigh, before calmly driving himself to the hospital, the police said, adding that he wished to remain anonymous.

Noting they had received witness reports of a bear in the area recently, Gunma police officials advised would-be adventure seekers not to imitate the fisherman’s martial arts exploits if they come upon a bear in the wild.

“If you witness a bear, don’t fight. Walk away quietly and report it to the police instead,” an official said.

Bear attacks are not unusual in Japan.

On Monday, two men in Fukushima Prefecture were attacked by a bear and received serious face and head injuries.

In June, four people were killed by bears while foraging for seasonal bamboo shoots in the mountains of Akita Prefecture. The deaths prompted the Akita Prefectural Government on Thursday to issue a public warning about Asian black bears, urging residents to stay away from the bamboo forests and mountains where they dwell.

According to the prefecture, there were 722 reported bear sightings as of Aug. 22.

Article ends.

My thoughts?

Kids, don’t try this at home!

We’ve got your manholes covered

30 Aug

Hi blog.

As I type this the worst of typhoon 10 has passed by the Kanto but is looking to cause problems in the north.  This typhoon managed to hang around for a week before finally heading north.  At least it wasn’t as bad as number nine, which dumped hundreds of millimetres of rain in a few hours and managed to get the station closest to my work place on national TV.

I have covered manholes in a previous post (yes, pun intended), but this article from the Japan Times showed up on my news feed.  And it’s not like I could just go outside and do something…

Lifting the lid on Japan’s growing crowd of manhole cover spotters



 AUG 28, 2016

Some tourists look around them but Hidetoshi Ishii prefers to look down.

The 65-year-old is a manhole cover hunter. He has spent the past two decades touring with a folding bike and map, on the lookout for treasures.

“It’s like finding a gem. When I spot one, I can’t help smiling,” Ishii beamed.

A retired Tokyo Metropolitan Government official, Ishii was drawn to the world of manhole covers in his 40s, when his eye was caught by a particularly colorful design in Ise, Mie Prefecture. It depicted a group of people on a pilgrimage to Ise Shrine in the Edo Period (1603-1868).

“It was pretty,” Ishii recalls. “After seeing that, I thought it would be interesting to look for different designs across Japan.”

Since then, his hunt for manhole covers has become a driving force in his travels. A typical day sees him cycling long distances, sometimes more than 100 km.

Over the course of his travels he has clocked up 1,700 municipalities and 4,500 photos.

Ishii’s is among a growing legion of hobbyists enchanted by what he sees as the beauty manhole cover design. Enthusiasts are taking to social networking services such as Twitter and Instagram to share their joy, and the photos fly back and forth.

“They are works of art. The designs embody details and subtlety of the Japanese aesthetic,” said Hideto Yamada, a leader with Gesuido Koho Purattofomu (Sewerage Promotion Platform), a group of professionals and enthusiasts that includes officials from local governments and the infrastructure ministry’s sewage management department.

“Japan’s manhole covers are cultural properties we can be proud of,” Yamada said.

According to GKP, there are roughly 12,000 different manhole cover designs in Japan. Each depicts a local attraction or theme, such as Mount Fuji and the Yokohama Bay Bridge.

Municipalities began making decorative manhole covers in the 1980s after being told by a high-ranking official from the former infrastructure ministry that they could be used to promote and improve the image of Japan’s sewerage system, according to the Japan Ground Manhole Association.

Those behind the art are the manhole cover manufacturers themselves. They submit designs to a municipality, which then chooses a winner and commissions pieces.

As manhole cover designs usually embody something related to the area, fans say guessing the reasons behind the pictures is something of a game.

“Other countries also have beautiful manhole covers,” Yamada said. “But I believe none have designs that differ from one municipality to another.”

The growing legion of fans enjoy the thousands of different designs in different ways. While Ishii is among those who simply take photos, others get down and dirty to make ink impressions of the covers.

There are also those who hunt down rare antiquarian pieces from the prewar era rather than the typically colorful modern covers.

The growing fan base supports an increasing number of events that celebrate the manhole. These include the annual Manhole Summit, which began in 2014, and the so-called manhole night in Tokyo, where enthusiasts get together and share their knowledge, Ishii said.

In a bid to lure more people into the world of manhole covers, GKP in April launched collectible picture cards.

The cards can be obtained for free at municipal facilities such as local sewage plants.

GKP issued the first batch of 30 designs in April. They were so popular that the group reprinted an additional 30,000 cards the following month, Yamada said.

This month, 44 new cards were introduced.

Now in his mid-60s, Ishii admits he is no longer able to bicycle huge distances as he is not as strong as he once was.

But whenever he hears of a manhole cover design he has not seen before, especially one in Kanto, he cannot resist bagging a photo of it.

“I can’t contain my excitement,” Ishii said.

“In March I heard that (the Tokyo city of) Chofu made six different types of manhole covers sporting ‘GeGeGe no Kitaro’ anime characters. So I went, and it was thrilling to finally spot the last of the six designs.”

Article ends.

Only their mother can tell them apart

20 Aug

Hi blog.

You’ll have to excuse my lack of  blogging this month.  Work (including a three day English camp), a few nights away, more work etc. have contributed to a lack of encounters with wildlife.

I really wish I had no access to media sometimes.  Summer in Japan is bad enough if you hate baseball as much as I do, but add the Olympics to that and it becomes unbearable at times.  Should a Japanese competitor win a medal, then that becomes headline news for the next three days, with replays of the event every half hour, live coverage of the fans watching, interviews with parents, grandparents, old teammates, fourth grade teachers… you might understand why I nearly tear my hair out.

Then, just occasionally (like a gem in a sewer) an item like this will appear on my news feed.  Like the recent news of the life expectancy of Greenland sharks, this article again emphasises just how much we don’t know about the sea.

From the Japan Times.

Twins born in Toyama aquarium’s female-only shark tank stump officials

Twins born in Toyama aquarium’s female-only shark tank stump officials


 AUG 19, 2016

Officials at Uozu Aquarium in Toyama Prefecture are scratching their heads after finding twin baby banded houndsharks in a tank that only held three female adults.

The female twins, named Mana and Kana after well-known twin actresses, were found in the aquarium’s tank on May 8, the officials said. They said it might be a case of parthenogenesis, a type of asexual reproduction in which offspring develop from unfertilized eggs. Although parthenogenesis has been observed in other shark species, the case in the city of Uozu, if confirmed, would be the first ever for banded houndsharks, they said.

The aquarium noted that a baby shark appeared under similar circumstances in April 2013, but they decided not to look into it because it died immediately, the officials said.

According to Kenji Nohara, a lecturer at Tokai University who is well-versed in the shark propagation, females of some shark species have the ability to store sperm in their bodies after mating. But Nohara said such a scenario is unlikely for the sharks at the aquarium, because the last of the three adult banded houndsharks was brought to the aquarium in January 2012, and it would be difficult to assume they mated in the wild and used sperm that was stored four years ago.

Mana and Kana, which have grown to about 30 cm long, are expected to be put on display until the end of this month. The aquarium will decide whether to ask Nohara to conduct a DNA test on them.

Banded houndsharks inhabit waters south of Hokkaido. It is an ovoviviparous fish that produces eggs that develop within the maternal body. A banded houndshark usually propagates in springtime and gives birth to 10 to 20 fry at a time.

Article ends.

Now, why can’t we have more articles like this instead of Olympic coverage?

It’s a new whale

30 Jul

Hi blog.

Well, some people get lucky and are able to discover a new species, and get the naming rights.  This little article from the Japan Times is all about that, plus the sobering thought that there is so much in the oceans we don’t know about, and that so much in the oceans goes beyond territorial waters…

Japanese research confirms new, rarely seen beaked Pacific whale

 JUL 29, 2016

Genetic tests confirm that a mysterious, unnamed species of beaked whale only rarely seen alive by Japanese fishermen roams the Northern Pacific Ocean, according to research published this week.

The testing shows the black whales, with bulbous heads and beaks like porpoises, are not dwarf varieties of more common Baird’s beaked whales, a slate-gray animal.

Japanese researchers sampled three black beaked whales that washed up on the north coast of Hokkaido and wrote about them in a 2013 paper. The challenge to confirm the existence of the new animal was finding enough specimens from a wider area for testing and matching genetic samples, said Phillip Morin, a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration research molecular biologist.

He and his team uncovered five other whales, all found in Alaska, that matched the species found in Japan.

“Clearly this species is very rare and reminds us how much we have to learn about the ocean and even some of its largest inhabitants,” he said in an announcement.

The largest beaked whale varieties can reach 40 feet and spend up to 90 minutes underwater hunting for squid in deep water. They are hard to research because they may spend only a few minutes at the surface, Morin said by phone Thursday. They rarely breach, travel in small numbers and blend into their surroundings.

Japanese fishermen reported occasionally seeing a smaller, black beaked whale that they called karasu, the Japanese word for raven, or kuru tsuchi, black Baird’s beaked whale.

The Japanese researchers in 2013 were limited in declaring that they had found a new species because their three samples were from one location, said Morin, who works at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Research Center in San Diego.

“My first idea was to go to our collection, where we have the largest collection of cetacean samples in the world,” he said.

In a paper published Tuesday in the journal Marine Mammal Science, Morin and fellow authors describe analyzing 178 beaked whale specimens from around the Pacific Rim. They found five that matched with the Japanese whales.

The oldest was a skull in the Smithsonian Institution recovered from the Aleutians in 1948 and formerly thought to be a Baird’s beaked whale. Another specimen discovered in Alaska was in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

The Southwest Fisheries Science Center had tissue from a whale found floating in the Bering Sea. It also had tissue from a black beaked whale stranded on Unalaska Island in the Aleutians in 2004. Local teachers and students had photographed and measured the animal, and its skeleton was put on display at Unalaska High School.

The most recent was a 24-foot, adult specimen that washed up in 2014 on St. George Island, in the Bering Sea. Residents notified Michelle Ridgeway, a marine ecologist with Oceanus Alaska, who documented the animal.

“We knew it was not any whale we knew from our area,” Ridgway said in the announcement.

Little is known about the range of the new species, although the St. George Island whale give a clue. The whale had scars from cookie-cutter sharks, which live in tropical waters and bite flesh from larger creatures, like a cookie cutter out of dough.

Morin said scientists have more questions than answers about the new species, which is about two-thirds the size of a Baird’s beaked whale.

“They’re hard to see, especially if the water is anything but perfectly calm,” he said, adding that acoustic research may help find them so they can be studied.

Japanese researchers are in the formal process of “describing” the species, Morin said. That will include giving the whale a Latin and common name and formally defining its measurements and how it differs from other beaked whales.

Eel industry slipping away?

25 Jul

Hi blog.

As we hit mid-summer, suddenly maximum temperatures in Eastern Japan dropped below 30℃ and rainy days continued.  The media has been largely preoccupied with terrorism, various elections (somehow paying more attention to the antics of the Americans rather than the policies of their own – sometimes nefarious – electoral candidates) and the Olympics (I want to throw my TV away during Olympic season)  Today, however, this rather long but interesting article appeared on my news feed.

From the Japan Times

Is the eel industry on the slippery slope to extinction?

Dwindling domestic population threatens a centuries-old tradition



 JUL 23, 2016

As we approach the end of July, supermarkets nationwide are beginning to stock up on one of the nation’s much-loved summer fish: freshwater eel.

In recent years, however, the cost of eel has risen sharply and consumers are now facing the upcoming Doyo no Ushi no Hi (Day of the Ox, a day dedicated to eel consumption) on July 30 in the knowledge that they’ll be expected to pay through the nose for a slab of the freshwater fish.

Rampant overfishing and the scientific community’s overall lack of knowledge on the biology of eel has left the industry in a crisis. The dwindling domestic eel population has consequently pushed up prices and forced a number of specialist eel restaurants to close. So scarce is the fish in restaurants these days that it’s almost considered to be something of a luxury item.

“I think that the soaring eel prices are truly unfortunate,” says Torami Murakami, chairman of the All Japan Association for Sustainable Eel Aquaculture. “If prices continue to stay at this level, an important part of Japanese food culture will remain out of consumers’ reach.”

Murakami himself enjoys packing away what has become a delicacy, but realizes that increasing prices are making it more difficult for eel to remain on dining tables across the country.

“Eel has been loved in Japan for millennia,” Murakami says. “It’s crucial that we continue this ancient Japanese food culture.”

The eating of freshwater eel — or unagi — is a culinary romance that has lasted more than 5,000 years. Indeed, eel bones have been found in shell mounds dating back to the Jomon Period, which lasted from around 10,000 B.C. to 200 B.C.

Today, eel is typically eaten kabayaki style, in which the fish is split down the belly, gutted and boned, butterflied, cut into fillets, skewered and dipped in a sweetened combination of soy sauce and mirin before being broiled on a grill.

Eel kabayaki is often served on top of a bowl of rice (unadon), while a more extravagant form of this dish (unaju) is placed inside tiered lacquered boxes.

The origins of Doyo no Ushi no Hi extend back as far as the Edo Period, when an eel restaurant owner sought the advice of a prominent inventor called Hiraga Gennai about the prospect of boosting the summer sales of his freshwater fish.

Gennai instructed the restaurant owner to hang a banner in front of his shop that promoted Ushi no Hi and encouraged customers to order dishes that began with the letter “u.” Sales skyrocketed and other eel restaurants soon jumped on the bandwagon, leading to an interest in Doyo no Ushi no Hi that continues today.

Boom to bust

Although Japan has a long history of eel consumption, fishermen only started grilling the freshwater fish some time during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). The only seasoning available at the time was salt, miso or vinegar. This primitive form of kabayaki became the basis for what we know and love today.

Eel consumption increased during the “economic miracle” of the decades that followed World War II. Consumers’ enhanced purchasing power, easy-to-eat fillets in modern packaging and aggressive price wars triggered by an increase in imports led to high demand.

As a result of the growing popularity of eel both domestically and abroad, catches have drastically declined in recent years. According to a survey compiled in 2015 by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the average annual catch of young eel has dropped from more than 200 tons in the mid-1960s to just 20 tons in the 1980s and 1990s. Catches declined further over the 2010s, prompting the International Union for Conservation of Nature to add the freshwater fish to its “red list” of endangered species in June 2014.

Consequently, the majority of eel that makes it onto dining tables nationwide has been imported from China and Taiwan since the 1990s. According to the 2015 fisheries ministry survey, eel imports now account for approximately 60 percent of the domestic eel supply, with a large quantity of the fish being processed into kabayaki in China and shipped to Japan in a ready-to-cook form.

According to another survey released this month by the fisheries ministry, the market price of baby eel — also known as elvers or glass eels — is currently ¥1,820,000 per kilogram. By contrast, the market price of baby eel was ¥160,000 per kilogram In 2003, less than 10 percent of the existing price.

“We want to effectively manage eel resources and continue the country’s culinary heritage,” Murakami says. “We aim to limit the number of glass eels put into lakes in the region to 70 percent in a bid to allow for the perpetual conservation of eel reserves.”

When trying to pinpoint reasons for the declining volume of eel catches, it is important to keep in mind that many aspects relating to an eel’s biology remain unclear. That said, researchers believe that factors such as changes in the ocean environment, habitat degradation and overfishing haven’t helped sustain eel numbers.

Modern-day aquaculture techniques alone aren’t sufficient to restore eel stocks largely because the world’s current knowledge of eels is surprisingly limited — not enough is yet known about the lifestyle of the freshwater fish to breed them in captivity.

As a result, grass eels are caught in the wild and then placed into ponds to be raised for a period lasting between six and 18 months. During this time, eels develop from a miniscule 0.2 of a gram to adults weighing up to 300 grams each. They are then graded into different size categories and transported to processing plants and restaurants for market consumption.

The race to successfully breed eels in farms is an ongoing one, but Murakami and his team at the All Japan Association for Sustainable Eel Aquaculture are hopeful.

“We need to stabilize the breeding process of eels,” he says. “We are getting close to a large-scale implementation of artificial hatching. If we can be successful with that then I believe that eel numbers can return to normal levels.”

A family business

Amid this glimmer of hope, one wonders how the steady decline in eel resources has affected restaurateurs and their customers.

Shohei Hashimoto of Unagi Hashimoto speaks frankly about the financial pressure he has faced in recent times. “Prices have gone up, especially over the past four or five years.” he says. “Accordingly, the number of customers has dropped.”

This year, Hashimoto became the fourth in a line of Hashimotos to take the reins of the family business after serving for over a decade of training under his father’s wing. The two-story restaurant in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district has been in business since 1947 and, as with previous generations, the restaurant will slowly undergo changes under new management — Hashimoto believes the eel industry is in need of an image change.

“I’m 37, and the person who runs the organic eel farm that we buy our produce from is around the same age as me, so we have similar views toward farming and distribution,” Hashimoto says. “He was the first farmer that has reached out to restaurants as a brand. If you go to supermarkets and eateries, you’ll see the name of the farmers on the packages, but the eel business is still old-fashioned, so consumers don’t really have an idea of where the eels come from and who farms them. I think this needs to change.”

True to his word, the newly updated Unagi Hashimoto website describes in detail where the restaurant sources its eels. The website also boasts of a “modern classic” approach to unagi culture.

“Since I am the fourth in a line of Hashimotos, there is a lot to take on and pass on,” he says. “However, the world is moving forward at an incredible pace and I think that we need to expand our focus as a restaurant. Eels are a freshwater fish, so I think that there is a lot of potential in also trying to serve other such fish at a high level of quality in order to emphasize the taste of eel.”

Hashimoto’s menu reflects this ethos. There is toriju (grilled chicken on rice) and a course dinner at Unagi Hashimoto, which will cost between ¥8,500 and ¥11,000, includes sashimi and a freshwater-fish bowl.

However, Hashimoto is not abandoning all outmoded cooking methods. He plans to bring back charcoal to his grills, instead of the electric ones that his restaurant now uses.

“It’s not a big difference, but the difference is clear,” he says, smiling.

Considering the excellent quality of their dishes, lunches are more reasonable at Unagi Hashimoto, with their eel-only menu totaling ¥1,620.

“We want to target businessmen and women during their lunch hours, so we have decided to serve a half-cut of kabayaki to make it more affordable for them to come in without burning a hole in their pockets,” Hashimoto says. “We used to have more options for lunch. But with eel stocks decreasing, prices increasing and the number of eel chefs declining, we decided to keep only what we thought were the best options.”

When asked if he is hopeful of an increase in catches and a consequent decrease in costs that should lead to more customers coming in through his doors, Hashimoto responds cautiously.

“2015 may see a slight increase in eels catches,” he says, “but no one knows what will happen in years to come.”

Danzo Yamamoto, owner of an eel kushiyaki (grilled skewered food) restaurant called Ganso Unatetsu in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, is not optimistic of what the future holds for his family-run establishment.

“We had to raise our prices four years ago, when the catch was low, and this year is looking to be almost as bad,” he says. “It’s already summer, so I’m not sure that we can raise the prices at this point in the year.”

Unlike Unagi Hashimoto, Ganso Unatetsu offers an all-eel menu, a tradition that has been passed down to Yamamoto since his grandfather started the restaurant in 1957.

In contrast with other kushiyaki restaurants, which also serve yakitori chicken skewers, Ganso Unatetsu only serves eel, with individual skewers ranging in price from ¥130 to ¥260. However, Yamamoto realizes that, at least in terms of revenue, this generation-crossing tradition is not enough to keep the shutters from closing.

“Compared to many other places (nationwide) that serve eel as unaju, our main revenue comes from grilled skewers,” he says, explaining how he has managed to stay afloat so far. “We also use the entire eel, from the head to the innards to the fins and tail. That’s something that my grandfather came up with when the restaurant was established.”

As innards and fins are cheaper than the softer and fluffier kabayaki, this is a clever — and delicious — attempt at branding and cost-cutting. But Yamamoto says that offering an eel all-star menu simply isn’t quite enough to cut it these days.

“A lot of our sales also comes from serving alcohol, especially beer,” he says. “Since we are a kushiyaki restaurant, we decided to go with anizakaya (Japanese pub) atmosphere.”

Located in close proximity to Shibuya Station and surrounded by izakaya, it appears that this was a wise business maneuver. When this interview came to a close at 6:30 p.m., a few salarymen had already formed a line outside of the packed restaurant. Still, Yamamoto remains skeptical.

“To be honest, in my next life I don’t think I’d choose to be in the eel business,” he says. “And unless we can see an increase in production and a decrease in costs, I wouldn’t really want my son to go into it either. I’d worry too much.”

Culinary concepts


Consumption history

The consumption of freshwater eel in Japan dates back to the Jomon Period (10,000 B.C.-200 B.C.). In modern times, eel is typically eatenkabayaki style, in which the fish is split down the back (or belly), gutted and boned, butterflied, cut into fillets, skewered and dipped in a sweetened combination of soy sauce and mirin before being broiled on a grill. However, it was traditionally marinated with salt, vinegar, and either miso or red peppers before being boiled.

Filleting styles

In the Kanto region, eels are sliced open down the back of the animal and grilled unglazed. In the Kansai region, however, eels are split down the belly. The warrior class in Kanto considered gutting an eel via the belly to be bad luck, as it was associated with seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment).

Pepper pairing

Japanese peppers (sansho) are believed to be effective in regulating the temperature of our internal organs, which aids digestion. The peppers are also believed to help digest the fatty parts of an eel’s body.

Freshwater vs. saltwater

Unagi is a freshwater eel, whereas anago (conger) is a saltwater variety. Anago is sometimes consumed as a cheaper alternative to unagi. Unagi and anago have a similar taste, but the freshwater fish has higher fat content compared to its saltwater cousin.

Nutritious value

Eels contain multiple vitamins — vitamin A, B1, B2, D and E — as well as DHA and EPA (deficiencies that correlate with learning and memory deficits) and minerals such as iron, calcium and zinc. Eel consumption is believed to help prevent high blood pressure, strokes and even the loss of vision.

Enigmatic creatures


Male majority

The sex ratio for freshwater eels caught in the wild is nearly equal. However, eels that are raised in farms for consumption are predominantly males. Genetically, some varieties of fish change sex as a result of environmental factors. For instance, researchers have shown that female fish artificially reared in waters that are kept at a high temperature during the larval stage can become male. More research is needed on the higher incidence of farmed male eels, but there seems to be a correlation between high-density breeding and male bias.

Long life span

The oldest freshwater eel ever recorded in an aquarium lived to be 80 years years. As eels typically die after spawning, reproductive suppression could help to extend an animal’s life span. Also, an eel in an aquarium reportedly survived without eating food for 22 months.

Poisonous blood

Eels are not typically served as sashimi because their blood contains ichthyotoxin, which causes symptoms such as respiratory distress and nausea. Since the poison is proteinaceous, cooking eel meat destroys the toxin. This isn’t to say, however, that eel sashimi is never consumed in Japan. Some specialist chefs are able to drain the blood perfectly and marinate the meat with vinegar.

Slippery slime

The slime on eels’ bodies helps preserve the animal’s moisture as well as cutaneous respiration. The slime is produced by the secretion of glycosylated proteins such as mucin and mucoprotein. It also serves to control the osmotic pressure between the external environment and inside their bodies.

Softer side

Eels are soft when consumed after being heated. When eaten raw, eels can be as hard as rubber. Eel meat contains collagen and heat helps to liquefy it to gelatin.

Article ends.

Again, we are left in a situation where economics dictates environmental policy.   No, sorry, wrong.

The article doesn’t mention that other elvers of other eel species – notably European and Australian eel – are also raised in Japan to help make up for shortages.  Unfortunately, some of these eels have found their way back into the wild.  (Eels are notorious escape artists)  This may have a negative impact on the Japanese eel.


It’s time people stopped seeing fish as a bottomless resource to be tapped.

The Little Prince and the Big Snake

2 Jul

Hi blog.

Snakes top Wild in Japan’s search item hits, so it stands to reason that the more posts about snakes I write, the more hits I get.

However, one does not simply walk into material for writing serpentine-themed posts.  Well, not usually.

I was hit with a question just recently – “What’s the difference between a daija and an uwabami?”

It seems that Madoka was particularly confused as to why the boa constrictor from The Little Prince was rendered uwabami in the Japanese translation she was reading.

Depending on the Japanese edition, this may or may not be an uwabami.

This will take a while to explain, but bear with me.

Daija (大蛇) literally translates as “big snake” and has come to mean large snakes, both in reality – particularly the large pythons and anacondas – and fiction.  This is confused, however, by the word orochi – also written 大蛇 – which specifically refers to the giant snakes from mythology and folklore.

Uwabami (蟒蛇) also has two meanings.  One refers to snakes of the family boidae – the boas, most famously the boa constrictor.  The other is an older word pertaining to those aforementioned mythological giant snakes.

Saint-Exupéry specifically states that his “hat” picture is a boa snake (“serpent boa”).  So it seems that the translator of Madoka’s particular edition of The Little Prince decided to use a more folklore-sounding translation.

The famous boa digesting an elephant picture. Some Japanese versions translate it literally as “big snake”, use the scientific “boa” or opt for uwabami.

I was also asked why uwabami has also come to mean a heavy drinker.  I answered that, as a guess, I imagined it was either because large snakes are (in)famous for swallowing large prey whole, or perhaps because of the ancient association of giant snakes with sake, as in the myth of Susanoo tricking the Yamata no Orochi into drinking eight barrels of sake.

Then Susanoo no Mikoto descended from Heaven and proceeded to the head-waters of the River Hi, in the province of Idzumo. At this time he heard a sound of weeping at the head-waters of the river, and he went in search of the sound. He found there an old man and an old woman. Between them was set a young girl, whom they were caressing and lamenting over. Susanoo no Mikoto asked them, saying:-“Who are ye, and why do ye lament thus?” The answer was:-“I am an Earthly Deity, and my name is Ashi-nadzuchi. My wife’s name is Te-nadzuchi. This girl is our daughter, and her name is Kushi-nada-hime. The reason of our weeping is that formerly we had eight children, daughters. But they have been devoured year after year by an eight-forked serpent and now the time approaches for this girl to be devoured. There is no means of escape for her, and therefore do we grieve.” Sosa no wo no Mikoto said: “If that is so, wilt thou give me thy daughter?” He replied, and said: “I will comply with thy behest and give her to thee.” Therefore Sosa no wo no Mikoto on the spot changed Kushi-nada-hime into a many-toothed close-comb which he stuck in the august knot of his hair. Then he made Ashi-nadzuchi and Te-nadzuchi to brew eight-fold sake, to make eight cupboards, in each of them to set a tub filled with sake, and so to await its coming. When the time came, the serpent actually appeared. It had an eight-forked head and an eight-forked tail; its eyes were red, like the winter-cherry; and on its back firs and cypresses were growing. As it crawled it extended over a space of eight hills and eight valleys. Now when it came and found the sake, each head drank up one tub, and it became drunken and fell asleep. Then Susanoo no Mikoto drew the ten-span sword which he wore, and chopped the serpent into small pieces. When he came to the tail, the edge of his sword was slightly notched, and he therefore split open the tail and examined it. In the inside there was a sword. This is the sword which is called Kusa-nagi no tsurugi.

From the Nihon Shoki, translated by W.G. Aston, 1896

It turns out that both of these are given as probable explanations!

Susanoo slaying the Yamata no Orochi, 1870s by Toyohara Chikanobu. Here it has been given a more dragon-like appearance.


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