The Japanese news (which is notorious for frequently being bereft of actual news content) has been having a field day with the recent apprehension of Tatsuya Takahashi, the last of a trio of Aum Shinrikyo members wanted for the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks.
On the run for 17 years, Takahashi had a ￥1000000 reward for information leading to his arrest. I wish I had been able to supply that information… but, wait… an acquaintance, a retired police officer, tells me that such rewards are subject to tax, and the actual post-tax amount would be about half. There’s simply no money in bounty hunting.
Or is there? Every few years there is a new reported sighting of the tsuchinoko, with local governments and private businesses offering between ￥1 million and ￥100 million for its capture. Failing that, a good photo can get up to ￥1000000.
The tsuchinoko (槌の子, usually ツチノコ) is a cryptozoological snake. It has around 40 regional names, including bachihebi, tatekurikaeshi, tsuchimbo, tsuchihebi, nozuchi and tsuchikorobi. These last two names are also shared with those of two mythical snake-like spirits.
So, what exactly should I be looking for? Typical descriptions include:
- a short (30-80 cm) but very wide body (about beer bottle width), thin tail, and distinct neck.
- daytime active
- moving like an inchworm, or holding its tail in its mouth and rolling like the legendary hoopsnake
- exceptionally fast
- capable of jumping to heights of five metres and lengths of two metres (claims of 10 metres have been made)
- vocalising a cry that sounds like “chii”
- a fondness for sake, and being attracted to the smell of miso, dried squid, or burning hair
- possibly extremely venomous
Clearly, most of these are nonsense. Claims of discovery of a dead specimen have often been followed with further claims that the body “just disappeared”, or that a captured creature was released for fear of being cursed.
Actual samples have all turned out to be other creatures, and most sightings can be explained as snakes that have recently swallowed a large prey, or escaped exotic species such as the blue-tongued lizard, sleepy lizard, or death adder.
Confusing a lizard for a snake may seem a pretty basic mistake, but don’t forget that there are only three species of lizard in Eastern Japan – none of them even approaching the above-mentioned two in size and mass. Also, even in their native Australia, sleepy lizards and blue-tongues are occasionally mistaken for snakes. Their limbs are small in relation to their body size, and, typical of skinks, they can move rapidly by pulling their legs in close to their bodies and wriggling in a snake-like manner.
Most people are also unaware that while a snake’s scales are smallest on the back and increase in size towards the belly, a lizard’s scales are uniform in size around the body.
The chances that tsuchinoko exist seem quite slim. Nevertheless, as a quick web search shows, there are groups and societies dedicated to tsuchinoko, and several towns have annual (cash-cow?) tsuchinoko hunting events. And it is a convenient fall-back position for the nation’s sports newspapers during slow news weeks.
Still, I keep my eyes open. I don’t want that ￥100000000 chance to slip through my fingers.