The school year is up and running. The first week of the school year is mostly administration and I don’t have so much to do, but now lessons are underway and I’m busy again.
Thinking back to March when the school year was drawing to a close and how some of the teachers filled in those “dead” lesson periods – assessment was over, there was nothing to be gained from trying to teach the kids anything, but… Anyway, I noticed that one social studies teacher was showing his kids Princess Mononoke, and I was wondering if he had any questions up his sleeve to get the kids at least thinking.
One element of Princess Mononoke that has always confused me is Ashitaka’s mount. It is clearly not a deer, nor does it resemble any Japanese mammal that I know of. Furthermore, the creature is recycled from one of Miyazaki’s earlier works The Journey of Shuna. Some sources, however suggest that the animal is (loosely) based on the Japanese serow.
The Japanese serow (Capricornis crispus), known locally as kamoshika (usually 氈鹿 or 羚羊 ) but correctly as Nihon kamoshika (日本 氈鹿) to prevent confusion with other ungulates. An older name was niku (褥), basically meaning “mattress” or “rug”.
Perhaps because “kamoshika” can be loosely translated to mean “antelope”, one can see how a creature most closely resembling an eland of Africa appears in Miyazaki’s medieval Japan setting.
Rather than antelopes, Japanese serow are more closely related to goats. Their stocky bodies are covered with thick hair which may range from white to black, the area around the neck typically being white. The coat typically becomes a lighter colour in summer. Both males and females grow backward curving horns, which continue growing throughout the animal’s life but almost never exceed the length of the ears.
Japanese serow live in broad-leaf or conifer forest areas around deep mountains in northern and eastern Honshu, and parts of Shikoku and Kyushu. They are sometimes spotted on the slopes of Mt. Fuji, although it is safe to say that the average Japanese person is not familiar with them at all – many people think that serow are a kind of deer due to the name.
Serow are foragers, feeding on sasa bamboo and other grasses, bark, nuts and fruit, shoots and leaves. They live alone or in small family groups rarely exceeding four. They are also territorial and mark their territory with scent glands. Japanese serow defecate in set areas, which probably also helps mark territory.
Japanese serow have a long and complicated history with humans. Their numbers dwindled for the usual reasons – over-hunting and loss of their natural environment, reducing the wild population to less than 3000 individuals by 1955, but they have also been labelled pests by foresters. The serow has also been used as a symbol of conservation, and the animal now enjoys the status of “National Monument Species.
The Japanese serow has featured on Japanese postage stamps, once on the 1952 ¥8 stamp and again on the 2015 ¥50 stamp.
Interestingly, in Japan, someone with long, thin legs is described as having “legs like a serow”. This is another case of misinterpretation – the “serow” in the proverb actually being a an antelope or gazelle, not a Japanese serow!
My only confirmed encounters with Japanese serow have been at zoos (an animal spotted running along a road at night in the mountains of Fukushima may have been a serow, but I was unable to identify it), so I hope to correct this situation one day.