Sometimes I am genuinely surprised at how little the locals know about their native wildlife.
A point in case was during Golden Week and my family went camping near Shomaru Pass. The campsite was very much unknown and we had the whole place to ourselves for one of the two nights spent there. Deer could be heard at night and even left their calling cards (although we did not actually see any deer), we saw what I believe was the same Japanese rat snake on two consecutive days, heard and spotted a couple of kites and caught two freshwater crabs (which we released the following day). However, the highlight – for me, at least – was during our hike up to Shomaru Pass.
There is a well known cafe/restaurant at the top of the pass, and we were walking up to have an early lunch. I tried to encourage the kids to keep their eyes and ears open – I spotted several lizards by noticing the rustling of leaves on the ground. At a point not far from the top I could hear dripping water and paused to find the source. At that moment a small head and pair of feet popped out from a covered gutter. The animal was the size of a small dog, and had dark rings under its eyes, it had round ears and a pointed face. Both my son and I recognised it instantly. (Those hours spent at Inokashira Park Zoo had paid off.)
Unfortunately, I had no time to squeeze off a photo before the badger disappeared back into the darkness and refused to show its face again.
A wild badger is something the vast majority of Japanese will never see. What’s more, I was surprised at number of people who drew a blank when I told them about my encounter with a badger. For many – even the good wife who caught a glimpse of its paws – the animal known as the badger simply fails to register.
One reason, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, are the superficial similarities between badgers and the much better known raccoon dogs. This is not a recent phenomenon, as even the Wakansansaizue contains no mention of badger at all.
Tokyo Zoo Net has some nice video images of raccoon dogs and Japanese badgers which really highlight the differences between them.
Another reason is the similarity of the names in Japanese. As my avid followers would know, the Japanese name for badger is anaguma (穴熊) – literally “hole bear”. Because of the bear in its name, too many listeners automatically assume the animal is a kind of bear.
Others simply confuse the name for that of the introduced raccoon – araiguma (洗熊 or 浣熊, but usually written in katakana) in Japanese. Furthermore, the raccoon was the star of a Japanese animated series, but Japanese badgers have never had that kind of publicity. In fact, I have not found them mentioned in any traditional children’s stories and, indeed, I couldn’t find any pre-modern references to badgers at all.
Other people responded to my story with the question, “Are there badgers in Japan?” Either they were confusing badgers with raccoons, or had some vague background awareness that there is an animal known as a badger but couldn’t imagine it being a Japanese native. Even when I specified “Japanese badger”…
Educating people about Japanese badgers has become part of my wider mission.