As the Ruminants Run Rampant, Nation Considers Introducing Predators, Venison Lunches
By CHESTER DAWSONBUNGO-ONO, Japan—For Yusuke Hashimoto, mayor of this small hamlet in southwestern Japan, desperate times call for desperate measures. The town is one of the country's top producers of shiitake mushrooms, but they are also popular with local deer. And that's the rub.
"Deer are encroaching on farmers' ability to make a living," said Mr. Hashimoto, who has become part of a growing movement to reinstate four-legged carnivores to control the herd.
Japan's last native canine—the extinct Canis lupus hodophilax—was killed off in 1905 as national policy.
Bringing out a stack of books about wolf folklore, Mr. Hashimoto explained reintroducing wolves began to appeal to him when he read material published by the Japan Wolf Association, a grass-roots lobbying group.
Chester Dawson/The Wall Street Journal
Iichiro Kodama, a local deer hunter, slings a 12-gauge shotgun over his shoulder in the woods of Oita prefecture in southwestern Japan."As wild as it sounds, the more I read about them the less ludicrous it seemed," he said.
Japan isn't the only country with deer issues. Suburbs across the U.S. battle deer foraging in gardens, spreading Lyme disease and causing traffic accidents. But the roots of Japan's deer problem—and some of the proposed solutions—are unusual.
Japan's deer crisis is aggravated by extreme demographic trends: intense urbanization and depopulation of rural areas, record low birthrates and the world's most rapidly aging society. Plus, there's a cultural legacy: Venison isn't a staple of Japanese cuisine, and gun ownership is subject to strict regulation.
Now, too few hunters prowl through rural Japan's thick bamboo and cedar groves, and deer account for an estimated $33 million in annual crop loss, triple the total a decade ago, according to Japan's environment ministry.
So Japanese national and local authorities are laying more traps, and ring-fencing vulnerable rice paddies and timber groves. They're also trying to make hunting fashionable for young urbanites and introducing venison to school lunches.
Wolf advocates submitted a petition with 94,468 signatures to the Environment Ministry in April. It urged the ministry to import and release Tibetan wolves, which are regarded as genetically close to the wolves once roaming Japan.
At the head of the pack is the Japan Wolf Association, set up in 1993 to re-establish wolf habitats here. "Without any mistake, we'll be successful in this," said JWA chairman Naoki Maruyama, a professor emeritus at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology and the author of several books.
In Parliament, the pro-wolf movement has brought together more than a dozen national lawmakers of different parties, including a former environment minister, who set up a Wolf Reintroduction Study Group.
Japanese deer"We need to consider reinserting wolves to local ecosystems," says caucus founder Tsurunen Marutei, a member of Japan's upper house of Parliament. The naturalized Japanese citizen was born and raised in Finland, where wolves are a protected species.
Environmental authorities in Japan see a wolf in sheep's clothing: a solution with fangs worse than the problem it attempts to solve. "Setting wolves loose is a nonstarter," said Toru Nagano, an official in the environment ministry's wild animal protection department. "They'd be more of a threat to livestock, dogs or humans than wild deer are," he said.
Instead, Japan's government is trying to lure more city slickers into the woods armed with shotguns and rifles. This year, the environment ministry began sponsoring "Joy of Hunting" forums across the country, where hunters discuss the hobby and show off their hardware.
Publicity for the forums—promoted via FB -0.53% and printed posters—feature a hunter wearing a ponytail and brandishing a pump-action shotgun. "We want to make hunting seem more approachable to youth and women," said Mr. Nagano.
Traditionally, Japan's deer herd has been kept at bay by local hunting associations comprising farmers mostly, but their average age is now 65 years. The total number of licensed Japanese hunters and trappers has fallen to an all-time low of 186,000—down sharply from a peak of 531,000 in 1970.
No one knows how many deer are roaming the Japanese underbrush since the government doesn't formally keep tabs, but experts say they likely number in the millions—up from the 500,000 or so thought to exist just two decades ago.
The spike in Japanese, or sika, deer looms large in rural areas that retain significant political power, even as their human populations shrink. Many local governments like Bungo-Ono offer hunters bounties of up to ¥10,000 (about $128) per head for any deer bagged and tagged. Most prefectures in Japan have effectively waived the notion of a hunting season, granting special permits to allow kills year-round.
That can dull the thrill of the hunt. "We can bag up to 18 deer in a single day. They're just everywhere," laments Yoichi Kodama, the 60-year-old head of a local hunting group, who says that after shooting thousands he finds traps more sporting.
Some policy makers think hunters might get more excited if there were more appetite for their kill. Hence, stepped-up efforts to promote venison consumption. Groups like the Japan Gibier (Wild Game) Promotion Association have gone nationwide to broaden Japanese palates everywhere from school cafeterias to trendy cafes. Last month, it held an event designed to drum up publicity in Tokyo's Akihabara district. Waitresses served traditional bento box lunches with a twist: The main entrees featured deep-fried nuggets of wild boar, venison meatloaf and black crow meatballs.
And yet, at a recent street fair in central Tokyo, few young Japanese seemed ready to wolf down curried rice with chunks of venison served by one food stall sponsored by the agriculture ministry. "Deer are too cute to eat. Besides, it probably tastes gamy," said Tetsuomi Takeuchi, a 33-year-old financial planner.
Wolves are less fussy about their diets.
Wolf advocate Mr. Murayama plays down fears wolves would attack human beings, noting that historically Japanese farmers worshiped wolf deities in appreciation of their worldly embodiment's appetite for crop-destroying deer.
The cult of the wolf deity remains popular at dozens of shrines throughout Japan. Wolves have even become stars in the country's thriving anime cartoon subculture.
This past summer, one of the highest-grossing Japanese movies was an animated feature film called "The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki." It tells the story of two bushy-tailed offspring of a human character and her werewolf lover—described as the only living descendant of the Japanese wolf.
—Karin Ito contributed to this article.