Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Monkeys on the Move

"I fell down right in my field and just started crying."

These were the words of a neighbor here in Otaki, describing the experience of finding that about 100 stalks of corn she planted had been carried raided by monkeys; the ears of sweet corn devoured.

These words came to mind as I scoured over various reports this morning about monkeys causing trouble in oddly different places in Japan. Most of the reports were about a monkey that was discovered in Shibuya station in the heart of Tokyo.

The Japan Times article.
Mainichi Daily News article.
Guardian U.K. video.
Japan Probe blog.

One report from the Mainichi Daily News (article here), however, talked about Uozu, a municipality in Toyoma prefecture that has recently armed civil servants with shotguns to boost numbers for its "Harmful Wildlife Hunting Corps". In the report the mayor of the city is quoted as saying:
"It's easy for staff to help out with the extermination even during weekday working hours. Anything to reduce the damage just a little."

What's with all the monkeys?

Japanese monkeys are called macaques (Macaca fuscata fuscata; there is also a subspecies, Macaca fuscata yakui , which are only found on Yakushima, an island in the south of Japan). Macaques play a prominent role in the Japanese landscape--not only the natural, but also the social. Anthropologists Ohnuki-Tierney argues that macaques occupy a prevalent space in Japanese conceptions of self; she suggests that they serve as a metaphor for humans because of the great amount of group behavior they exhibit--a trait viewed in Japan as essential to being human.

Another anthropologist, John Knight, picked up on Ohnuki-Tierney's theme in his study of human-wildlife conflicts in Hongu-cho, Wakayama prefecture. Knight suggests that the close proximity of macaques and humans in rural areas, like Hongu-cho, produce a variety of often contradictory emotions on the part of residents. During his fieldwork, macaques were often spoken of in criminalistic terms because of the damage they inflict to crops. Macaques were referred to as dorobou (theives) who nusumu (steal). At the same time, due to their organized group behavior macaques were talked about in militaristic terms with a sense of respect Residents referred to saru gundan (monkey armies) with taishou (generals) and suggested that they strategized in picking targets and executing raids.

I've witnessed a similar phenomenon here in Otaki. On the one hand, I often hear quotes like the one above; residents are frustrated and worried about crop damage caused by macaques. However, on the other hand, I also hear macaques praised for their tenacity and wit. Just today one of the best hunters in the village talked me about how macaques have become smarter recently.

What's clear is that macaque populations are increasing and that their habitat is decreasing. There are several factors contributing to this. First and foremost, forest conversion from broadleaf to pine (mostly timber) tree varities, has created a lack of forage for macaque populations. Second, the extermination of the Japanese wolf around the turn of the century means that there are no longer any significant carnivorous predator species in Japan. Third, bans on hunting macaques, along with a general decline in the number of hunters in Japan, has allowed macaques to move more easily into residential areas. Fourth, massive rural depopulation has meant an increase in forested land near residential areas as fields are abandoned and allowed to grow wild. Finally, rapid sprawl eminating from Japan's metropolises have brough urban areas closer and closer to macaque habitat.

The result. . .monkeys on the move. Japan's being overrun by macaques. I must note that it has been suggested that that monkey found in Shibuya may have come from a zoo-park in Tokyo, but the veracity of this suggestion does not invalidate my point. In fact, in an article entitled, Monkey mountain as a megazoo, Knight also explores the phenomenon of monkey parks in Japan where macaques are baited with food for the purpose of tourism.

Clearly something needs to be done. Arming civil servants with shotguns is one approach--and, oddly, probably the most logical measure that can be taken at this point. In the long run, a more reasonable approach would be to begin managing Japan's forestlands (which occupy 67% of the country) in a way that takes into account the ecological needs of animal species such as macaques. As it is now the Forest Agency (rinnyachou 林野庁) is dominated by the continued employment of out-dated German techniques for producing timber. This approach is legitimized most recently through assinine appeals to discourses of climate change and the need for carbon sinks. Not that measures to combat climate change are not needed; they are. Hoewever, a better approach would be for the people of Japan to sustainably manage and utilize domestic forests, and to curtail consumption of overseas timber (which, to follow the logic of the climate change argument, often comes from forests reconized for their ability to absorb carbon).

Obviously, climate change is an important issue; one that needs to be addressed. However, in Japan this shouldn't be done blindly with the simple notion that the more trees the better. Local communities, who are facing the brunt of poor ecological decisions concerning forestlands, need to be more involved in decision making processes. Japan's urban population needs to begin recognizing the role that rural communities play and find better ways to support them. Otherwise, the monkey's are gonna take the place over.

Knight, John. 2006. Monkey Mountain as a Megazoo: Analyzing the Naturalistic
Claims of “Wild Monkey Parks” in Japan. Society & Animals 14:3.

Knight, John. 2003. Waiting for Wolves in Japan: An Anthropological Study of Human-Wildlife Relations. Oxford University Press,
New York.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. 1987. The Monkey as Metaphor for the Japanese.
Chapter 2 In The Monkey as Mirror. Pp. 20-38. Princeton University Press.
Princeton, NJ.


ken said...

Taintus, you bring up some really good points about monkeys and the state of Japan's pampered conifer forests. Thanks.

Just a quick story about a recent run-in with a troop of monkeys:

I came on some monkeys in the backwoods. They were quite skittish at first -- hootin' and chitterin', then curious, then somewhat hostile. I was on their home turf after all.

The 'troop leader'; a stought and round faced fellow, stayed between me and the troop at all times, and he kept taunting me by coming near and glancing often. He showed me his teeth too -- oh, just the thought of his monkey fangs in my neck made me feal 'fear'.

Despite my fear though, I held my ground (eeeeer, the ground I was on - their ground) watching the troop move in and out of the trees. I saw many a baby monkey holding tightly onto their mother's backs. And in a succession of monkey remarks, "oh oh, ah----- oh oh, mo mo mo," it seemed as though they were discussing 'Wild Animal Problem' stuff, which could have only been about me, since I was the only foreigner there.

I couldn't quite make out what they were saying though, but I suspect they were discussing a strategy to herd me out of their woods. It was then I noticed another troop descending on my location. "What ! Another troop!?," i thought. "Time to get back to my automobile, quick !" But the seconed troop had taken over the road putting themselves (strategically?) between me and my automobile up the road. They were flushing me out ! -- Pushing me down the road towards a stream.

Being alone with no weaponry, I conceded, and moved down the road, where I waited for a good 20 minutes before the troop had cleared from the road.

Here's one of 'em.


Taintus said...

Thanks for the great story Ken. Glad you got outta there in one piece. I've stared down monkeys one at a time before, but can't imagine a whole troop. Wow!



nyantaro said...

Thank you for interesting report.
I agree with several points which you said, especially forest conversion from broadleaf to pine. (Here in Kinki region, conversion from broadleaf to cedar.).
In 50's it might have been proper, but it is the factor of flood and people's illness now. And most importantly, it is an environmental disruption and an ecocide.
In latest several years, bears frequently appeared by human area. It doesn't mean increase of population but means lack of their foods, I think.
Not a few persons including me think this is not only mistake of the forest agency but also wrong policy of the Government. I don't state much about politics (though want to say), but I remember former minister of agriculture Matsuoka was the bureaucrat of the forest agency.

About the extinction of wolves, it is the cause of increase of not monkey but deer, I think.

Ojisanjake said...


I'd already read this post :)... I am a regular reader of all your posts. Enjoy them. Thanks.

nyantaro said...

Dear Taintus,
I would like to inform you.
A senator Yasuo Tanaka, ex-governor of Nagano prefecture, spoke today at the Diet.
He referred to the policy of the Forest Agency and criticized.
Here are official videos of upper house. He spoke about dams and forests from 25 minutes on the fourth video.