Japan Nature

Japan's Natural History: Japan Nature

Read articles on Japan's natural history including profiles of some of the animals, fish, insects and birds living on the Japanese archipelago: the Japanese Serow, the Japanese Macaque or Snow Monkey, Red Foxes, Giant Salamanders and the Red-crowned Crane.

Japan has a rich and diverse natural wildlife including a variety of endemic animal and plant species which are, in some cases, extremely rare. A number of Japan's other creatures such as the Blakiston's Fish Owl and the Japanese Crested Ibis are also highly endangered and in need of strict conservation and protection.

The fauna and flora of Japan is divided into three distinct climatic zones: the Siberian sub-arctic zone of Hokkaido, the temperate zone of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu and the sub-tropical zone encompassing the islands of Okinawa. Within these zones are many different habitats that can support Japan's diverse fauna and flora including coastal wetlands, mixed forests and alpine meadows.

With a nature-centered religion in the form of Shinto and an long artistic tradition in painting and design based on the depiction of the natural world and its changing seasons, Japan can be a nature-lover's paradise that increasingly attracts a growing number of hikers, climbers, birders and whale-watchers to appreciate its considerable natural charms among its many National Parks, remote unspoiled islands, rugged mountains and hot springs (onsen).

The Japanese Serow

Japan Nature: the Japanese Serow

The Japanese Serow or Kamoshika is an extraordinary beast that roams the mountains of Japan from the northernmost part of Honshu, the Shimokita Peninsula to the mountains of eastern Kyushu.

This primitive herbivore is found only here, making it a Japanese endemic species. The Kamoshika has been protected as a natural monument since 1934, and as a special natural monument since 1955.

The most common description for the Kamoshika is a "goat-antelope" - for glimpsed in the shady forest, or forging a way through deep snow, that is how it appears.

by Mark Brazil

The Red-crowned Crane

Japanese Natural History: the Red-crowned crane.

The Red-crowned Crane is a potent icon. In symbolic form, Tancho, as it is known in Japanese, is the bird of happiness and long life (in fable it lives for a 1,000 years).

The Red-crowned Crane is such a popular icon that it defines Japan, almost as boldly as do images of sacred snow-capped Mt Fuji, or the blazing sun on the white background of the national flag.

From airlines to sake bottle labels, from wedding kimonos to elevator doors and chopsticks, so many different things are decorated with them. Meanwhile Japan's innumerable shrines are frequently draped with thousands of origami cranes, like colourful lei.

by Mark Brazil

On the Map Because of Cranes: Izumi

On the Map Because of Cranes: Izumi.

In rural Kagoshima, the town of Izumi is famous for cranes. The iconic Red-crowned Crane of Hokkaido, is as much a part of Japan's cultural heritage as it is of its natural history and as such attracts visitors from far and wide to its breeding and wintering grounds in east Hokkaido.

But despite its somewhat surprising status as the bird to see in Japan - even for non-birdwatchers, the number of cranes in Hokkaido is greatly exceeded at the annual winter gathering of cranes in Kyushu.

The spectacle that happens daily there, in Izumi-shi, has to be seen to be believed, yet remains a largely unsung attraction of rural Kagoshima Prefecture.

by Mark Brazil

The Red Fox

Japanese Red Fox.

Foxes are usually far craftier than to allow themselves to be seen and are quite unwilling to reveal themselves in their true forms, for they exist on many planes, as godly messengers, as tricksters and deceivers, and as wild and wily animals.

These are deceptive, far-ranging, and strange creatures - I have listened to their eerie calls, the high-pitched barking of the dog fox on frosty winter's nights and to the strange caterwauling cry of the vixen; I have tracked them in the snows across the highest peak in the land, Mt. Fuji, and watched them investigating the nooks and crannies at the base of a Hokkaido sea-cliff just out of reach of the waves. But there is much more to the 'humble' fox than meets the eye, and proverbs abound attempting to explain the lore of the fox.

by Mark Brazil

The Japanese Macaque

The Japanese Macaque.

Japanese Macaques are unusual in being among the northernmost of all non-human primates.

The Japanese Macaque ranges from the northern tip of Honshu, where it endures frigid winters with deep snows, to as far south as isolated Yakushima, a humid, sub-tropical island to the south of Kyushu.

Japanese Macaques are social, clannish creatures ruled over by dominant males and females. Their strong family bonds and the closeness of their group life-style has led to different cultural elements appearing in different regions. In the centre of Japan, some extraordinary monkeys have made another discovery - the pleasure of hot spring bathing and have become world famous as the "Snow Monkeys."

by Mark Brazil

The Japanese Giant Salamander

Japanese Giant Salamander.

The Japanese Giant Salamander (JGS), Andrias (or Megalobatrachus) japonicus, the world's largest amphibian, reaching lengths of up to 160cm, can be separated from the closely related, but smaller, Chinese Giant Salamander (CGS), A. (or M.) davidianus, because whereas the JGS has pale brownish skin with dark brown spots, the CGS has darker skin with paler spots. As adults, JGSs have individual warts irregularly arranged on the head and throat. Adult CGSs have warts too, but they occur in pairs. One wonders just how big the CGS would grow if it were not still caught for food in China. Fossil species of Andrias, however, hold the record, having reached lengths of 2.3 metres!

by Mark Brazil

Blakiston's Fish Owl

Blakiston's Fish Owl.

Blakiston's Fish Owl - These large piscivorous owls in the genus Ketupa are extraordinary.
Blakiston Fish Owls have become adapted to a diet of fish, which they catch with their feet.

Blakiston Fish Owls' feet are enormous, their talons long and sharp and the soles of their toes are covered with rough scales - all adaptations for grasping and carrying slippery fish, which they typically carry off from the site where they caught it, to devour on the branch of a forest tree.

To the indigenous Ainu people of Hokkaido, the fish owl was revered as a Kamui, a god or a spirit. Of a pantheon of deities significant in the ancient Ainu life-style, the fish owl was the god they were closest to, literally, for it was to them Kotan Koru Kamui - the god that protected the village.

by Mark Brazil

Siberian Chipmunk

Siberian Chipmunk.

Siberian Chipmunk - A small, mostly terrestrial squirrel, with a long tail (almost the same length as the body), the Siberian Chipmunk is pale to mid-sandy-brown above, with five prominent dark brown stripes running along the face, neck and body. Between the dark stripes the fur is pale, almost white, and the under parts, from chin to belly and including the insides of the legs, are creamy white. The face is elongate, the snout rounded, the eyes protrude and are black. The Siberian Chipmunk's short muzzle is pink with long whiskers. The ears are short, rounded, erect and fringed with white. The limbs are of medium length, sandy brown, with short slender fingers and long slender toes. After its stripy back, it is usually the large dark eyes that a new observer notices first.

by Mark Brazil

Japanese Deer

Japanese Deer or Shika.

Japanese Deer - The Japanese Deer or Shika ranges in habitat from the sub-boreal to the sub-tropical regions of Japan. These are the sub-species of the Japanese Deer: the Ezo-shika, which occurs throughout Hokkaido; the Honshu-jika ranging down Honshu and across Shikoku; the Kyushu-jika to be found in Kyushu; the Tsushima-jika, which is endemic to Tsushima Island; the similarly island endemic Yaku-shika of mountainous Yakushima Island south of Kyushu, and the Kerama-jika of the Kerama Islands off Okinawa. Call it what you will; Shika in Japanese, Sika, or Japanese Deer in English, this is an attractive creature. It's dark winter coat, which blends with the winter forest, gives way to a dappled summer coat, paler, redder and browner, and silver-spotted, making it extremely hard to see in the summer woods. The newborn fawns, share this dappled coat and are delightful with their huge watery eyes and long slender legs.

by Mark Brazil

Japanese Crested Ibis

Japanese Crested Ibis.

Japanese Crested Ibis - The Japanese Crested Ibis or Toki once bred widely on Kyushu, Honshu, Oki, Sado, and in southern Hokkaido, with northern birds migrating south for the winter, and accounting for old records of wandering birds from as far south as the Nansei Shoto and Taiwan.
The Crested Ibis had been fairly plentiful on Oki-jima until about 1920, but then disappeared there too, and was thought to have become extinct, then in 1932 just 20-30 birds were found surviving on Sado Island, and a further 5-10 birds lived a little to the south on the Noto Peninsula on the Sea of Japan coast of Honshu. Within twenty years of the ibis's rediscovery, Japan itself was emerging phoenix-like from the ashes of its wartime defeat and the ensuing economic doldrums, but Japan was already gearing up for a period of unprecedented, phenomenally intensive, economic growth.

by Mark Brazil

Asian Black Bears

Japanese Crested IbisAsian Black Bear.

The Asian Black Bear - (Ursus thibetanus japonicus) is Japan's most common bear, usually growing up to around 100-120kg as an adult.
Known in Japanese as tsukinowaguma ("Crescent Moon Bear"), the Japanese bear is a sub-species of the Asian Black bear found in mainland Asia in the Indian and Nepal Himalayas, north eastern China, Thailand, Burma, Korea, Taiwan and the Russian Far East. The Japanese Asian Black bear is found in Honshu and Shikoku but is now extinct in Kyushu. In Hokkaido the Yezo Brown Bear is the only bear found on the island.
Japanese Asian Black bears are omnivorous and feed on a variety of insects, fruits, nuts, grasses, honey, mushrooms and even garbage. In June and July the bears will often peel the bark from trees. They are good climbers of both rocks and trees and hibernate in dens in the winter. Japanese Asian Black bears build cushion like nests in trees during their active months of the year.

Yezo Brown Bears

Yezo Brown Bear.

The Yezo Brown Bear - or Ussuri brown bear (Ursus arctos lasiotus) is Japan's largest land animal, usually growing to between 150-250kg but sometimes reaching as much as 500kg.
Related to the North American grizzly, the Yezo Brown Bear is found in Hokkaido, parts of North Korea, China and Russia. Possibly due to their weight, adult bears do not climb trees and den up in holes during the winter. The higuma habitat covers about 50% of Hokkaido mainly concentrated in Oshima and Shiretoko Peninsula
Yezo Brown Bears feed on ants, insects, fish, small mammals (including Ezo deer), shoots and seeds. Yezo Brown Bears were responsible for 23 bear attacks between 1990-2001 of which there were 8 fatalities. Each year hundreds of bears are culled in Hokkaido as they encroach on human crops.



The mamushi - (Gloydius blomhoffii) are a poisonous pit viper found across East Asia: Japan, Korea and China. 
The snake can be identified by its light brown markings with whitish cross stripes edged with black and is normally about 50-80cm in length. The mamushi feeds on rodents, small birds, insects and lizards. It is estimated around 2-3,000 people are bitten annually in Japan by mamushi with around 10 fatalities. Treatment involves intensive care with antivenom for around one week. Japan's other venomous snake is the habu, found in Okinawa.
The mamushi gets its Latin name from Jan Cock Blomhoff (1779-1853) who was director of the Dutch trading house at Dejima in Nagasaki.

Japan Wildlife

Japan Wildlife.

Japan Wildlife. Famous for its crowded, bustling cities, Japan is actually a wildlife paradise. From the icy north to the tropical south, the country boasts a captivating range of landscapes and fauna.

From north to south, the Japanese archipelago boasts a wide range of climates, from the frozen extremes of Hokkaido to the coral reefs and steamy jungles of Okinawa.

With much of Japan mountainous, forested and uninhabited, there's plenty of space for wildlife. Iconic species include the Japanese macaque, leopard cat, red-crowned crane, Steller's sea eagle and Ussuri brown bear.

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