There is blood on the snow and the huge paw print of a bear. A snowstorm is threatening to blow in and cover the tracks and destroy any chance to find the bear that has already killed seven people. Two men set out into the Hokkaido wilderness to hunt the bear. Sankebetsu is little more than a tiny patch of civilization scratched out of the huge Hokkaido wilderness. The colonization of Hokkaido has brought people and bears closer together with terrible results. The bear had woken from hibernation early and entered the settlement in search of food. It found food, but also found people. For five days it has terrorized farms and households, leaving one family home looking like a slaughterhouse. The two men move swiftly through the forest. Yamamoto, an expert bear hunter with a drinking problem, is familiar with this bear, Kesagake. It has killed before. The two men spot the Kesagake resting by an oak tree. Yamamoto closes on the bear. When he is within twenty feet he raises his gun. He shoots Kesagake twice, once in the heart and once in the head.
This is how Japan’s worst bear attack ended, the Sankebetsu Bear incident of 1915. Today the town of Sankebetsu is abandoned, though there is an overgrown shrine to the victims. The early years of the colonization of Japan’s northern island brought bears and humans into conflict. Between 1900 and 1957 141 people were killed by bears and over 300 injured.
From Bear People To Bear Bells
Before the mainland Japanese arrived, people had a different relationship with bears. Much like the bears they worshiped, Hokkaido’s indigenous Ainu people were pushed to the fringes. The Ainu word for bear is “Kamui” which also means god. They worshiped the bear as the chief of the gods. However, the bears might have preferred if they didn’t, since the Iomante ceremony involved capturing a bear cub, raising it as a member of the family for two years before the men of the village shot it full of arrows, drank its blood and ate it. These ceremonies were mostly stamped out in the 1950s by the local Hokkaido government. It wasn’t all good news for the bears though. As humans turned the wilderness of Hokkaido into Japan’s most bountiful farmland, bears became endangered and bear attacks decreased. Though there hasn’t been a fatal attack since 1989, bears still loom large in the minds of the Japanese.
For some foreigners coming from lands that they share with the larger brown or grizzly bears, Japanese precautions toward the shy Ussuri brown bears can seem like paranoia. Bear bells, to scare off bears, are sold to hikers all over Hokkaido, whether there are bears in the area or not. At the Shiretoko Five Lakes there are two walkways. One is a raised platform with electrified wires protecting the tourists who stroll along it from the bears they will not see. The other is a wilder route, though still more controlled and manicured than most hiking trails abroad. Before you can enter the trail however, you must watch a bear safety video. It teaches you how to avoid meeting a bear (make noise while walking, don’t take any food with you) and what to do if you do meet one (stand your ground, look big) and even what to do if it attacks (lie face down with your hands clasped over the back of your neck.) All of this rather serious information is undercut somewhat by the cheesy acting and super 80s outfits, complete with ubiquitous Japanese bucket hats.
Anyway, if there is a bear sighting at the Five Lakes trail it will be closed for the next three days. To foreigners this can seem an extreme reaction, especially if they have traveled all the way to Shiretoko (the name means “the end of the world,”) in hopes of walking this beautiful trail, only to find it closed. However, in east Hokkaido bears are present, and sometimes closer than you might expect.
My Hokkaido Bear Experience
It’s not all bears and hiking though. I once arrived at school in Rausu, another town in Shiretoko, to find my computer had been replaced with five cans of bear mace.
“What exactly do you expect me to do today?” I joked a teacher.
She explained that a bear had been sighted near the school. She told me not to worry. If it came back they would call the town hall to send someone with a gun. That afternoon the bear did reappear, wandering across the baseball field. The students and I were kept inside for our safety. The town hall was called. The man with the gun was sent. Two ringing shots were fired into the air. The bear ran back into the woodlands. The crisis was averted. Still, that day one of the teachers drove me to the bus stop instead of letting me walk.
The Rausu bear lived another day. Across the mountain pass, in the town of Utoro, a bear was not so lucky. In 2013 it wandered onto the grounds of the elementary school and was shot in front of the watching children. When I visited Utoro the school children were running an awareness campaign at the nature center. They handed out fliers reminding tourists not to feed the bears. One side showed cute cartoons about the dangers of encouraging bears to interact with humans, for both the bears and the humans. The other side showed a photograph of the dead bear in front of their school. There was a photograph too of a woman leaning out of a car window holding out some food with a bear snuffling toward her outstretched hand. What might be a good story for those tourists might turn into disaster for the next ones who encounter that bear who now associates those bony walky things and their rolling boxes with a meal.
The problem is people really want to see bears. There’s something very alluring about these creatures that are capable of chasing us down and tearing us apart. On a wildlife tour in Shiretoko, my guide said that they see bears maybe once or twice a month. When I went I was lucky. The bear was big, much bigger than I’d expected. In the gloom of twilight, he walked along the river bank as we watched from the safety of a minibus. The bear stopped. He reached into the river with one huge paw and flipped out a salmon. The bear casually ate the head before dropping the rest of the salmon back into the river. He walked on further into the forest. It felt magical, a privilege to look into the world of this wild animal for a moment. I finally understood why people would want to see these awesome animals, even at a cost to themselves (or more likely to the bears.)
The Commoditization Of Bears
Unfortunately, the one guaranteed way to see a bear in Hokkaido is to visit a bear park. In Japan many things are carefully controlled and packaged for consumption. At the Noboribetsu bear park this packaging is a concrete arena. Here you are sure to see a bear. In fact you will see many as they are crowded together. You can do the very thing that the children of Utoro were trying to discourage. You can feed the bears. These bears don’t hibernate like their wild cousins. They are fed up to keep them active in the winter so that tourists aren’t disappointed. When people’s wish to see bears and Japanese convenience intersect, it is the bears who suffer captivity and cramped conditions.
Should you visit one of these parks, after your encounter with the farmed bears you can head to the gift shop. There you can buy a huge assortment of bear related goods. Some of these bears are fierce, showing their teeth and their power. Others are cute and fluffy. The bear is a symbol of Hokkaido, from Ainu style bear carvings to Hello Kitty wearing a bear hat. Many famous brands have Hokkaido exclusive goods. One Piece characters with a bear. Mameshiba with a bear, Kumamon, a bear, with a bear. Bears are everywhere. There are also homegrown Hokkaido characters such as the Melon Bear. A fierce bear face emerges from a melon, another of Hokkaido’s emblems. This range has been expanded to include many of Hokkaido’s agricultural products, bear corn, bear milk, bear beer. Bears, such as Rilakkuma, are big business in the kawaii market. They are cute. They eat chocolate, not people. They have soft, smiling faces and fluffy tummies. They are happy to see you.
There is one character however that perfectly captures the tension between Japan’s love and fear of bears. Gloomy Bear, designed by Mori Chack, is a pink bear in the normal cute character mold, but with a twist. He behaves like a real bear, attacking his owner, a boy called Pitty. His design is intended to highlight the surreality of animal characters, such as Hello Kitty, who act more like mini-humans than real animals.
Bears and humans can’t be friends. However, as the children campaigning in Utoro for both their own safety and the bears’ show us, humans can care for bears, but it is best done from a distance.
If you have the chance to visit the beautiful island of Hokkaido don’t go to a bear park. Go to Shiretoko National Park. If you do see a bear, appreciate how lucky you are, but follow the Japanese safety precautions, for your sake and the bear’s.