Conservation and Society

: 2006  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 166--169

Waiting for Wolves in Japan: An Anthropological Study of People-Wildlife Relations

Mahesh Rangarajan 
 Department of History, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India

Correspondence Address:
Mahesh Rangarajan
Department of History, Jadavpur University, Kolkata

How to cite this article:
Rangarajan M. Waiting for Wolves in Japan: An Anthropological Study of People-Wildlife Relations.Conservat Soc 2006;4:166-169

How to cite this URL:
Rangarajan M. Waiting for Wolves in Japan: An Anthropological Study of People-Wildlife Relations. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2006 [cited 2020 Jan 24 ];4:166-169
Available from:

Full Text

John Knight, Waiting for Wolves in Japan: An Anthropological Study of People- Wildlife Relations, Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003, 296 pages, $ 118.00, ISBN: 0199255180.

Asian studies of human nature relations around large mammals have mostly been focused on South and South East Asia. Scholars have examined in depth mainland mammals such as the tiger and its contestations with humans in the Malay world or the changing ways in which people and elephants relate to one another (Boomgaard 2001, Sukumar 2003). Most recently the big cats that have retreated under human pressures such as the cheetah and the lion in Asia have also been studies in terms of representations by and relationships with different human societies (Divyabhanusinh 2000, 2005).

But it was the canid family of carnivores that had the widest spread across both the Old and New World. In both North America and Europe, there is a wealth of work on the conflicts and contests between wolves and people. Even in medieval times in Europe, the species (Canis lupus) had associations with the devil and death. Its extermination in many European nation states was often part of the process of state formation, with special rewards being given out to kill off the animal. No coincidence that the bounty for a wolf in the 16th century was often the same as that for a rebel or outlaw.

In the American case, until its relatively recent transformation into a symbol of imperiled wilderness, largely a post World War II phenomenon, the species was subject to a relentless war by white settlers. There were signs of mercy and early recognition of its role in the ecological order as in the works of Aldo Leopold and the Murie brothers but it was only in the last few decades that its image underwent a basic transformation (Jones 2002).

A related question often posed by conservationists today is whether Asians are at all different in the ways in which they (or we) relation with nature? Japan is a fine country to study. An independent Asian nation state and an early moderniser, it challenged Western hegemony in the Pacific and the mainland from a century ago.

What is fascinating is that the wipe out of the wolf followed a trajectory not so very different form that of several "Western" cultures.

It is the aftermath that Knight deals with in an exceptionally lucid and gripping manner. Waiting for Wolves has echoes of the cultural memory of tigers in Java. The animal itself has vanished. But there is a place and a role in culture that is undergoing constant re-invention.

Nor has such change happened in isolation. There is criss-cross of cultural influences and young urban Japanese naturalists and ecology bandwagon see it as a bearer of culture and of natural order. In an uncanny parallel with the advocates of wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone and other US parks, they see the species as essential to restoring a sense of order in the natural world. Yet, there are deeply cultural assumptions at work here. Science is pressed into service but human imaginations have a key role to play.

One reason is that wolves have long been seen in Japanese Shinto as messengers of the kami spirits. Though the last reliable record of a wolf being killed was in the Kii peninsula in 1905, wolf shrines still exist in the Japanese highlands: more amazing is the insistence by many enthusiasts that the wolf still survives.

Unlike in North America where white settlers mainly had a hostile relationship with the species, in Japan, the animal could even be seen as ally against marauding wildlife. The relationship had elements of hostility with wolf hunting and trapping having a long lineage. But wolf shrines could be source for 'boar deterrent' charms. What Knight infers here is that there was less acute conflict with livestock in Japan, as these were more marginal to agriculture in the highlands.

It is amazing to learn of the tradition of a 'wolf's birth gift' a symbolic offering of food to the cubs. Members of the Japanese Wolf Association have invoked the old image as a protector of the farm since its formation in 1993. Yet its return is seen as a reassertion of Japanese ways of life from the pre- Meiji era, even as advocates draw on advocacy literature from North America!

There is clearly no 'Eastern' or 'Western' way but a mingling of different levels and forms of thought and practice. For that matter, there is now a rich literature of wolf lore and co-habitation with Sami herders in Lapland. But in Japan, the ties are with a mostly agrarian, not a herding society (Lundquist 2000). Herders of reindeer who cull them for venison are as likely as goat keepers or shepherds in India to view the wolf with suspicion (Shahi 1978). But the Sami have had complex relations with the shamams mediating their control and avoidance of wolf predation on their flocks.

The ecological work on the wolf as predator dating back to Mech is a source liberally drawn on by advocates of reintroduction (Mech 1970). There is a wealth of evidence on what the exact impact of predators on prey species but not all of it lives up to the claims made by advocates. Perhaps what matters is that science is a critical element in legitimising a project of restoration.

Given that wolves vanished so long ago, much of the work is on a wider theme of how mountain villages in the Kii peninsula relate to different wild animals. John Knight worked among mountain villagers who live in close contact with animals. There have been glimpses of his works in papers and in two edited volumes (Knight 2000 and 2004) but this monograph is a fine grained study of the detail of peasant life. It is a balanced blend of shifting cultural perceptions and changing agrarian practice.

The mountain villages of Japan nestle amidst forest. Not many know that over a third of the country is afforested, often a result of intensive forestry dating back centuries. The rural countryside, and more so the forested hills have been steadily depopulated as more people move to the cities and towns, never to return.

There are often differences in how to deal with the denizens of the woods. A similar ambiguity is clear with deer, with foresters angry at their destruction of saplings. Farmers hope to wipe out wild boar; hunters merely to thin their numbers down a bit. Monkeys are culled but they are also a link with the spirit world and their killing a time of sadness for some.

Parallels with the case of the wolf are more evident with the two species of bear, the Japanese brown bear of Hokkaido and the black bear. These large carnivores are objects of fear. They raid crops and are chased down by hunters. Yet they too have a constituency with conservationists all too aware of the decline in their numbers.

There is an interface of the materiality of conflicts and the complex, shifting hues of animal-human relations. Bounds between the human and natural world shift over time being closely linked to changes in values as much as material changes.

There is much to reflect on in this study. Conservation in the twenty first century, if it is to thrive, has to assimilate and learn from field anthropology as much as wildlife biology.

Two issues do stand out that the author might want to return to at a later date. One is whether the rise of the town as centre not only of habitation but also of culture opens up spaces for living with large-bodied animals. As the number of people in conflict with them declines, and the main source of wealth shifts from farm to factory, is there perhaps more rather than less leeway than in a mainly agrarian society?

The other is a more focused issue. Given the rich texture of his work on Japanese attitudes, it would be interesting to know how far he feels this is a nation state that has a distinctive set of approaches to the vexed issue of how humans can have a more lasting and stable equation with nature. While there is no essentialist Japanese way just as there is no quintessential American or Chinese way, there is a specific trajectory of experiences that can call for reflection.

This book stimulates the mind in many ways, and the larger issues remain with the reader long after it is back on the shelf.[12]


1Boomgaard, P. 2001. Frontiers of Fear: The Tiger in the Malay world. Yale University Press.
2Divyabhanusinh, C. 2000. The Cheetah in India, The End of a Trail, Oxford University Press, Delhi. Revised Second Edition.
3Divyabhanusinh, C. 2005. The Story of Asia's Lions. MARG, Mumbai.
4Jones, K.R. 2002. Wolf Mountains, A History of Wolves along the Great Divide. University of Calgary Press, Calgary.
5Knight, J. (ed.). 2000. Natural Enemies: People-Wildlife Relations in Anthropological Perspective. Routledge Curzon, London.
6Knight, J. (ed.). 2004. Animals in Asia, Cultural and Anthropological Perspectives. Routledge Curzon, London.
7Lundquist, G. 2000. The Wolf, the Saami and the Urban Shaman, Predator Symbolism in Sweden. In: Natural Enemies (ed. J. Knight), pp. 170-188. Routledge Curzon, London.
8Mech, D.L. 1970. The Wolf: Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
9Saunders, N.J. 1994. Jaguar symbolism in Mesoamerican culture. World Archaeology 26(1):104-117.
10Shahi, S.P. 1977. Backs to the Wall, The Saga of Wildlife in Bihar. East West Printers, Patna.
11Sukumar, R. 2003. The Living Elephants, Evolution, Ecology and Conservation. OUP, Oxford.
12Wessing, R. 1991. The Last Tiger in Java - Symbolic Continuity in Ecological Change. KTILV, Leiden.